Disgustingly hot take alert. I never would’ve pegged myself to join the “Trade William Nylander” brigade. He’s 22 years old, owner of slick puck skills, an electric shot and great chemistry on Auston Matthews’ right wing. Theoretically, he’s a crucial component of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ long-term core. Mitch Marner, the teammate to whom Nylander is most often compared, averaged 2.06 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 across his first two seasons, while Nylander clocked in at 2.04. He’s been just as productive as Marner. Nylander, despite earning the occasional misguided (and xenophobic?) “lazy” label, is also an underrated two-way asset, capable of skating the puck out of trouble and joining Matthews and Marner among the NHL’s top 20 forwards in takeaways from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
There are thus many reasons why the Leafs would want to keep Nylander, still an unsigned RFA, as part of their long-term plans, assuming GM Kyle Dubas and the Nylander camp can bridge the gap between contract comparables such as $6-million man Filip Forsberg and the reported $8-million AAV Nylander wants on a long-term deal.
But the fact remains Nylander must sign a contract by Dec. 1 if he wants to be eligible to play any games in 2018-19.
(a) The Leafs average five goals per game across their first five games.
(b) The Leafs possess the NHL’s top four scorers right now in Matthews, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares and Marner.
(c) The Leafs’ power play, led by the devastating No. 1 unit of the aforementioned quartet plus Nazem Kadri, is operating at a cartoonish 50 percent.
(d) The Leafs have allowed four goals per game.
(e) The Leafs are surrendering 9.6 high-danger scoring chances per game at 5-on-5. For context, only six teams allowed more than 9.6 high-danger chances per game in the 2017-18 season, per naturalstattrick.com.
(f) The Leafs’ even-strength save percentage currently hovers below .900.
First things first: yes, of course the Leafs’ offense will regress like crazy. The power play won’t convert every second opportunity. The Leafs won’t continue to score on more than 15 percent of their shots as a team. But even after that happens, they’ll quite obviously remain an elite offensive squad. They had the NHL’s No. 2 power play and No. 4 offense last season, and while they lost top-nine fixtures James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, they added Tavares, while coach Mike Babcock is finally deploying Matthews on the No. 1 power play unit.
The point: as great a player as Nylander is, and as underrated as he is as a two-way asset, offense is his game, and the Leafs aren’t exactly hurting for it. Getting him back will follow the law of diminishing returns. Maybe he helps Toronto win a few games 8-5 instead of 7-5.
In a sense, Nylander’s absence has done Dubas a favor, allowing him to assess what this team can do offensively without Nylander. The results have been astonishing thus far, and every splashy scoring performance seems to suck leverage away from Nylander. Albeit against questionable competition, the Leafs have staked a 4-1-0 record for one reason: filling the net.
The Leafs have a rapidly approaching deadline to sign Nylander and will have a difficult time making his cap number work given Matthews and Marner keep puffing up their future long-term extension AAVs with each goal they score. Might it make sense to start exploring a Nylander trade, then? We know exactly what the Leafs need more than anything: help for the sagging right side of their blueline. There’s nothing wrong with deploying Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott on the left, but Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and whomever occupies the third-pair spot, for now Martin Marincin, form one of the league’s weakest right sides. Hainsey quietly has the second-best shot-attempt differential on the team right now 5-on-5, but the sample size is small, he's 37, and the Leafs have faced at least three offenses projected to be anemic this season in Montreal's, Ottawa's and Detroit's. The assignments get far tougher with Washington and Pittsburgh on the schedule this week.
In a vacuum, you don’t want to trade a Willie Nylander. You have a chance to secure a young, talented, productive, controllable asset for up to eight years. But if the Leafs want to start pushing for a Stanley Cup, perhaps they need to understand exactly that they have: as high-octane a roster as any in the league with or without Nylander, coupled with glaring defensive holes.
If a right-shot game changer becomes available, whether it’s Chris Tanev in Vancouver, Justin Faulk in Carolina or someone else, and the Leafs fail to make any progress negotiating with Nylander by November, maybe it’s time to start thinking about using Nylander to fill their most important need. They can’t be much better offensively right now, but they have a ton of room for improvement in their own end.