It might take longer for the ink to dry on the new 6-year, $45 million contract than it will take for young Swede, William Nylander to re-integrate himself back into the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.
To me, the question isn’t as much about assimilation time; it’s the players he will have to fend off to stay up as Auston Matthews winger at 5v5, and on the PP1, the Matthews unit where he manned the right side.
*** Data is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
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I expect Nylander to slot back on to the first line alongside Auston Matthews and get some power play time. But .. it’s complicated.
Even Strength (5v5)
Kasperi Kapanen has become a proven penalty killer and dangerous 4v5 offensive threat – activating the afterburners with speed that overtakes retreating defenseman. More penalty killing units are adopting inserting skilled players to make them outright deadly.
Some questions entering this season hinged on how the Finn could stand up to being a regular and kill penalties, and getting some secondary power play time.
He’s been the biggest beneficiary of Nylander’s prolonged absence, putting up 15 points at 5v5, in 27 games. His promotion to the first line fueled a solid first quarter and muddied the decision-making waters for coaches. The big test would be performing with Matthews absence due to a shoulder injury. In 132 minutes at 5v5, they’ve paired up for nine points (5-4-9), but he’s played most with Patrick Marleau and put up 10 points – the left winger on that unit.
A rate stat would work best here. Players at 5v5 that Kapanen has skated with is shown in the table below. A 15.11% shooting percentage fueled some of his production, and while there was a bit of a dip in scoring, his shooting production and individual shot attempts per 60 minutes were comparable – given the overall sample size here.
Essentially, Kapanen has proven that he can be inserted into the lineup and produce when required, and can produce with linemates not named Matthews. Some of that is contingent on the Leafs style and adherence to the speed game, and some to Kapanen’s skillset on its merits.
Should Nylander struggle to score for prolonged periods, there are options. He scored once at 5v5 in the first 34 games, and 11 over the last 48, firing 9% and averaging 1.67 shots per game, slightly better than the 1.55 when he wasn’t scoring. How quickly can Kapanen be inserted up the roster to either provide a scoring boost, or even to motivate Nylander with some healthy competition.
Complacency is deleterious and the slow erosion over time can have an effect on results, so it’s good to always have someone nipping at the heels to induce best performances.
When Nylander struggled during the postseason – along with the other Leafs as the Bruins stifled their offensive power by grinding out possession battles – coaching staff moved him off the first unit and replaced him with Connor Brown, a grittier element that seemed more capable of fighting to get pucks back for the skilled Matthews.
With Kapanen as a potential replacement, short, medium or longer term, Nylander could find himself on another unit lower in the roster, perhaps with Nazem Kadri – which would still be a hell of talented line that could exploit reduced quality of competition facing depth lines with the Matthews/Tavares lines handling the heavy minutes. The flexibility of having skilled forwards helps in reshuffling lines when times are tough.
Presuming Nylander would find positional stability at 5v4 would be incorrect – this is where it gets complicated.
Power Play (5v4)
Mitch Marner has one goal and 11 points at 5v4 heading into Tuesday’s game against Buffalo. He scored the most points at 5v4 in 2017-18, playing 144 minutes on a second unit with Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak. On defense it was Morgan Rielly.
In 2018-19 he shares the lead in points with defenseman Rielly and has become a fixture off the right wing half wall. His vision and subtle touch finds passing lanes and seams out of nothing. He passes from shooting positions finding ready – and sometimes surprised – blades for redirections in close. There’s the slap-pass into the crease area for the tap-in, sometimes in a wide open cage. There’s plenty of justification to indicate, this is Marner’s spot now.
Last season, this was Nylander’s spot, with Matthews feeding him passes across the slotline for a patented wrist shot that’s deadly from the face off dot or .. vintage Nylander. He will have to ply that shooting ability from the second unit – with players capable of utilizing his shooting array.
With Matthews firing from the left and Nylander from the right, the Leafs PP1 was deadly. The table below is the Nylander’s 5v5 stats season over season. There’s traces of impact, but not all. Willy’s P/60 dropped from 7.27 in 181 minutes in 2016-17. Last season, with the success of the power play striking fairly quickly, he played less time, but also contributed less. While earning a point on 84.62% of 5v4 goals two seasons ago, last season he dropped to 61%. The power play funneled through him in ’16-7, last season Matthews and Morgan Rielly dominated strategy. Across the board, his numbers dwindled and it’s fair to ask if he’s driving offense at 5v4.
That leaves Mitch Marner on PP1 and getting the best of the offensive situations. Perhaps they alternate, depending on the situation coinciding with the penalty call, but there’s clearly no room on the first unit unless they go to a full five-forward unit. Risky and unnecessary considering the star acumen being exhibited currently by Morgan Rielly.
Welcome back to the NHL, young William Nylander.