Toronto Maple Leafs fans and staff were buzzing after it was announced Saturday afternoon that William Nylander had inked a contract to keep him in Toronto for the next six seasons. After a three month holdout that almost saw him give up his eligibility to play in the NHL in 2018-19, the Leafs 8th overall pick from 2014 will be looking to pick up where he left off in 2018. Nylander will most likely take his spot back on the Leafs top-line along with Auston Matthews and likely Patrick Marleau.
— theScore (@theScore) December 5, 2018
Now that the contract dispute is finally over, what can everyone expect from William Nylander moving forward?
Nylander spent the majority of his time in 2017-18 on the Leafs first line alongside Matthews and Zach Hyman. The line was productive, as expected, but Nylander’s numbers stalled after being one of the best rookies in the NHL in 2017. He finished with the exact same amount of points (61) in his rookie year as his sophomore. Coincidentally, his postseason numbers did the same. He finished with a goal and three assists in both the Leafs series against Washington in 2017 and their series against Boston in 2018.
This is not a huge concern. Still, it does stand out after both Matthews and Mitch Marner saw their points per game rise in their second seasons. Matthews saw his season cut down due to injury but was still able to put up 63 points in 62 games, while Marner increased his season total from 61 points to 69. The two have also once again stepped-up their respective games in 2018. The trio were all mainstays on the power play and helped the buds finish second in the league with a 25.0% conversion rate.
After the addition of John Tavares in July, the Leafs were looked at as having perhaps the best top-two line pairing in the NHL, when Nylander was in the lineup. Without him, they’ve been just as electric. While Matthews has missed time as well Nylander, the Leafs haven’t missed a step, currently rankings 3rd in both goals per game (3.64) and power-play percentage (28.2%). These numbers are made even scarier by knowing that Nylander will likely step back onto the first power-play unit. However, this isn’t a sure thing for the near future. Nazem Kadri has spent the first 28 games of the season as part of the first power play unit and has done a decent amount of damage; scoring three goals and adding three helpers.
Kadri brings a completely different dynamic to the power play than Nylander does, one that the Leafs almost completely lack outside of him. He can get in front of the goalie to create screens and tap-ins, as well as battle in the corners or behind the net to keep a constant cycle going. Nylander, on the other hand, is a pure playmaker who surprises players with his soft touch.
Perfectly fitting Nylander into the lineup will be a challenge but also a good problem to have. It’s not often that a team has the centre and wing depth like the Leafs. As a part of the Matthews line, Nylander will often avoid shutdown defensive pairings unlike in 2017-18. This along with the Leafs deep forward group should allow Nylander to contribute right away. His timing is also impeccable. The Leafs plays five of its next seven games against division opponents.
Despite putting up almost identical numbers in his first two full seasons, Nylander’s numbers are almost certain to jump up a bit in 2018-19. He will inevitably find his way onto the first powerplay and score at a higher rate than he has ever done. The Leafs are also scoring at their highest rate since the second week of October, lighting the lamp 24 times in their last five contests, riding an average of 4.8 goals per game.
Nylander’s career high points per game is 0.75 and if he puts up 45 points in the remaining 54 games, barring injury, would finish with a new best at just over 0.83. Matthews is shooting at a ridiculous 30% in his first 14 games of 2018. Just being around that hot stick should give Nylander some easy production in his first couple of games. Toronto also only faces two teams in their next ten games in the top half of the league in goals against.
Despite the Leafs top-heavy scorers, Nylander’s ice time should remain around the same it has always been. He saw a gradual increase in ice time from his first season to his second year and should see similar to the 16:41 minutes he averaged in 2017-18. He had the fourth most points per 60 minutes (2.67) on the Leafs last year.
Nylander will play his first game NHL of the 2018-19 season Thursday night when the Leafs take on the Red Wings at Scotiabank Arena. The fans should welcome him back with open arms and a loud ovation.
It will be interesting to see who the Leafs scratch and send to the minors now that Nylander has officially returned. The majority of players removed from either Matthews’ or Tavares’ lines have struggled to contribute early in 2018-19 meaning Mike Babcock will continue to lean heavily on his first two lines.
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