It’s finally over. The contract holdout, a complicated process with no hero or villain, was sorted out in the eleventh hour. The questions have been answered, the practice is in progress, and he’s in the lineup tonight. William Nylander, is, once again, a Toronto Maple Leaf.
But while all is good in the dressing room and the front office, Nylander has a lot of work to do to re-establish confidence within the city. Some of us understand the process and are happy to welcome him back with open arms; some, however, feel disdain for the contract situation and even feel that, as proven by the Leafs’ record, Nylander isn’t even a necessary piece any more.
If you’re someone who is frustrated by the contract, I suggest you read my piece from before the night before the signing, which unpacked the process detail by detail. For those of you who might have forgotten just how significant of a player is being reunited with the Leafs tonight, though, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Let’s go back to Nylander’s draft year, 2013/14. The youngster had finished just finished his second season in the Swedish hierarchy, having previously played his Youth Hockey in whichever NHL city his father Michael was playing in. Nylander came into that year riding a 1.59 points-per-game season in SuperElit (Swedish Major Junior), the 6th highest ever for someone his age who played at least 20 games and the highest since Anze Kopitar and Niclas Bergfors in 2005. This earned him a call-up to the Allsvenskan (the second best pro league in a pro/rel system). He put up 6 points in 8 games; to this day, doubling the U17 record for points-per-game, and ranking second for points-per-game for a U18 forward.
First place? Nylander in that draft year. Splitting time between Sodertalje SK and Rogle BK, Nylander posted 27 points in 35 games – the highest point and point-per-game total for a U18 player ever in the league. Chasing him was eventual Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak, who he found chemistry with but ultimately out-produced – especially when they were both together at Sodertalje, where Nylander had 19 points in 17 games. Nylander also played for MODO Hockey of the SHL that year for 22 games. While they didn’t feel he was a fit (which led to his Allsvenskan loans that year), he did finish second to just Kevin Fiala in U18 scoring that year, even in his limited and brief role.
Canucks Army, who historically has done a better job at evaluating the draft than most scouting agencies, ranked him as their third best player available behind Sams Reinhart and Bennett. They felt that Nylander’s unbelievable offensive creativity and ability to create excitement was too much to pass up, and dreamed of a scenario where he would fall to 6th overall. Nylander fell to 6th overall. The Canucks took Jake Virtanen instead. The Leafs, with recently-hired Team President Brendan Shanahan being acutely aware that the team needed a high-end skill prospect, shrugged off any concerns about character and interest in grittier players and took the falling Nylander at 8. (They also took the writer of that CA article two months later).
The Leafs, knowing that they didn’t need to rush towards another era of mediocrity, opted to leave Nylander in Sweden for the following season. He had a stunning first half of his Age 18 year, scoring 20 points in 21 games; leading U19’s in points-per-game by a large margin (0.95 to Fiala’s 0.70 and Jakub Vrana’s 0.55. The rate was the third highest for a player his age in SHL history; only Tomas Sandstrom and Markus Naslund have done better, both over a decade prior. No one since Nylander has crossed 0.6 (Elias Petterrsson likely would have, but played in Allsvenskan in his Age 18).
Modo, however, was a bit of a mess, tumbling in the standings and low on funds. Toronto wanted to make sure that their top prospect (at the time) had the best resources available to him, so in January, he joined the Toronto Marlies. It took him a few games to get going, but he finished the season with 32 points in 37 games; second to only Pastrnak in U19 points per game in the AHL, and 6th all-time in the same statistic.
Leading into 2015/16, I suggested that it was possible that, if given a full season, Nylander could become the first teenager to ever score 100 points in the AHL. In reality, he didn’t come close to playing a full 76 games, having been selected for the Swedish World Junior team, followed suffering a concussion in the first game of that tournament, followed by suffering appendicitis while recovering from the concussion, followed by his first call-up to the Leafs. But that did not change his dominance. Nylander was on a 96 point pace heading into the WJC, and ended the year with 45 points in 38 games; a pace of 90, even with the injuries and illnesses slowing him down. That edged out Mikko Rantanen for the highest point-per-game rate for a U20 player in the AHL that season, the highest of the salary cap era, the third highest of the modern era, and the sixth highest all time.
While he played a few rounds in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Nylander effectively graduated to the NHL full-time at the 2015/16 trade deadline, burning off his first contract year while still not burning his rookie season or a year of UFA eligibility. Despite the Leafs being a team that couldn’t score to save their lives, worn down by injury, and en route to a last-place season, the then 19-year-old Nylander put up 13 points in 22 games; a pace of 48 over a full season. Had that been his actual rookie season, Nylander would have finished 6th in points-per-game and tied for fourth in actual points.
Instead, he got to keep his status for the following season, in which his 22 goals in 61 points in 81 games was fifth among NHL rookies in points per game, and tied for third in total points. Not only that, but it put him just outside the Top 10 amongst all right wingers that season, and put him in the Top 15 all-time for era-adjusted points in a season by an Under-21 player of his position. His sophomore season gave him an equal 61 points and remained in the Top 20 in the same statistic for 21-year-olds. Combining those age 20 and 21 seasons, only eight right-wingers have been more productive in relation to their era, with Patrick Kane and Mitch Marner being the only active ones. Even if you’re of the belief that era-adjustment is a sloppy metric (I’m in favour of it), Nylander’s 0.75 regular points per game rank within the Top 25 for right-wingers in that age bracket as well.
Even in reference to all players of today, rather than just the players in his position and age brackets, Nylander is already one of the best players in the world. At 5-on-5, he has an incredible ability to set up plays and generate points. The ice tilts in his favour when he steps on it, and even more so in terms of quality chances. His passes don’t always have the flash of a player like Marner’s, as he isn’t as often going for the “home run”, but he has an innate ability to use his vision for a different type of elite playmaking – the type that stitches extended plays and sequences together, not necessarily leading to a direct goal, but pulling defenders away to create space. Not to mention, he carries the puck in a way into the zone that isn’t just electrifying to watch, but is incredibly effective, finding lanes that most other players can’t.
Kyle Dubas’ pitch to Nylander in the dying hours mentioned that despite the team being as good as they are now; arguably as good as they’ve been since the Original Six Era, they won’t reach their fullest potential until he steps back on the ice for them. I fully believe that to be true, especially in how he shapes that top line. As much as Auston Matthews has shown that he is an individual talent that transcends the need for skilled linemates, and as much of a pleasant surprise Kasperi Kapanen’s presence on that line has been, his line works best when he has someone who can play catch with him.
To date, the share of the shots that Matthews gets when playing with Nylander is 5% better than what he gets away from him, and 2% better than what he gets with Kapanen. Even if Matthews can make up for being outshot by taking better shots, you’re more likely to use that God-given ability to pick corners when you’ve got the puck, and Nylander is the one who gets him that puck and elevates him to his best.
William Nylander is a player that was the first big chip of Shanahan’s “Shanaplan”, the first super-prospect that Dubas’ program with the Marlies was designed to nurture, the first core rookie that Mike Babcock was tasked to coach, and someone who gets universal praise from within for his work ethic and attitude; the polar opposite of the draft day fears. He’s a player that, if he were on any other team, would be seen as one of the biggest pieces of their future, if not their biggest. Nylander is one of the best internally developed prospects in the history of this organization, a player who re-defined the fortunes of the Maple Leafs organization at large, and it only feels otherwise because the snowball he started rolling built up as fast as it did.
Yes, the Leafs could have probably survived without him. Matthews is well on his way to being one of the best even-strength goal scorers in the history of the sport, John Tavares has somehow exceeded expectations and turned the clock back to Junior-Hype Tavares, Mitch Marner is on an unbelievable (if slightly unsustainable) tear that has cemented him as one of the league’s premier playmakers, Morgan Rielly has finally stepped into the Norris-like potential that Brian Burke promised six years ago, and Frederik Andersen is having a Vezina-worthy season. Even the second generation of young support players, like Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Travis Dermott are finding success, and many others are too. The team is near the top of the NHL and deserves to be there.
But having all of this isn’t a reason to not appreciate William Nylander, a player who has been historically good at every level he’s played in and will only get better. It’s a reason to appreciate the fact that all of these players, for at least a little while, are wearing the Blue and White together.