The 2019 World Hockey Championships are well underway, with the Round Robin stages just wrapping up. There have been some great storylines throughout the tournament so far – my personal favourites being the two “survival” games played yesterday, as Great Britain staved off relegation for the first time ever by beating France, and Italy did similar by beating Austria in a shootout.
But many of the big boys and big nations play in this tournament too, and through the first week and change, the scoring leaderboard has a very familiar face atop of it – Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander.
Through six games, Nylander has racked up an absurd fifteen points, including four goals and 11 assists. He’s having one of the most dominant runs in the modern-era history of the tournament, though I don’t think you needed confirmation of that once you saw the 2.5 point-per-game pace.
While many in Toronto are excited about this breakthrough performance from their core player, just as many are less than amused. Nylander, as we all know, is a very polarizing figure in town right now. Already a consistently-mentioned “trade bait” piece heading into the 2018/19 season, his contract standoff with team management did him no favours in terms of PR, nor did his lukewarm results after returning to the team in December.
Because of this, many are angry at the 22-year-old, to the point of actively trying to discredit his performance in the tournament.
|1||10-May||Czech Republic||5-2 L||0||1||1||0||1||0||18:21|
|7||21-May||Russia||To Be Decided: Game at 2:15 PM ET|
The main sticking point appears to be quality of competition, which on the surface, is completely fair. Nylander picked up four points in two games against relegation-match opponents (Italy and Austria), seven points in two games against slightly better “minnows” (Latvia and Norway), and four points in two games against countries considered more traditionally noteworthy (the Czech Republic and Switzerland), but until this afternoon against Russia, won’t have faced a team that is a powerhouse both traditionally and presently.
I think this is a fair point to bring up if you’re arguing against a person who is claiming that Nylander will specifically bring a 205-point pace back to Toronto, but as far as negating his success within the confines of the tournament, that seems unfair.
While the World Championships tend to have more second or third tier hockey nations playing in the top level than the Olympics or World Cup, and the opponents aren’t always the best possible due to the Stanley Cup Playoffs or players simply saying no, it’s still quality hockey, there are still top-end players who go, and they still have to face the same “weaker” opponents, giving them plenty of opportunities to do the same thing. Players like Elias Pettersson (7pts), Elias Lindholm (6), and Patric Hornqvist (9) have the same window to score for Sweden, Nikita Kucherov (14) has had the exact same opponents, and the other division has names like Jakub Voracek (15), Patrick Kane (10), Mark Stone (8), Leon Draisaitl (8), Jack Eichel (8), and many more.
In other words, he’s still putting in a better effort than most of the other top-end NHLers who showed up, and typically, the top-scoring list is dominated by top-end NHLers. Just look at the list of players who have scored at least a dozen points in a single tournament since 2005/06:
|Alexander Ovechkin||Loui Eriksson||Per-Age Skroder|
|Alexander Popov||Martin St. Louis||Petri Kontiola|
|Alexander Semin||Matt Duchene||Petteri Nummelin|
|Alexei Morozov||Matthew Lombardi||Rick Nash|
|Artemi Panarin (2)||Mattias Weinhandl (2)||Rickard Rakell|
|Connor McDavid||Max Pacioretty||Ryan Getzlaf|
|Craig Smith||Michael Frolik||Sebastian Aho|
|Danis Zaripov (2)||Mikael Granlund||Sergei Fedorov|
|Dany Heatley||Mike Green||Sergei Mozyakin|
|Evgeni Dadonov||Mitch Marner||Sergei Plotnikov|
|Evgeni Malkin||Nathan MacKinnon||Sergei Zinovyev|
|Henrik Zetterberg||Nikita Gusev||Shea Weber|
|Ilya Kovalchuk (3)||Nikita Kucherov (2)||Sidney Crosby|
|Jakub Voracek||Oliver Ekman-Larsson||Steven Stamkos|
|Jarkko Immonen||Patrice Bergeron||Taylor Hall|
|Jason Spezza||Patrick Kane||Teuvo Teravainen|
|Johan Davidsson||Patrick Thoresen||Vadim Shipachyov (2)|
|Jordan Eberle||Patrik Laine||Viktor Tikhonov|
|Jori Lehtera||Paul Stastny||William Nylander (2)|
Almost every player on this list has been a star NHL player at some point in their career, and most of the ones who aren’t were either still quality NHL players (the Frolik, Smith, Lombardi tier), or were superstars in Europe (Gusev, Mozyakin, Morozov, etc). The opponents might be easier than true best-on-best play, but to be that productive is still something that takes a lot of talent.
To most, the idea of William Nylander being good enough to be on this list isn’t that surprising. We’re talking about a player who is still prospect-aged with two 60+ point NHL seasons, after all – and a player who was the MVP of this tournament just two years ago.
But his down year this season – overstated by many, but still distinctly below expectation – has cast a big shadow on the player. Producing at half a point per game after a contract dispute is going to do you no favours in the eyes of the fans, something that Nylander himself has admitted.
At a certain point, though, you wonder how much personal confidence and being put into a position to succeed came into play. Nylander had his best season from a puck possession standpoint (56.8% Corsi-For, a 5.2% team increase while he was on the ice) and his expected goal differential (+11.8 xG) despite not getting much time in his usual spot on Auston Matthews’ wing. His shooting percentage also took an uncharacteristic nosedive – dipping to 5.4% in 2018/19 compared to his prior career average of 11.1%. While shooting at his typical pace would have still led to a point pace that would be considered disappointing, it would have softened the blow.
So far in this tournament, Nylander appears to have gotten some of his groove back, and the puck seems to be helping him out too, going in on 25% of his shots. I think that this is the most important part of his performance in this tournament. Using this to decide whether or not he can be a good or great NHLer seems unnecessary when we already have a body of work available for him that shows him doing just that. This stretch, which has seen his coach compare him to Patrick Kane and Henrik Lundqvist anoint him as one of the best players in the world, should be all about regaining form and confidence.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Nylander as a player, and even if you don’t see a future for him in the Leafs organization, this should be what you’re rooting for. Trying to discredit the effort makes little to no sense – if you’re a fan of the team and want them to succeed, the best route to that with Nylander is that he finds success; whether it’s because the team has decided to keep him and they want to get the most out of him, or because it makes him that much easier to move in your Armchair GM trade proposals.
While I wish most would enjoy Nylander’s play for what he is (a fantastic young forward who is important to the team’s core), I’ll settle for a begrudging hope that he veers back on his path at this point. What he’s done in this tournament so far seems to be a great start to that, and isn’t something that should be scoffed at or dismissed. It basically boils down to three points:
- If he’s so bad, why can’t others do what he’s doing?
- If you want the Leafs to succeed, shouldn’t every player’s success contribute to that?
- With the above in mind, isn’t this better than him not raking in points?
And with those points in mind, it’s hard not to hope for his continued success in this tournament, and that he can carry that form and confidence into next season.