Justin Bourne of The Athletic and Sportsnet is one of my absolute favourite reads, listens, views, whatever you want to call them, in hockey media. We don’t necessarily agree on everything, but his years of playing, strategical, and journalistic experience all kind of blend together for a perspective that’s a really intriguing blend of traditional and forward-thinking mindsets, a constant pursuit of new ideas seen from the lens of someone who would have had to process and execute them in a previous life.

Today is one of the days where I feel a little disagreement with Justin, particularly regarding a piece he wrote about William Nylander and his goal-scoring performance this year, titled “William Nylander scoring a bunch from the dirty areas validates defenders and critics alike“. Don’t get me wrong, either – it’s still a good read, and if you’re subscribed to the Athletic, its worthwhile because largely talks about the how’s and why’s of a stunning point – and that’s that William Nylander has the second-most goals in the inner slot in the league, with 17.

This isn’t so much stunning because Nylander is lacking talent, but because the fanbase-at-large opinion – that is to say, the opinion you find in the rinks, the bars, the Facebook groups, the workplaces, and basically everywhere that isn’t your tightly curated social media echo chamber of like-minded hobbyists and professionals – is that he doesn’t go to the net, and needs to more often. This run of Nylander’s, which has him one goal away from his career-high with 34 games remaining in the regular season, has changed the mind of some of those critics, though even still, many insist that they weren’t wrong, but that his game changed, or that it hasn’t changed and this is just a phase.

Above: Team Shot Heatmaps (Top) and Individual Shot Plots (Bottom), year over year.
Left: 2017/18 – Centre: 2018/19 – Right: 2019/2020 – via hockeyviz.com

The reality is that Nylander’s game has, in fact, changed, in a way that better suits what was asked of him – fewer shots from far away, more shots from in close, generating rebounds, that sort of stuff. Going to the net, if you will.

But what doesn’t come up, in Justin’s piece or in most people’s opinion-sets, is that this shift really started last season. You know, the 7-goal in 54 game effort that infuriated his critics and disappointed his fans. Nylander is generating more high-danger (inner slot) chances than ever this year, at about five per hour at 5-on-5, but was already at 4.49 last season – which was a noted leap from 3.07 the year prior and 2.46 in his first full season of 2016/17. His scoring chance rate – shots in the “house” or “home plate” region, has actually dropped this year to something resembling his 2017/18 rate (about 9 per hour), while last season he took 12 per hour from this closer-in region.

Complaints about his turnovers have lessened this year, but he’s turning the puck over more. He’s drawing penalties at half the rate he was previously. He’s throwing half as many hits, and “taking the hit to make a play” at a career-low rate (3.39 hits taken per hour). He’s blocking fewer shots than ever, but the criticisms, while not vanished, have lessened in all of these “gritty” regards.

Common sense says that all of these things are fine, if not good – turnovers aren’t good or wanted, but more of them likely means he’s probably had the puck more, as do fewer hits and blocked shots. But the point at play here is that Nylander has been able to distract from these things through production – which is great!

But it reminds us that we all are all easily distracted and biased by what we see on the ice, and what we remember are results that support our biases. If a player we want to see go to the net more starts doing it but it doesn’t work initially, we’re not going to have enough highlights in our brain bookmarks to reference when deciding whether he is, in fact, a “changed man”, and we certainly aren’t going to admit that he did it and it isn’t working. Especially with a player who, like Bourne alluded to, has enough talent that he should be treated with some form of “good enough isn’t good enough” attitude to his growth – no one wants to concede that a star doing a logically smart thing isn’t working, especially when it should in the long run.

If you were to piece this altogether, it wouldn’t be hard, or 100% wrong, to come up with a conclusion that he’s “validated his critics”. A big hurdle for me here is the idea the definition of what his critics are, and how they’ve responded since. A “critic” for Nylander isn’t any scout or wanna-be scout giving a “needs improvement” on his report, or a writer noticing a hole or two in his numbers, or a rare clip rewind on an intermission.

A critic for Nylander has historically been much different, as he’s become the most polarizing Leaf of our generation with the fanbase, media base, and everything in between. Criticism of him tends to be a foundational knock on modern gameplay, on numbers, on younger fans, on Toronto’s general process, on a billion other blanket things besides his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a 24/7 news cycle. It’s regularly scheduled programming, because you know that someone will respond to you (like I’m responding to Justin’s article). It’s not “here’s how he can improve”, it’s “this guy is bad, he needs to go, and you’re dumb if you disagree”. It’s its own beast.

So with all that in mind, this was a noted bug in his play. It wasn’t a data-driven bug, but an observational bug – meaning that those who claimed to watch games better, break down systems better, and all of that, should’ve been able to pick up on these things well before anyone else. Instead, while Nylander made his shift to the front of the net last year, the yelling was at its loudest, because of the final results – fewer goals, fewer points, fewer enthralling wins that stay in your mind.

What we’re recognizing now isn’t so much the shot locations as it is the shooting percentage – which has jumped from a career-low of 5.3% to a four-year high of 12.8% at even strength, and from a three-year low of 10% on the powerplay to 25%. Obviously, there are lots of nuances about why it works more now – a proper offseason schedule, more practice, touches, and repetition in those areas, self-confidence to accomplish, and, perhaps most impactfully, pure uncontrollable luck.

We aren’t witnessing him doing it more this year – we’re witnessing it working more, and that distinction matters in respect to where the criticism comes from, why it exists, and what that crowd claims about itself. That those who claim judge observationally couldn’t pick out the distinct difference in the process until the results backed it up shows the flaws in the way that we all observe the game, and why it’s important to look through many different lenses before claiming a definitive opinion. This isn’t so much a validation of one of the more truthful points brought up by the often excessive critics, but rather a lesson to them about the downsides of self-limiting their scope.

Not like it matters, though. What matters is that Will Ny is back to being the Scoring Guy, perhaps better than ever before, and it’s a blast.

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