Why everyone should love William Nylander

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There’s always been a tumultuous relationship between Maple Leafs fans and high skill, low grit players. From Jason Blake, to Phil Kessel, to Jake Gardiner, to now William Nylander, there’s a common theme with these players and the love-hate dichotomy in the fandom.

It comes down to perspective: do you want a player who gives it their all 100% of the time, or a player who doesn’t but still accomplishes more than most would with less-than-100% effort? When you bring on one of these players there’s a certain “leash” that comes with the territory, and some don’t accept that.

I am not one of those people. I am a Nylanderthal. William Nylander is my favourite Toronto Maple Leaf, and I wanted to use this column to present why the data supports this.

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Readers of this column will know that there’s a lot more to the story when it comes to data, but let’s start with the basics.

He’s not called “Bill Ny the Scoring Guy” for nothing. William Nylander scores points, and points help your team win. It’s a simple concept, but still valuable.

In 325 NHL games, Nylander has 235 points. That’s about 3 points every 4 games, not too far off of a point-per-game player.

So far this season, Nylander has 14 points in 18 games, again about 3 points for every 4 games.

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That’s good, but it’s not at that elite level of scoring. That pace is about 78th in the NHL over that time period. So, there’s no reason to be upset at this scoring pace; he’s not paid at that elite level either. But, the love for him comes from data that digs a little deeper than that.

As we’ve discussed plenty of times with these columns, Corsi has value, whether you believe it or not. That value is not enough to drive decision making on its own, but it should be a part of the process. I like to focus on it because it’s easy to access, and easy to think about, while still holding close to as much confidence in its ability as the more complicated statistical models.

As bucketed by Natural Stat Trick, from his first full season to 2019, he was an average Corsi player, at 143rd in the league with a 52.5% Corsi For Percentage (CF%). From 2017 to 2020, Nylander is 99th in the league with a 53.2% Corsi For Percentage. For 2018 to 2021, he’s 34th in the league at 54.9%. This shows that Nylander is consistently holding the advantage, and improving with time at doing that.

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There’s many pieces to the puzzle that is Corsi, but holding it in its simplest view such as this is often best. Complexity can help to balance out certain biases or inconsistencies, but we have so much of this simple data that the conclusions we can draw from it are consistent, which is the most valuable thing a statistic can give you.

One of Nylander’s most noticeable skills is travelling through the Neutral Zone into the Offensive Zone with success. Beating Neutral Zone defenses takes vision, agility, and puck control, all of which Nylander possesses in abundance.

Take a look at these clips showing zone entries of different fashions:

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This is just a few of many such highlights that exist, showing Nylander doing whatever’s necessary to get his team into the offensive zone with control of the puck. Some players don’t have the skill needed to do this, so they dump and chase. That’s not needed if Nylander is on the ice with you.

From this post in 2020 on Leafs zone entries from the 2019-20 season, we can show that Nylander is near the top of the team at having success in zone entries:

PLAYER TEAM TOI 5X5 PTS CONTROLLED ENTRIES CE WITH SCA CE WITH SCA RATE CONTROLLED ENTRIES/60 SCORING CHANCE OFF OF ENTRY/60
KASPERI KAPANEN TORONTO 851 27 227 72 31.70% 16.00 5.08
AUSTON MATTHEWS TORONTO 1151 45 285 80 28.10% 14.86 4.17
WILLIAM NYLANDER TORONTO 981 38 240 73 30.40% 14.68 4.46
MITCHELL MARNER TORONTO 883 32 216 71 32.90% 14.68 4.82
DENIS MALGIN TORONTO 458 7 112 23 20.50% 14.67 3.01
ILYA MIKHEYEV TORONTO 515 21 104 27 26.00% 12.12 3.15
ANDREAS JOHNSSON TORONTO 560 14 113 37 32.70% 12.11 3.96
JOHN TAVARES TORONTO 968 29 188 44 23.40% 11.65 2.73
JASON SPEZZA TORONTO 544 18 101 18 17.80% 11.14 1.99
ZACH HYMAN TORONTO 787 24 138 38 27.50% 10.52 2.90
ALEXANDER KERFOOT TORONTO 831 25 144 37 25.70% 10.40 2.67

He led the time in controlled entries that led to scoring chances, and had a good overall rate of doing so. I’m surprised to see Kapanen doing so well, as my memories of him include flying into the zone with control and then falling over on the stop-up. But good for him and the Penguins.

That’s right, I’m declaring WAR on anyone who doesn’t support Nylander.

From the WAR model on evolving-hockey.com, Nylander is estimated to have provided 6.8 wins to the Leafs above what a replacement level player would provide. That’s better than Alex Ovechkin, and Patrick Kane. Mostly, those stars fall so low on this list because, while we know them for being elite offensively, they are total liabilities defensively. As we discussed above, there’s a certain leash for this kind of thing for elite offensive talents, and Nylander gets that leash as well.

However, we can see that Nylander isn’t really much of a defensive liability, in terms of WAR.

It’d be a huge stretch to use this chart to say that Nylander is better than Ovechkin or Kane, but the WAR numbers in general certainly show that he has value for the Leafs.

The Isolated Impact charts from hockeyviz.com are a neat visual way of expressing how good someone is. The charts are huge and have a lot of information, so I’m only going to show Nylander’s:

Essentially, a positive number on offense is good and a positive number on defense is bad. You can find more explanation on these charts here.

For Nylander, the Isolated Impact shows that Nylander is a tremendous help on offence and not so much on defence, but not a total liability defensively either.

Consistently we’ve seen that Nylander is not bad defensively, certainly not as bad as some of the stars of this league. This obviously comes mostly from the old adage that “the best defense is a good offense”. By having so much positive going offensively with him on the ice, there isn’t much time for him to play defense. Whether he’s good or bad at actually playing defence isn’t shown here, and some would say it’s irrelevant. If he’s overall a highly positive impact, it doesn’t matter if he’s good at playing defense, as long as his defensive impact isn’t so poor that it is dragging the team down, which the numbers above show that that’s not the case.

Overall, the silky smooth, intelligent, and patient style of play that he brings can be aggravating, but the numbers show that he brings a net positive and is worth the love he gets from a certain sect of the Leafs fandom.