It feels weird to be writing this article. When that collision happened last night, it took me right out of the game. I just didn’t really care about the result anymore, all I cared about was how John Tavares was doing. That was so much bigger than this game.
I can’t even get mad at any of the players. Sure, Joe Thornton made two big turnovers in the offensive zone that led to both goals for the Habs. Sure, Jack Campbell probably could have not left his crease, something that didn’t help one of the goals, and nearly gave the Habs another. But, I can’t fault any of the player’s decision making because they obviously had bigger things on their mind.
The reason why I’m writing this article is not because my mind immediately went to “how can we replace him adequately”. I’m writing this because amidst that game on Thursday, where I was sick to my stomach from anxiety, William Nylander’s play was one of the positive takeaways from that game that grounded me and took my mind off the stress I was going through.
Now, I will address the elephant in the room first: yes, I know he put the puck over the glass late in the game, and it’s not like he was pressured to do it, he had time. But, like I mentioned before, I can’t really put myself to critique his decision making like a normal game because it wasn’t a normal game. Sure, athletes have to move past that kind of stuff, but they also need time to process those emotions, and no one had gotten that time at this point. Besides, they didn’t score, so it didn’t cost them the game.
Aside from that one blip, William Nylander had an incredible game considering the circumstances. His numbers weren’t incredible (57.52% of the even strength shot share and 41.45% of the expected goal share), but considering the rotating cast of linemates (of his 10:43 of 5v5 ice time, his most common linemate was Nick Foligno with only 5:48 together, and his most common line was Foligno and Kerfoot with 3:06), it’s hard to get a strong groove to drive play.
But, there was a certain energy to his performance. The goal is the easy one to point to, as it completely changed the tone of the game at the time, but it’s more than just the goal. It seemed like every shift he brought energy and was creating scoring chances, like he knew that someone had to step up in Tavares’ absence.
And if there’s anyone who can step up, it’s Nylander. Something that flew under the radar this season was Nylander’s defensive game improving significantly, so much to the point that he was actually the one driving that line. Only Wayne Simmonds, Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev, and Mitch Marner had a better regularized adjusted plus-minus xGA/60 among forwards this season than William Nylander, and he was tied with Marner for 4th among Leafs forwards in 5v5 defensive goals above replacement this season as well. He’s the Leafs best forward on the team now outside of that Matthews-Marner duo, and if there’s anyone that can handle the transition and greater responsibility as a center, he’s their best bet right now.
It’s also not like he hasn’t played center before. He was developed as a center after being drafted by the Leafs, and did so quite well on the Toronto Marlies. Now, the NHL is much different than the AHL, but he has also played center from time to time in the NHL. Off the top of my head, there have been four instances in his Leafs career where he’s played center: his stint with the Leafs in 2015-16, the 2017-18 season when Matthews got hurt a second time, the 2019 series against Boston after Kadri got suspended, and Game 5 of the play-in series against Columbus.
In 2015-16, Nylander got rewarded for an amazing season in the AHL by joining the Leafs at the trade deadline. At this point, he was still being developed as a center since Matthews wasn’t drafted yet, and so he played as a center for the team. He played surprisingly well in that 22 game stretch, as he was third on the team in goals and points per 60 minutes over the whole season, and had solid possession numbers with a 52.64% shot attempt share. His expected goal share wasn’t as good at 45.67%, mostly due to having the eighth worst xGA/60 on the team that year, but I don’t think anyone was expecting a rookie to post stellar numbers.
His second stint down the middle was from late February to late March in the 2017-18 season when Matthews got hurt, and Nylander was trusted down the middle in his absence. In 10 games, he had a goal and five assists, but what really stood out was his underlying numbers. In that stretch, he was sixth on the team with a 55.53% shot attempt share and third on the team with a 58.9% expected goal share. Now a lot of that was more because of his team leading 3.33 xGF/60 down that stretch than his defensive play, but still solid numbers.
The next stint came in 2019, when he got trusted to be the third line center after Kadri got suspended for the series. His point totals weren’t great as he only had one assist in five games, and his shot attempt share was 47.38%, but his expected goals share was 52.84%, which was due to a team leading 1.81 xGA/60, and he was strapped to the ghost of Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown before he was good again, so that really didn’t do him any favours offensively.
Finally, there was his game at center in Game 5 of the Play-In series against Columbus after Sheldon Keefe decided to stack the top line with Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. This left Nylander with Hyman and Kapanen, and the line didn’t quite gel, leading to a less than impressive game from Nylander. Still, he had a 49.81% shot attempt share and 58.24% expected goal share in the game, which isn’t bad for a game he was randomly tossed into the center position without an elite linemate.
But, apparently that game was enough for Keefe and he’s since decided to not use Nylander there (something we saw when Matthews was hurt this season and they opted for Kerfoot instead of Nylander), but honestly, that’s a huge oversight on Keefe’s part if that’s actually the case. Deciding whether or not he’s a good center based on 14:28 of ice time in one game is almost Mike Babcock level stubbornness.
To wrap it all up, Nylander hasn’t been perfect at the center position, but he’s played well enough that it would make sense to try him out there, especially since his defensive improvement this season probably means he can handle more responsibility. Right now Keefe has Foligno there, which isn’t the worst but also isn’t entirely appetizing as a second line center. It probably means they split the duties a bit, but it might be more beneficial for Nylander to be the 2C if they want to make a deep playoff run.
All stats come courtesy of Evolving Hockey, except for the stats for Game 5 of the Columbus series, which comes from Natural Stat Trick.