William Nylander’s camp and the Toronto Maple Leafs are still in a stalemate as the Leafs are 8 games into their 2018-19 season. After getting off to a 6-2-0 start and having 4 of the top 6 scorers in the league over the first 2 weeks, there’s a lot of people who think the team can afford to trade the young star swede for a defenseman to “shore up” their blueline. I can understand why some people believe this, after seeing Matthews, Tavares and Marner enjoy hot streaks to start the season, it’s easy to think that Nylander is expendable and to forget the value that he brings to the Leafs. However, Nylander has a lot more value to the Leafs than he’s given credit for.
William Nylander is a very efficient producer at both 5v5 and on the powerplay. Per naturalstattrick.com, from 2016-17 through 2017-18, Nylander’s 2.09 5v5 Points/60 is 32nd out of all forwards with 2,000+ minutes. That’s ahead of names like Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, John Tavares, Claude Giroux, and Tyler Seguin. During the same time on the powerplay, Nylander’s 5.81 Points/60 is 18th amongst forwards with 300+ minutes. Finishing ahead of names like his linemate Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Sidney Crosby, and Connor McDavid.
Nylander is a fantastic possession driver at even strength, arguably the biggest strength in his game is being able to create turnovers in the neutral zone and transition the puck up ice with speed and possession. He has been one of the best-controlled zone exit/entry players in the league the last two seasons as he can effortlessly skate the puck out of their own zone and into the offensive zone. An impressive area in Nylander’s game that sometimes goes unnoticed is his play away from the puck in the neutral zone. According to Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) who works with Hockey analytics and micro stats, William Nylander led every forward in the NHL last season in stick checks in the neutral zone ( https://twitter.com/MikeKellyNHL/status/1037708976044081152 ).
The impact that Nylander has on his linemates at 5v5 is significant with his ability to control the game and drive the play up ice. He has spent a lot of time with Auston Matthews in his first two seasons and these are the results of them with and without each other.
Matthews with Nylander 1342:55 TOI
53 CF% 51 SF% 55 SCF% +29 Goal Differential
Matthews without Nylander 746:55 TOI
47 CF% 48 SF% 49 SCF% +6 Goal Differential
As far as trading him for a right shot defenseman, I don’t see a team that’s willing to move a young right shot d-man. There are very few right shot d-men that the Leafs should even consider trading Nylander for and no team wants to give those players up, especially during the season. Really the only team that I can see potentially being a fit is Carolina, being deep on right defense with Hamilton, Pesce and Faulk. But they have a good team in place that’s clicking right now and arguably the best group of 6 defensemen in the league, why break that up?
I’m not entirely convinced that trading Nylander for a defenseman makes the team so much better either. Defense is such a team concept and hugely structure based, one player is not going to shore up a position just like that. The Leafs aren’t lacking talent on the blueline, Morgan Reilly has had an incredible start to the season, Jake Gardiner is coming off a 50-point year, and Travis Dermott really burst onto the scene last season and looks to continue to take steps. You’re not likely going to get a defenseman that’s worth Nylander and the Leafs need to improve from within with young d-men on the team already and also with the Marlies. They need their forwards to come back deeper in the D zone and provide close support on the breakout and transition, not trade for one guy and hope that fixes things.
With so many high-end forwards in Toronto, it’s easy to forget the value that William Nylander brings to the Leafs. The Leafs have had a white-hot powerplay at over 40% so far this season as well as crazy shooting percentages from Matthews, but those will regress and at 5v5 were 80% of the game is played, they have only been league average so far, an area that Nylander is very strong in. With Auston Matthews and John Tavares being the superstar players that they are and with how hot Mitch Marner was in the second half of last season, some fans and media believe it’s okay to trade Nylander. But trading him will come at a cost if they decide to go through with it. And if they trade him and don’t get fair value or more for him, it’s going to hurt the Leafs significantly in the long run.