Maple Leafs Benefitting From Nylander’s Leadership & Responsible Play

Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander has somewhat been a polarizing figure amongst a portion of the fan base. You have the die-hard fans and supporters behind him every step of the way. Then you have your critics that have always condemned his play away from the puck and waiting to the very last minute to sign a contract that is now one of the best on the team.

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We’ve all had our takes on Nylander, myself included. But you can’t deny the fact that he has progressively gotten better ever since he entered the league in 2015-16. To start the 2021-22 season, he has emerged as another leader on this team and the most consistent player to start this season. Not just on the scoreboard, but in terms of his mentality and perspective on and off the ice. Even in a massive blowout from the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was still one of the better players on the ice.

Everyone has taken note, from members of the team, to the fan base. He was always an important player, but he’s now become a major part of the leadership group. 

Nylander Taking Charge

Everyone has already taken note of the mindset and determination that Nylander had at the beginning of camp. Most notably from the captain, John Tavares noticed that he wanted to take on more of a leadership role on this team. From the early stages of the regular season, we’re seeing that with his play– leading the team in scoring with five points– and a vocal presence on the bench. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s great that Nylander wanted to be a player that the team looks to for motivation and energy. The big question is, how did this all come to be? The answer is simple. 

Tavares himself.

After seeing over 1600 minutes playing alongside Auston Matthews, Nylander started to see some minutes with Tavares on the second line in 2019-20. At first, the chemistry and consistency was off as it usually is when playing with new linemates. During the 2020-21 season, Nylander and Tavares developed really great chemistry

Nylander finished the season with 42 points, but was on-pace for 63 over an 82-game season. Before that in 2019-20 he was on-pace for 70 points, which would’ve been a career high for him. While we have seen regular season success, it was the playoffs where he shined.

In Tavares’ absence after that scary concussion he suffered, it wasn’t Matthews or Marner that stepped up. It was Nylander. He was a completely different player, displaying a sense of purpose and always making an impact every time he was on the ice. Whether it was getting in on the forecheck or scoring a timely goal, he was there. Playing alongside the captain, might have had an effect on him where Tavares’ influence impacted his play and changed his outlook.

After the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, Nylander credited Tavares for helping him become a more responsible player and a leader. His drive, compete level, maturity and growth was taken to new heights which has carried over into this season as both players wanted to push each other to the next level. 

The fans, more specifically the critics, wanted more out of Nylander. Well, now they’re getting it.

Reliable on Both Sides of the Puck

Even though it’s early on in the season, Nylander has picked up right where he left off with his dazzling performance in the playoffs. With a minimum of 30 minutes played in all situations, he ranks ninth in individual shots on goal with 21 and in individual fenwick with (iFF, unblocked shot attempts) with 31.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Nylander has always been a strong producer and puck possession player. The consistency remains but he seems to be more energized than ever before. He has done a fantastic job at identifying the shooting lanes. The fact that he’s at the top of the list in unblocked shots, shows that he’s patient enough to get into the right area for scoring opportunities and generate his chances. So far this season, 58.3% have got through on net, the highest of his career. 

Although Nylander is getting things done offensively, his play away from the puck– which was always heavily criticized– is now a strength in his game. He currently ranks second overall in takeaways with nine and 11th in takeaways per 60 with 4.59. He’s more aggressive without the puck in applying pressure and creating turnovers. Just recently, he made some great defensive plays against the San Jose Sharks to break up a play and gain possession. 

While Nylander has been more tenacious and engaging in puck battles, his defensive game doesn’t stop there. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has relied on him at times to be a penalty killer, something that we haven’t seen much of in the past. Below is Nylander’s ice time on the penalty kill throughout his career.

SeasonTotal Time SHSH TOI/G
2016-170:370:00
2017-181:510:01
2018-192:310:03
2019-200:570:01
2020-210:410:01
2021-225:030:51

Nyalnder’s minutes have been extremely low throughout his career, mainly because he wasn’t utilized as penalty killer. Given his offensive tendencies, he was usually on at the very end of the penalty kill, being one of the players on the ice for a stacked line in order to gain offensive momentum. 

This season alone, Nylander is 10th in short handed ice time per game on the team, surpassing his minutes total and per game back in 2018-19. During the preseason, Keefe said that Nylander has embraced and been attentive in regards to his new role. He also added that his attention to detail has been a big factor in his defensive game.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander controls the puck ahead of Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

So far he has looked good in the regular season as his transitional game is a big part for the team when he’s on the ice. He has good positioning and is more tenacious with his involvement. His improved defensive play along with his offensive flare is going be a great asset in that situation. The Maple Leafs currently sit eighth overall on the penalty kill at 85.7%. They’re seeing early results compared to last season and Nylander is a part of that success. 

A New and Improved Nylander

Despite getting a lot of flack for not being tough enough or not being engaged all the time, it’s finally time to put those comments to rest when talking about Nylander. We’re all seeing a new an improved player who is committed to being a player everyone can look up to in a key moment. Whether it’s with his play or being more vocal on the bench or in the dressing room, he has gone above and beyond to elevate his game and outlook.

While he was always part of the core four, Nylander is a true leader on this team.

Statistics from Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and NHL.com.


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