Imagine you were told that four games into the series, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be without John Tavares and Nick Foligno, while Auston Matthews was held to just one goal against the Montreal Canadiens. You probably wouldn’t picture the Leafs to be up 3-1, would you? All of those things do happen to be true, though, as the Maple Leafs have found a way to overcome adversity so far in the series.
Other than goaltender Jack Campbell, who’s been stellar as always, the biggest key to Toronto’s success has arguably been their second line, driven primarily by William Nylander. Despite narratives about his inconsistency and lack of competitiveness, the enigmatic winger has emerged as perhaps the Leafs’ most clutch performer of the series with four goals and an assist.
But based on his history of playoff performance, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.
Nylander Leads the Maple Leafs in Playoff Scoring Since 2019-20
It’s unfortunate that Nylander has been painted as someone who doesn’t show up in big games because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. On the contrary, the 25-year-old has been a top playoff producer for the Leafs for a long while now.
In nine playoff games since 2019-20, Nylander is tied for first in team scoring with Auston Matthews at nine points, though Nylander has accomplished that feat in nearly 50 fewer minutes. The Swede also leads the team in goals by a wide margin with six, while Matthews trails in second at just three. If we go back to 2018-19, Nylander sits second in scoring with 12 points, trailing Matthews by three despite playing 75 fewer minutes. Go all the way back to 2016-17, the core’s first playoff run, and Nylander leads all current Leafs in even strength scoring with 17 points!
On a league-wide scale, he ranks 10th among forwards in even strength points per hour (P/60) since last season, well ahead of both Matthews (73rd) and Mitch Marner (99th). Given how much tighter games get in the playoffs and how power plays are often few and far between, being able to produce at even strength is exceptionally valuable, and Nylander does just that.
Better yet, Nylander has proven that he can create and produce regardless of who’s on his line. Since Tavares went down in Game 1, he hasn’t missed a beat despite lining up primarily next to Foligno, Alexander Kerfoot, and Alex Galchenyuk — not necessarily a star-studded lineup. Nylander’s ability to produce without his regular centre goes to show just how important he is to driving Toronto’s top-six.
Nylander Continues to Get to the Dirty Areas
Since we’re disproving false narratives, we may as well tackle another: Nylander is far from a perimeter player. We’ve talked about it before here at THW, but it’s always worth repeating, especially given that the winger continues to prove that he’s one of the best net-front scorers in the NHL.
Here we can see Nylander’s shot map from this season, and it’s clear that he’s made a habit of getting shots off in and around the crease. We don’t have to look very far back at all to see his crease crashing in action, though. Just last game, he tucked in a backhander from the lip of the crease after a beautiful no-look pass from Galchenyuk. Prior to the goal itself, Nylander outhustled Habs centreman Nick Suzuki to get to the net, another sign that the Leafs winger is as engaged as ever.
In Game 1, Nylander did it again, this time tapping in a rebound from the side of the net. While a prototypical power forward like Wayne Simmonds or Zach Hyman tends to stand right in front of the net to battle with the defenceman, Nylander prefers to find the quiet areas where he can remain undetected.
Add in two more long-range snipes, and Nylander has had a hot start through the first four games of these playoffs as the Maple Leafs’ top goal scorer.
The Leafs aren’t done with the Canadiens just yet, but now up 3-1, they look on track to advance in short order and win their first playoff series since 2004. If they can pull it off, they’ll be up against the Winnipeg Jets in a battle for the crown of the North Division. While Tavares seems to be progressing quicker than expected, his return is likely still at least a couple of weeks away, meaning that the Leafs will be depending on Nylander to continue leading the offensive charge.
Given his track record, they seem to be in good hands.
Player stats from naturalstattrick.com
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.