Maple Leafs: Nylander Needs to Be with Matthews

When the Toronto Maple Leafs first put William Nylander alongside franchise centre Auston Matthews, we knew that the duo was going to be good. After their first game against the Ottawa Senators, it was obvious that they connected and were becoming one of the Maple Leafs’ key offensive dynamos.

That trend would continue until the start of the 2018-19 where Nylander missed a full two months of the season due to on-going contract negotiations. This would eventually put a damper on his play – his progression and his time on Matthews’ wing as Kasperi Kapanen eventually replaced him.

Kapanen had great success playing with Matthews, but Nylander will always be the set-up man and finisher that Matthews needs. Nylander had a rough season, but this shouldn’t deter the 23-year-old forward. In fact, this should motivate him to get his spot back permanently.

Nylander & Matthews Dominated Together

In 2016-17 and 2017-18, before Nylander missed the start of last season, he and Matthews spent over 1,700 minutes in various situations. Together, their shots and chances for are completely off the charts. I’m incorporating all-strengths because Matthews and Nylander saw ample time at both five-on-five and on the power play. Here are Nylander’s numbers when he was with and without Matthews.

Category William Nylander With Auston Matthews William Nylander Without Auston Matthews
Corsi For 59.94% 48.57%
Goals For 67.89% 45.45%
Chances For
63.24 % 48.78%
High Danger Corsi For 63.61% 44.80%
High Danger Goals For 72.83% 38.24%

Those numbers are absolutely incredible. Nylander and Matthews both demolished the competition offensively when they were together. Their Goals For and High Danger Goals For percentages are outstanding. Their chemistry and ability to get into the open spots for a prime scoring chance was too much for the opposition to handle.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

This year was a different story. Nylander had limited play-time with Matthews (just over 300 minutes) compared to his previous two years and saw most of his time on the third line. Based on Nylander’s caliber as a player, it didn’t affect him or his numbers at all.

Category William Nylander With Auston Matthews William Nylander Without Auston Matthews
Corsi For 56.44% 60.78%
Goals For 40.54% 63.64%
Chances For
59.50% 62%
High Danger Corsi For 58.59% 59.31%
High Danger Goals For 45% 60%

The possession and scoring chances were still high when they were together. The only downside is the conversion of Goals and High Danger Goals For when they were together. Playing on the third line doesn’t provide much high-end competition. However, it didn’t affect him as he was still a major force in driving puck possession and offensive chances.

With players playing a minimum of 500 minutes at all strengths last season, Nylander had an individual expected goals rate of 13.52. He scored only seven times this year on 870 shots attempted towards the net, with only 130 being on goal. Nylander is better than just being expected to score 13 goals. The underlying numbers are there but the outcome and results weren’t. As THW’s Chris Faria explains in his article about William Nylander last season, it was a case of the bounces not going his way.

Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander
Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Matthews and Nylander complement each other. Matthews had wingers at his side, but none of them were near the quality of Nylander. That’s not to say that Matthews is better with him. He’s a franchise player and was able to put up 73 points in a year where he didn’t play a full 82- game season. But imagine what could’ve been if he was healthy and Nylander was at his side at the start of the season.

Expectations Shouldn’t Be Minimized

A lot is expected of Nylander to be a top-point producer on this team. And that should be the case after back-to-back 61-point seasons. But even after this unfortunate season, there’s no reason to fear that he will continue to regress. He hasn’t fully reached his potential. 

There were nights where the top-six players weren’t up to par and had to make something from nothing, like this set-up for Matthews against the Philadelphia Flyers:

After fending off two Flyers’ players, Nylander skates around the net and he’s able to get a pass off to an empty area on the ice. While this is happening, Matthews is able to skate up high and come’s back to where Nylander places the pass undetected to score and give the Maple Leafs a 6-5 lead.

Nylander’s relentless pursuit of the puck to maintain possession was critical en route to their comeback win. The chemistry that he and Matthews had previously was on display during that play.

There’s also his shot, which is a real asset at both even strength and on the power-play. Here’s a video of his first goal of the 2018/19 season.

We’ve seen this many times before, whether it’s around the net or even on the power-play, Nylander loves to aim for the top corner. Nylander plays give-and-go with Matthews before using his accuracy and quick shot to go short-side on Devon Dubnyk. While his shot was inconsistent this year, it will definitely come back into his offensive arsenal next season.

Babcock Needs to Utilize Nylander Better

There’s no doubt that head coach Mike Babcock came under heavy scrutiny for his player deployment and line-up decisions. Even a few months after Nylander was back in the line-up and it looked like he was ready to be reunited with Matthews full-time, he would still be on the third line.

Babcock was not flexible when it came to his line-up. But with all the changes made this summer to both forward and defense, Babcock has no choice but to adapt and utilize his players properly. He has to give his top players top minutes and that means putting Nylander back with Auston Matthews. And he needs to stay there.

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

Kyle Dubas said in a post from TSN, “We’re all in on Mike and Mike is all in on us. We’ve had productive management meetings as an organization and Mike and I have had some really good meetings as well since the season ended. It’s our very strong belief Mike is the one to lead us, that’s the reality of it.”

If Mike is the one to lead this team to a championship, then he needs to use one of his best players more and not keep him in a bottom-six role. You could make the argument that the results weren’t consistent, which is fine. However, Babcock needs to have more faith in him. He has one top-line at his disposal with Zach Hyman, John Tavares and (hopefully) Mitch Marner. Reuniting Matthews and Nylander will put the Leafs back on top as having one of the best top-six units in the league. You have two lines with major offensive production, what more could a head coach ask for?

Maple Leafs fans had the right to be disappointed with Nylander’s play, but his performance late in the season and earning a scoring title and forward All-Star honours at the World Hockey Championship should serve as some reassurance that he’s unlikely to repeat his play last season. With the contract settled and a full off-season to focus on his training, there’s no doubt that we will see a different Nylander next year alongside Auston Matthews.

*Statistics and numbers used from Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick.