The Toronto Maple Leafs plan on involving William Nylander much more during the 2021-22 season. The reason is simple – he earned it. The 25-year-old has picked up where he left off last season, showing the coaching staff a 200-foot-game that is getting better every time he is on the ice. In addition, the smooth-skating offensive talent has improved his defence so much that he is going to be a penalty killer. You read that right; the guy labelled as soft and one-dimensional since being drafted in 2014 is a penalty killer.
I suggest looking back at last season’s playoff games against the Montreal Canadiens for anyone questioning the move. Nylander was the best player on the ice for Toronto. But it didn’t end there; he became a leader on and off the ice. He’s not letting that progression be a one-time thing, in fact, he has brought the same mentality to this season.
Tavares Sees a Different Nylander
Captain and linemate John Tavares noticed a change in Nylander. “For him, he really wants to take on more of a leadership role and make that presence felt amongst the room. I think you get a sense of that on the ice, but it has really helped him,” Tavares said that Nylander has always had the confidence. Still, now he seems more driven to be accountable and holding his teammates to a high level. “He just looks really good in terms of how he is skating and the type of shape he came in his mindset and attitude. He wants to be a big presence, so guys can look to him.”
That translates to more responsibility and so far, head coach Sheldon Keefe likes what he sees on the penalty kill.
“He’s penalty-killed throughout camp. It’s something we’re trying here. We saw a lot of growth in Will’s game through the second half of last season, through the playoffs, in his commitment defensively. When he’s focused and committed, like he was, you start to see the instincts that he has, strong hands, strong stick and quickness to be able to jump and read plays.” The penalty killing plan started then, “at the end of last season, we had talked a little bit about the thought that he might be able to kill penalties for us and give us some value there.”
New Maple Leafs Penalty Kill Fit Nylander’s Style
Toronto then hired the perfect special teams’ coach to make that a reality. Dean Chynoweth who was with the Carolina Hurricanes and had similar players to Nylander, such as Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravianen killing penalties. Carolina’s PK was ranked third in the NHL, while Toronto’s penalty kill was 23rd. “The philosophy that Dean has brought over here requires a lot of pressure, a lot of reads, quickness, speed and energy,” said Keefe.
Nylander on the penalty kill will also mean more minutes for the speedy winger. He averaged nearly six minutes less ice time than Mitch Marner last season and logged the least minutes among the core four. However, in the playoffs, he went from 16:36 of average ice time in the regular season to 18:21 of ice time. This increase in minutes correlated with increased production as Nylander put up five goals and three assists in seven games. Thus, one could conclude that the more ice time Nylander is tasked with, the more he is engaged in the game, which produces more for the team overall.
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Nylander said he follows Tavares’ leadership example, but he also credits his father’s role in this development. Michael Nylander wore a letter for a few teams during his 14 season NHL career, including the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Michael did get some penalty killing time during his career; we will soon find out if any of that rubbed off on William.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.