In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I will share an interview with John Tavares about the NHL’s return to play, additional insights on William Nylander’s value to the team, what advanced statistics suggest about different players’ value and the signing of a Toronto Marlies young forward.
Item One: John Tavares Remains Optimistic the NHL’s Return-to-Play Can Work
In an interview this morning with Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, The Hockey News reported that Tavares – despite teammate Auston Matthews’ recent medical diagnosis as infected with COVID-19 – is optimistic the NHL’s return-to-play plans can work.
The NHL reported that so far 11 players tested positive of just over 200 tested in all. However, Tavares, who was a member of the league’s Return-to-Play Committee, reports that the NHL and the players association will continue their plan because the outlook remains good. He also stresses that the league is following the advice of infectious disease experts.
Because of his involvement with these plans, Tavares has stayed abreast of the league’s progress building return-to-play scenarios. And, despite setbacks and reported cases, he believes the NHL’s chances of reaching Phase 3 are favorable. That said, as The Hockey News noted, Tavares’ outlook is glass-half-full. Even in the face of “isolated stories” of infections, he believes what matters most is what the league learns from infectious-disease experts.
As Tavares reported, “Everything they’ve said has been inherently positive. Obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so there’s concerns and issues that have to be addressed and talked about in dealing with the virus… But I think generally what we’ve been told is, because of the health and the type of condition we’re in, the age group we’re in, our risk is as low as it can be in the general population.”
Tavares also lauds the NHL’s rigor, noting, “with us getting tested as much as we are and the protocols being put in place, I haven’t seen too many other businesses or other entities that have implemented such strict protocols and testing regimens that we have now that will only continue to get more rigid going forward.”
The article reported that (a) no changes or delays have been announced for Phase 3 or Phase 4 planning and (b) the NHL and NHLPA are expected to decide about hub cities perhaps even this week. As well, Phase 3 calls for a stricter quarantine bubble than current Phase 2 regulations.
Finally, Tavares believes that, from what experts and world health officials are telling them, the NHL is “more than capable” of coming back to play as the situation continues to improve. He’s optimistic because of what’s being learned from Europe where countries are a few weeks ahead of the NHL. Specifically, he’s gained confidence from how soccer leagues have handled their own return because of how positive progress has been in countries that “were hit pretty hard by the virus.”
Item Two: Is William Nylander the Most Undervalued Player on the Maple Leafs?
Last week I was struck by a small piece of the conversation in a podcast between former-Maple Leaf Connor Brown’s and other former-Maple Leafs player (and now defenseman with the New Jersey Devils) Connor Carrick about William Nylander. It’s good to see others have picked up the conversation and carried it further than I did at the time.
The comment Brown made about Nylander was that “He’s the probably the most laid-back guy I’ve ever met in my entire life. But have you ever seen a guy on the ice more than him in your life, right? I mean, he’s on the ice 25 minutes before practice, stick-handling through pucks he’s lined up.”
Certainly, that comment directly contradicted the general (and perhaps unfounded) bias that jumped on a “Nylander is lazy” bandwagon, which the post suggests was created by former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock who regularly put Nylander in his doghouse. The post noted Babcock was hard on young talent, although likely had good intentions in mind. That said, the post reminded us that Babcock had thrown Marner under the bus, as seemed to have been his way.
Today’s post sees the young Maple Leafs forward as one of the most undervalued players in the league. Citing Nylander’s 31 goals and 28 assists (59 points) in 68 games as silencing his critics, it suggests that 59 points doesn’t “even begin to tell the story of how important Nylander has been this season.”
Specifically, Nylander ranks 15th in the league in goals. Furthermore, of those who scored more goals than he did, only Mika Zibanejad and Nathan MacKinnon have a lower annual contract value according to CapFriendly.
Item Three: What Do Advanced Statistics Reveal About the Maple Leafs?
In a recent post from Editor in Leaf, commentator James Tanner reviewed the Maple Leafs season looking at the advanced statistic WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Although I seldom use many advanced statistics in my The Hockey Writers posts, I do find them another window through which to see the team.
Related: Top 10 Longest Trophy Droughts
WAR attempts to measure a player’s value by the number of additional wins his team has achieved above the number of expected team wins if that player were substituted with a replacement-level player, who might be added to the team for minimal cost and effort.
In this post, an analysis using the Maple Leafs’ WAR supported four players as highly valuable:
First, Alex Kerfoot was worth 1.4 wins above a replacement player. At the same time, statistics suggested that his market value for his play was over $2 million more than his actual salary.
Second, Jason Spezza’s WAR was 1.8 wins, which is excellent. Third, Ilya Mikheyev was highly valuable, being worth 2.3 wins above replacement.
Fourth, Zach Hyman’s WAR was 1.9, which is also great. Over the past three seasons, Hyman’s WAR has been 1.5 (2017-18), 1 (2018-19), and 1.9 (2019-20), which according to the advanced statistics suggests he’s always valuable to the team.
Item Four: Toronto Marlies Re-sign Hudson Elynuik
Late last week, the Toronto Marlies announced that it had re-signed one of the team’s strong bottom-six players when 22-year-old forward Hudson Elynuik agreed to a contract.
The 6-foot-5 center was a strong offensive player at the junior hockey level with the Spokane Chiefs during both 2016-17 (73 points in 64 games) and 2017-18 (86 points in 71 games). In those seasons, he was more than a point-a-game scorer; however, as he’s moving up the organization’s depth charts, he’s transitioning into a strong bottom-six forward.
In many ways, Elynuik is similar to Maple Leafs fourth-line center Freddie Gauthier, with a bit of a more physical side to his game. Older hockey fans might remember that Elynuik’s father Pat played with the Winnipeg Jets, the Washington Capitals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Ottawa Senators for about a decade from 1987-88 to 1995-96.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
There remains much to engage and many problems to answer before Phase 3 can move forward. It should be fun to see how the NHL names hub cities and the Hockey Hall of Fame is counting ballots this week. So, there’s still news to report.