Maple Leafs Will Trade William Nylander This Offseason

In the final game of the season, the head coaches for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins talked about the importance of their teams getting through the game healthy so their players are 100 percent for the first game of the playoffs. Bruins’ head Coach Bruce Cassidy sat a total of eight players, including the team’s complete top two lines.

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Sheldon Keefe elected to sit only three players, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares. One name that was absent from the players Keefe decided to rest was William Nylander. Instead, Nylander played on a makeshift line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. Not only did Nylander play in the game, but he also played over a minute more than he usually plays (19:22 compared to 18:16).

Was William Nylander Happy to Play Last Night?

We could be reading way too much into this; but, it appeared to us, by his body language, that Nylander did not seem very happy with the coach’s decision to play him, either during the game or in his postgame interview after. As it was, Nylander was by far the best player on the ice. He scored two goals, had four shots on net, blocked a shot, had three takeaways, and was the game’s first star.

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

Whether by design or not, this move by Keefe came across to us as a bit of disrespect towards Nylander. If, as a coach, you decide to sit your best players, one would think that your third-highest scoring player, a player who finished the season one point shy of averaging a point a game (80 points in 81 games), and a player that was your best player in the playoffs last season (5 goals and 8 points in 7 games), would be considered one of your best players.

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Not only was Nylander seemingly disrespected by the head coach, but at the end of the game with the score 4-2 Maple Leafs, and the Bruins’ net empty, Keefe did put Nylander on the ice in an effort to get him the hat trick. With 10 seconds left in the game, Pierre Engvall corrals the loose puck on his side of center and doesn’t even look for Nylander who was a short pass away. 

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Engvall just fires the puck into the empty net. Then, when Nylander skates over to congratulate him, Engvall barely acknowledges him. Nylander appears to be smiling but looks almost embarrassed at the same time.

As we stated, maybe we are taking way too much from this. After all, Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Mark Giordano are all important keys to the Maple Leafs’ success in the playoffs. They all played.  

Considering Nylander’s Situation on the Maple Leafs

If we look deeper into Nylander’s situation with the team, there are some reasons why trading him this offseason makes sense.

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Despite being third on the team in both goals and points, Nylander is dead last in plus/minus at minus-9. Whether you feel that plus/minus is an important statistic, it’s still telling when a player on a team that has scored 62 more goals than its opposition and a player who’s had a hand in 80, or 25 percent of the goals the team has scored this season, was still on the ice for nine more goals against than for.  

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If we look at Nylander’s five-on-five statistics courtesy of naturalstattrick, we see that Nylander was on the ice for 65 goals against at five-on-five and only 55 goals for. Looking at Nylander’s ranking across the board for all forwards, he ranks sixth in the percentage of shot attempts for, seventh in shots for percentage, 11th in goals-for percentage, fifth in expected goals-for percentage, sixth in scoring chances for, and sixth in high-danger scoring chances for.  

That tells us that, despite Nylander’s offensive contributions to this team, his defensive contribution, or lack of it, pretty much wipes out most, if not all, of his offensive positives.

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Sometimes the eye test doesn’t back up the numbers. In this case, we think the eye test confirms what the numbers are telling us. Nylander is an extremely gifted and offensively-talented player, who lacks the will, or the ability, to play a full 200-foot game.

We feel a need to state that we think that Nylander’s defensive game has improved immensely in his six full seasons with the Maple Leafs; however, it remains a weakness in his game.

The Maple Leafs’ Salary Cap Situation

According to Capfriendly, the Maple Leafs have $74.4 million wrapped up in 16 players for the 2022-23 season, leaving them $8.1 million to sign seven more players to bring them up to the 23-player limit.

Players on the present roster who will be looking for new contracts are Jack Campbell, Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, and Ondrej Kase. Obviously, the team won’t be able to re-sign them all. Still, we’re sure they would like to sign as many of them as they can.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Having Nylander’s close to $7 million salary-cap hit off the books would go a long way to helping get as many of those players signed as possible.

One other long-term consideration is that Nylander’s contract has only two more years to run, which coincides with Matthews’ present deal expiring. While Matthews already makes just over $11.6 million, we feel it will take significantly more money to convince him to remain in Toronto. It would also make sense that Nylander would be looking for a decent raise himself. As a result, even if the salary cap increased considerably, can the Maple Leafs afford to give both players raises?

Nylander’s Trade Value Is High

Nylander just finished his best season ever; and, as we mentioned, he was just one point shy of being a point-a-game player. Not only does he still have two years remaining a very reasonable deal with an annual $6.96 million cap hit, after Nylander receives a $3.5 million bonus this coming July 1, he will also only be owed $8.5 million over the lead two years of his contract. That’s only $4.25 million per season.  

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We feel any team would salivate over the prospect of picking up a point-a-game player on such a contract. Nylander’s trade value will never be higher than it will be this offseason.

We’ve compared Nylander to Phil Kessel numerous times. His style of game, strengths, and weaknesses mirror Kessel’s. The Maple Leafs gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick to acquire Kessel in 2009. It’s conceivable the return on Nylander could be similar.

Brendan Shanahan has stated a number of times that his goal is to make the Maple Leafs a perennial Stanley Cup contender. A deal bringing back high draft picks and/or high-end prospects for Nylander would go a long way toward helping Shanahan reach that goal.

Who Would Replace Nylander?

The Maple Leafs already have Nylander’s replacement on the team. Keefe already used him during the latter part of this season. That’s Ilya Mikheyev.

If we compare Mikheyev’s numbers with Nylander’s since Mikheyev returned from his second serious hand/wrist injury, we see that Mikheyev has played 53 games and has scored 21 goals and added 11 assists (for 32 points). He’s a plus-16 and has 52 hits. Nylander has played 52 games and has scored 21 goals and added 29 assists (for 50 points). He’s a minus-9 and has 14 hits.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since Mikheyev’s return, he’s scored the same number of goals Nylander has. He has 18 fewer points but he’s a plus-25 difference in plus/minus. He’s bigger, stronger, more physical, and might be close to as fast on his skates as Nylander. Mikheyev has shown he can play on the powerplay as well as kill penalties.

Also, according to Naturalstattrick, Mikheyev’s ranking on the Maple Leafs was higher than Nylander’s in every single metric they track.  When it comes to negotiating a new deal for Mikheyev, we can’t see it costing the Maple Leafs much more than half of what Nylander’s present deal does.

A Trade Makes Sense For Nylander

Nylander has always played in the shadow of Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. It would not surprise us if he felt he could be a team leader if given a chance. Nylander must also realize that the large contracts that Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and now Morgan Rielly have signed might limit what he can expect in his next deal.

There are lots of teams in the Western Conference, either in the rebuilding or the in-between stage, who could use a player of Nylander’s caliber who’s in his prime.

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Nylander might never receive the respect he feels he should in Toronto. A change of scenery might be something welcome to him. In short, these are the reasons we predict that Nylander will be traded this offseason.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]