Toronto Maple Leafs

Competition, chemistry fueling William Nylander’s rise

October 20, 2016: Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (29), center Auston Matthews (34), and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) celebrate after Matthews scored on the powerplay in the 2nd period to make it 2-1 Toronto during the regular season match up between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire)
David Berding/Icon Sportswire

With five points in his last three games, Maple Leafs rookie forward William Nylander is emerging as the type of scoring threat that could rival Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine for the Calder Trophy this season.

The 20-year-old Calgary native has developed a symbiotic connection with Matthews, and the Leafs’ last two first-round picks have quickly become key offensive threats on a line that has been one of the most productive in the NHL’s first two weeks.

Matthews is getting most of the headlines thanks to his earth-shattering four-goal performance on opening night, but in the four games since that majestic moment, Nylander has muscled his way into the Calder conversation by outscoring his linemate and being the more dynamic player at times.

When one considers just how good Matthews has been in his first five NHL games, that’s saying a lot about what Nylander brings to the Leafs.shots-for-percentage

Could there be a little healthy competition driving the success of these two juggernauts?

“They all think they are the best guy,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “The more good players you have around, the more competition there is to be the best guy.”

It’s way too early to be doing anything but speculating about the Calder Trophy — check back in January when these kids have 40 games under their belt — but it’s never too early to appreciate a skilled scoring touch. Or a wicked wrister that is made even more lethal by a lightning-quick release. These are things that Nylander, the son of former NHL star Michael Nylander, possesses in spades.

His linemates have some pretty nice skillsets as well.

Even though they began the season with a grand total of 38 NHL games on their collective resumé, Nylander, Matthews, and puck-hunting 24-year-old Zach Hyman have formed a lethal trio that is Toronto’s puck possession dynamo. In just over 50 minutes of even-strength ice time the line has generated a league best Shots For percentage of 65 percent (39 shots for, 21 against). They’ve also managed the sixth-best Corsi among lines with 50 or more minutes of ice time.

Skill, smarts, speed and synergy. It’s all there in one jaw-dropping package. And it all triggers pace through the neutral zone, seamless zone entries, and lots of scoring opportunities—enough to go around.

If there was any knock on Nylander coming into the season it was that he has developed a reputation for not backchecking with the same zeal that he carries the puck with. But defense clearly hasn’t been an issue this season as Nylander and his mates have only been on ice for one even strength goal against.

Even if he doesn’t become a Selke-caliber forward, Nylander’s offensive prowess should end up more than making up for that fact. His wrist shot alone would make him a bona fide offensive threat but Nylander does so much more. He’s a playmaker that has great vision. He’s got blazing speed, silky hands and he knows how to get open in the soft areas.

And… he’s got Matthews. And Matthews has him. Watch out, NHL.

“It’s just when you find somebody you click with, you find the chemistry, you just start to find each other all over the ice—it feels like that’s what’s happening,” Nylander said recently of his new mate. “Just try to get open and he finds you pretty well. It’s very nice playing with a player like that.”

Nylander is a handful at even strength but he’s even more menacing when he’s free to roam on the power play. He’s tied for the league lead in power play points and is tied for second in the league in power play shots on goal.

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The season is young, just like the Leafs top line, but if the first five games are any indication, Auston Matthews isn’t the only Leafs’ rookie that is going to make major waves. William Nylander is going to thrive alongside Matthews all season long.

 

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