Toronto Maple Leafs: The Most Underrated Player in NHL History

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a player that is so good, and yet so polarizing, that writing about him is difficult.

It’s difficult to write about him, because so many in the Toronto Maple Leafs universe, including the media, have been so negative about him that any really positive views on him seem like fan service.

For example, in most polarizing situations, the answer tends to lie in the middle.  But in the rare instance when a large group of people is entirely wrong, it is difficult to show that without seeming like you’re just a fan  who cannot be objective.

Still, I have to try.  The numbers are crazy, and maybe if more people realize just how good William Nylander is, they’d have a more positive view of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Because, make no mistake: William Nylander is perhaps the most unfairly maligned, most underrated player in the NHL, maybe ever.

The Numbers Tell the Whole Story

Two years ago, Nylander was worth 3.4 WAR, which, in a sport where 5 WAR could get you a Hart Trophy, was better than 92% of players. (WAR numbers from @evolvingwild via @jfresh).

Nylander hasn’t hit those levels again, but in both of the last two years he’s been worth 1.5 WAR which is still better than 70% of players.   You might notice that this includes his supposedly terrible season after his holdout.

Few players have ever gotten such a cold shooting-percentage at such an inopportune time.  After holding out for big money, Nylander managed only seven goals and 27 points in 54 games.

Individual and on-ice shooting percentage is largely (almost entirely) beyond a player’s control.  Every once in a while, a player goes cold and there is nothing they can do about it.  This is what happened to Nylander after his hold-out.

After returning to the lineup in December, Nylander had trouble scoring, but his underlying numbers were of a superstar level.  Nylander led the NHL that year in scoring chances created per minute.  He was tenth in the NHL in on-ice scoring-chance percentage.  (meaning that only nine other player’s teams got a larger share of the total scoring chances than the Leafs did when Nylander played).

League wide, in his supposedly bad season, Nylander was 27th in expected goals per 60 minutes of ice time.

He had a 56% Corsi-For, 54% Shots-For, 55% Goals-For, 54% Expected-Goals-For, 57% Scoring Chances-For, and 55% Dangerous Scoring Chances-For.  Those are not just good numbers, those are the numbers of one of the best players in the NHL.  And he put them up in a year when both he and his linemates could not buy a goal whenever he was on the ice, so no one noticed (or cared).

Then, this year, Nylander scored 31 goals, 19 of them 5v5.  He ranked 15th in the NHL in both total and 5v5 goals. 1st in net-front goals, a ranking reserved for a power forward, and a pretty ironic accomplishment considering that Nylander’s critics always call him soft.

Make no mistake: You cannot lead the NHL in net front goals if you’re a soft player.  It is impossible.  Frankly, many of the criticisms Nylander faces are antithetical to reality.

How can a player who is bad defensively consistently make his team among the best in the NHL every time he’s on the ice?  How can a player who doesn’t care consistently, year after year, be near the top of the NHL  in neutral zone carries, transition stats, and controlled zone entries?

Or what about the stats he put up this past season, where, I should mention yet again, he was (statistically) the NHL’s best power forward?

Out of the 50 forwards league-wide who also played 950 minutes, here are Nylander’s on-ice rankings.  And just so everyone is clear, “On Ice” stats are for how the team performed with this player on the ice, expressed as a percentage of the total.

Corsi: 5th 

Shots: 7th 

xGoals: 11th

Scoring Chances: 6th

High Dancer S.C: 10th

On-Ice Shooting % 37th 

PDO: 46th 

What these numbers tell us is that, measured against the best players in the NHL, William Nylander is among the best.  The crazy thing is that the stats that basically measure luck, also tell us he was among the unluckiest players, meaning that his totals (especially his assists) should have been much higher than they actually were.

If Nylander played this exact same way, but instead of an 8% on-ice shooting percentage, he had something like 12 or 15, which isn’t uncommon, he’s be over a point per game and flirting with 100  points over a full season.

Look, I don’t know how else to say this: the media and fans are wrong about Nylander.

The guy is a legitimate Franchise Player.  He is about to enter the age where most players take one more step towards their peak.   If he combines this with the expected uptick in on-ice shooting percentage that he is overdue for, and continues to play on the Toronto Maple Leafs with Auston Matthews or John Tavares, his potential is limitless.

Nylander scored more in total, and overall, than current “Best Player in the World” Nathan MacKinnon through his first few seasons.  Perhaps trading him as he enters the peak of his NHL career is an extremely bad idea.  (All stats for this article from naturalstattrick.com).

For now, William Nylander is the Most Underrated Player in the History of the NHL, and I say that with no hyperbole or  exaggeration.  The numbers back me up completely.