The end of the season is sad for many reasons, but the worst thing that comes out of losing is the litany of hot takes that occur afterwards. Perhaps the most annoying is the idea that the Leafs need to upgrade their defence by trading from one of their strengths — skilled scoring wingers.

Specifically, the hot play of Mitch Marner in the last few months, including the postseason, and a slump for William Nylander against Boston, means that this take often ends up with the Swede on the block.

Obviously, this is stupid. You essentially never get better by trading a player like William Nylander. But that’s not really what I want to address.

As I mentioned above, there seems to be a separation in the minds of fans and media between Nylander and Marner. They’re both great players, but it seems Marner’s supernova blowup over the last half of the season has made him nigh-on-untouchable to fans and media. As he should be! He’s a future star who had an amazing year.

Yet people don’t seem to realize that Nylander is just as good, and arguably had a better year. Dylan Fremlin at Maple Leafs Nation covered much of the same ground a few months ago in a review of Nylander’s season, and his work is well worth a read.

This may seem counterintuitive. Marner scored more (69 points to 61), had a better relative shot share (+3.8% to +1.8%) and seemingly rejuvenated the previously moribund group centred by Nazem Kadri.

Start digging into that, and it’s not as if Marner gets less impressive; he really did have a great year. But Nylander’s production gets more impressive.

Even Strength Scoring

The first thing to note is that Nylander was a more efficient scorer at even strength, as shown in the table below (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

Nylander vs Marner 5v5 Scoring

Player Points / 60 (Rank) Primary Points / 60 (Rank)
Player Points / 60 (Rank) Primary Points / 60 (Rank)
Nylander 2.4 (31) 1.76 (43)
Marner 2.05 (73) 1.45 (106)

There are a couple things to note here. The first is that both are well within the range we would expect from a first liner in Points/60. Nylander in particular, is knocking on the door of elite by this metric; he was actually tied with Evgeni Malkin for 31st. If you restrict yourself to looking at primary points (as there is evidence that players have limited control over secondary assists), they both look a little less impressive. However, Nylander is still borderline-elite by this measure. Marner is good, but not as good.

Of course, we should add some context to this. Nylander benefited from playing with Auston Matthews, and on a line that had a ridiculous 11.4% on-ice shooting percentage this season. The former might continue to happen, but the latter will not, even for a player who sees these shot locations.

So in that sense, Nylander’s even strength scoring is inflated. However, it’s worth noting that while his line experienced a high conversion of shots to goals, Nylander himself didn’t.

In line with this, Nylander undershot his expected goals this season by a modest amount, per Corsica. Even if you ignore this and depress Nylander’s even strength stats a little, you have a lot of room to lower them until you get out of first-line territory and below Marner’s.

While we’re on the subject of teammates, we should also note that playing with Auston Matthews is great, but he also plays with Zach Hyman, who for all his positive attributes, is no one’s idea of a canonical first line winger.

Now, back to the comparison to Marner. Marner’s even strength scoring is good, Nylander’s is better. Teammates matter, but Marner spent the vast majority of his time with either James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, or Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri. Essentially, he always had a 30 goal scorer to his left, and a rather strong offensive player as the third wheel. No one here is as good as Matthews, but they’re all more talented offensively than Hyman, and Kadri/JvR in particular are borderline elite offensively. It’s also worth noting that the JvR/Bozak/Marner line played as an overqualified scoring line, feasting on opposing depth. Again, Marner is a great player who had a tremendous year. Nylander’s was just as good in this respect, and arguably better. In 2016/2017, the situation was reversed, though there was more evidence that Nylander was spectacularly unfortunate that season.

Power Play Scoring

Obviously, since Marner’s overall point scoring was higher than Nylander’s we can pretty easily deduce that the power play is the main reason why. Marner absolutely DESTROYED the world when on the power play this year. The Leafs top power play unit was a deadly weapon, and it was predicated around Marner’s vision and passing from the right half-boards. The reason we often ‘discount’ power play scoring relative to 5v5 scoring is that the former can be more scheme-dependent, and volatile year to year. In the case of Marner, it’s almost fair to say that his skillset IS the scheme. I would always expect him to be a menace on the power play and put up strong numbers there.

A year ago, almost every instance of Marner in that above paragraph could be replaced by Nylander. They both have skillsets seemingly tailor-made for the power play, and in 2016/2017, Nylander dominated with the man advantage. As many predicted, Nylander’s power play production took a step back this season, not necessarily through any fault of his own, but because it’s highly variable and subject to scheme and role changes. Nylander was still fine on the power play – per HockeyViz, his primary point rate at 5v4 was still comfortably in the upper tier of power play options league-wide. But his unit was not as successful, either due to variance, teams catching onto their fairly predictable set plays, and a lack of elite power play talent on their unit aside from Matthews and Nylander. Some of it is surely just natural regression. When you’re brushing up on the upper limit of how much one can possibly score on the power play, you really have nowhere to go but down. Nylander was doing that in his rookie year.

In contrast to Nylander’s less-than-ideal role, Marner was in the perfect situation on the power play and made the most of it. Playing with an elite net-front guy, a skilled gunner in the middle of the ice, and the Leafs best offensive defenseman gave Marner multiple options from his spot on the wing. He took advantage brilliantly, and gave the Leafs one of the most dangerous power plays in recent memory. That said, odds are, his power play scoring goes down next season, simply because there’s not much more room for it to increase. Like Nylander in his rookie year, Marner is hitting the upper limit on how effective someone can realistically be on the power play.

Driving Play

Let’s move away from scoring, since there’s obviously a lot more to a hockey player than that. One thing that Marner got a lot of credit for was his success in rejuvenating the even strength play of Kadri and Marleau, who had struggled when playing with Leo Komarov. When you look into that a little more, the extent to which Marner did so looks slightly overrated.

Below is a table of all the line combinations including Marner or Nylander that played more than 100 5v5 minutes (per Corsica).

Nylander / Marner Line Combinations

Line Combination TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
Line Combination TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander 639.93 52.22 2.07 66.39 15.01 53.55 3.87 106.59 50.84
van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Marner 342.6 54.87 4.53 47.52 -6.32 58.3 7.79 99.21 64.08
Marleau – Kadri – Marner 365.95 51.45 -0.09 58.96 3.24 48.03 -3.71 103.05 50.94

Based on this table, we can see that Nylander essentially had one consistent line; the familiar Hyman – Matthews – Nylander trio. When together, they did okay by shot attempts, very well by expected goals, and unsustainably well in actual goals. This is with them largely facing high-end competition. When Nylander was away from Matthews, his time was split into three parts: playing with Kadri and Komarov, a stint on the fourth line, and playing centre.

When playing with Kadri and Komarov, Nylander got absolutely demolished. That trio simply didn’t work. This vexed me greatly during the season, but I largely chalked it up to Komarov being washed. Seeing how that line succeeded against a strong Bruins team in the postseason with Andreas Johnsson instead of Komarov makes me more confident in that assessment. The fourth line stint is kind of unimportant to talk about. He did well on the fourth line, as you’d expect any skilled player to do. Marner did the same thing.

I covered his stint at centre here, and I think it holds up well. He was good at centre, in a small sample.

There’s a more interesting discussion to be had about Marner. In his role with Bozak and JvR, they formed a dominant third line that obliterated weaker foes, in a smart use of the Leafs most frail offensive players to take advantage of their elite forward depth. This line was very strong throughout the year, relative to the rest of the team, but obviously had easy usage.

He was taken off this line in order to juice Kadri and Marleau, who were failing to drag around the anchor named Leo. And that sort of worked. They look good by shot attempt ratio — if your ‘matchup’ group is above 50% in shots and similar to the rest of the team, I think that’s a good sign. However, they look notably worse by expected goals, and rode a PDO bender in order for their GF% to exceed both of the other metrics.

In moving Marner from one line to the other, Babcock replaced Komarov – Kadri – Marleau, and ended up creating JvR – Bozak – Brown. So it’s useful to see how those lines did as well, relative to the equivalents with Marner.

Marner’s Replacements Line Combinations

Line Combination TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
Line Combination TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Brown 424.05 54.81 4.69 62.65 9.64 58.3 8 102.71 56.78
Komarov – Kadri – Marleau 346.53 49.58 -1.72 46.46 -11.24 48.65 -4.69 98.59 36.03

This was honestly sort of surprising to me. But there was essentially no drop-off in results between playing Brown with Bozak/JvR and playing Marner with them. As far as I can tell, their minutes didn’t drop significantly, nor did they get matched to easier lines. The Leafs schedule eased up, which may have helped, but either way, it’s notable that this sheltered scoring line kept on scoring without Marner.

Similarly, the difference between the Kadri line with Marner instead of Komarov is not as large as I thought it’d be. It’s an obvious improvement, especially since Marner has much more finishing ability than Komarov, and also might be the type of player who can create such incredible chances for teammates that he can generally outperform his shot metrics. But in general, it’s not as if this line became incredible for the Leafs… they just got a little better. All of this is to say that Marner’s reputation for revitalizing Kadri and Marleau is just as much a function of a hot shooting percentage run as it is due to his own brilliance.

If we run the same exercise with Nylander, we see that the only real comparable line is Hyman – Matthews – Brown, which had a paltry 48% CF%, in only 88 minutes. That’s a tiny sample to compare to, so I don’t want to get carried away here, but Nylander appeared to have more of an impact on his lines than Marner did.

In analyzing their 5v5 play this way, it becomes clear that when Nylander and Marner were put in non-sheltered roles, the former generally saw better results than the latter. Again, teammates matter, but I fail to see the argument that Marner has surpassed Nylander here. Especially when Nylander ALSO succeeded as a centre in a small sample. This is borne out when we look at teammate-relative CF%. Nylander ranks 3rd among full-time Leafs (we ignore the relatively small samples of Kasperi Kapanen and Johnsson), while Marner ranks 4th. Both very good at it, but the way they’re spoken in the media and among fans does not reflect the fact that they are equals in this respect.

Peripherals

In 2017/2018, Nylander drew more penalties, and took less. In a small sample of tracked data, Nylander’s transition play and shot contributions are similar to Marner’s.

Basically any way you slice it, Nylander has produced just as well as Marner has in aggregate this past season. Obviously, stats are not everything, and this isn’t a comprehensive video review of how each has performed. I’ve seen intelligent criticisms of Nylander’s play, and in particular, his willingness to cut corners defensively from the likes of Justin Bourne, Gus Katsaros, and Scott Wheeler. Those matter. However, I do believe that the results and the stats don’t lie about his overall impact, and based on those, he and Marner have both had equally impressive seasons.

The key differences are the timing of their strong performances, and Marner’s power play success. But that’s about it. If you want to argue that Nylander is entirely a function of Auston Matthews, I’d counter by pointing out that Matthews’ stats tumble just as hard without Willie. I fail to see the argument where one of them is SO MUCH better than the other, and honestly, if you ask me who the better player is right now, I think the answer is Nylander by a nose.

If we look at their stats over the last two years, what do we see?

Two Year Comparison

Player TOI G A P P1 P/60 P1/60 CF% Rel CF% xGF% Rel xGF% ZSR
Player TOI G A P P1 P/60 P1/60 CF% Rel CF% xGF% Rel xGF% ZSR
Marner 2130.62 29 44 73 54 2.06 1.52 50.92 0.27 51.11 0.46 54.88
Nylander 2176.42 23 51 74 53 2.04 1.46 51.89 1.57 51.49 1.08 51.23

Pretty much identical. Funny how that works.

Despite this, it seems that they’re seen incredibly differently in the eyes of media and fans. The Leafs are fortunate enough to have two incredible, top-line wingers, who are barely able to drink on the road. They’ve both had incredibly impressive years and seem poised to make the leap into superstardom soon, if they haven’t already. We should treat them both that way.

Acknowledgements

Stats are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and Corsica.hockey.

Visualizations are courtesy of HockeyViz.com, which I would strongly recommend supporting via their Patreon. The same is true of Natural Stat Trick.

https://www.pensionplanpuppets.com/2018/4/28/17290322/toronto-maple-leafs-william-nylander-mitch-marner-trade-defenseman-stupid-peter-chiarelli

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