What’s fuelling William Nylander’s blazing start? Monday Morning Leafs Report

STOCKHOLM — What’s sneakily fuelling William Nylander’s blazing start? He’s shooting the puck more than ever before.

Like, a lot more.

Nylander shooting

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By the time he finished putting a bow on a smashing trip at home in Sweden, Nylander ranked second in the entire league with 77 shots, trailing only Nikita Kucherov with 78. He sits seven shots in front of teammate and perennial high-volume shooter Auston Matthews (though the two have the same 133 attempts).

John Tavares observed recently that Nylander was trusting his shot more.

“Maybe now it just looks like he’s trusting it a little more because he’s on the half-wall of the power play,” Mitch Marner said a few minutes after Nylander slammed home the overtime winner against Minnesota, his 12th goal already this year. “I think he’s done a great job in that spot of just getting pucks through and finding holes.”

Marner might be right.

The biggest spike in shooting for Nylander has indeed come on the power play, where he’s shooting it more than everyone in Toronto and just about everyone else in the league — and more than he ever did before.

Nylander PP shooting

Season Shots/60 Attempts/60

























Nylander is getting those attempts from his now-usual spot on the left half-wall, a tweak to the Guy Boucher-led No. 1 unit this season. (Boucher wants more downhill action, most of it coming from the two flanks.) It’s a spot that was formerly occupied by Marner and sometimes Matthews. As you can see, Nylander did most of his power-play business elsewhere last season.

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He’s making the most of the opportunity.

Nylander scored nine power-play goals all of last season. Already this season, he’s scored five, matching Matthews for the team lead and right among the NHL leaders.

Yes, Nylander is sizzling right now. But not burn-your-finger-on-the-stove-top sizzling; he’s shooting 15.6 percent. He’s just shooting it more, which, when you have a shot like that, leads to good results.


1. The Leafs enjoyed their trip to Stockholm (the food especially), but it was a slog. Sleep, or lack thereof, was an issue for just about everyone in a place where it was fully dark by 3 in the afternoon. “Probably about one and a half (to) two,” Marner said of the number of good nights’ sleep he got over the five-night trip.

2. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe on the impact of the trip and the logistical challenges with travelling so far — and then travelling back only to hit the road again: “In terms of how it affects the season, time will tell,” Keefe said. “We’re going to do all that we can to manage it here when we get back home. I’ve talked to different coaches that have been through this experience before; Guy Boucher, as a head coach, has been through something like this before. Teams haven’t always responded well.”

3. What is Keefe looking for from a Matthews-led top line that’s been struggling? Pace. Keefe met with the line — Matthews, Marner and Matthew Knies — on Saturday and urged more “pace” starting from their own zone. Keefe is looking for simple stuff too: crisper passing, more shots, more momentum generated for the team. “It’s all about pace, ultimately,” he said. The line struck for a Knies goal with all kinds of pace from out of the T.O. zone and a crisp Marner setup on Sunday afternoon.

4. One thing that stuck out in a fourth straight win: How little trust Keefe appeared to have in his third line as the game unwound. Max Domi and Nick Robertson both played less than eight minutes. Their unit got hit with the Wild’s first goal, a mismatch that saw them up against Kirill Kaprizov. Wild coach Dean Evason appeared to be hunting that matchup as often as he could with last change — which might well explain why Keefe stopped putting the line on the ice. Therein lies the challenge of a Domi-led third line: Teams will feast on it when the Leafs are on the road.

5. A sneaky plus to last season’s Jake McCabe acquisition for the Leafs: His ability to play both the left and right sides, is hugely helpful now with three right shots — Timothy Liljegren, John Klingberg and Conor Timmins — all injured. McCabe called it an adjustment to move back over following his return from a groin injury. “Over my career, I’ve just taken thousands more reps on the left side, frankly,” he said.

6. McCabe and his partner of late, Mark Giordano, had a very difficult time moving the puck under pressure from the Wild. Expected goals were 29 percent for the Leafs in their 15 minutes. On one shift with the Matthews line, McCabe and Giordano had three, four, five opportunities to move the puck upward and out and couldn’t do it. That pair bears watching.

7. After Friday’s morning skate, before the Leafs played the Red Wings, Robertson stood at the whiteboard with assistant coach Manny Malhotra. He wanted clarification from the Detroit pre-scout regarding something the Leafs were doing defensively that night. At practice a day later, Robertson was among the last Leafs to leave the ice. He was having a long chat with Boucher. Clearly, Robertson is intent on learning as much as he can in hopes of sticking around with the Leafs for the long haul.

8. Keefe before Sunday’s game against the Wild: “We still haven’t had a game yet where, I would say, all the lines are clicking.”

9. I have to wonder if Ryan Reaves returns to the lineup next weekend. The fourth line was largely ineffective on Sunday, and I can’t see the Leafs keeping Reaves out for long (even if his presence in the lineup isn’t particularly helpful).

In focus: Power-play shooting

Shot distribution on the power play this season has been interesting.

In short: Less from Matthews, Marner, and Tavares, and, as noted, a lot more from Nylander.

Marner, operating mostly from down low, has become almost a total non-entity as a shooter on PP1, while Tavares, one of the most destructive PP forces in the league last season, has seen fewer opportunities come his way around the net.

Tavares mustered over 22 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes on the power play last season, the No. 1 mark in the league. The Leafs were rewarded with 18 goals. This season? Just 13 HD attempts and change per 60 and only one power-play goal.

Tavares has gone five straight games (!) without a single shot on the power play on only two attempts.

That would help explain, at least in part, why the quality of chances for the No. 1 unit has dropped this season — from 12.3 expected goals per 60 minutes with Tavares, Marner, Matthews and Nylander on the ice to just under 10 per 60 this season.

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John Tavares has seen fewer opportunities on the power play this season. (Per Haljestam / USA Today)

Matthews shovelled in a Nylander rebound on Sunday for his fifth power-play goal already this season. He had it cooking against the Wild penalty kill, firing darts from the left circle. Generally, though, he hasn’t quite been the focal point as he has in years past. His one-timer, in particular, has been less of a factor (an effect, perhaps, of having a right-shooting John Klingberg manning the point until recently; the Matthews’ one-timer was most threatening from the right circle, a little more challenging to pull off for a right shot like Klingberg).

The big beneficiary of the Boucher-led power play is Nylander.

He’s on pace to land 44 more shots on the power play than last season.

Things I like and don’t like

Like: Matthews and Nylander as a penalty-killing combo.

The Leafs quickly moved away from the Matthews-Marner PK connection. (The first unit needed Marner and Matthews’ role has decreased from the early days of the season.)

What the coaching staff has come around to though are late-in-the-PK shifts for Matthews and Nylander together. The Leafs instill the same fear factor in opponents with the Matthews-Nylander combo as they would with the Matthews-Marner connection. It also keeps both players involved in the game when the penalties pile up.

What’s next with John Klingberg?

This situation keeps getting stranger.

Klingberg went from playing every game through the first month of the season to not playing one night for an injury that seemed to come out of nowhere (but that he apparently suffered or tweaked a few weeks ago) to then playing again the night after that.

Then, Klingberg stopped practising. He took part in just five minutes of Saturday’s brief session in Stockholm. Afterward, Keefe said that Klingberg “had been uncomfortable” in his last outing against Vancouver. The long flight to Stockholm wasn’t helpful for whatever it is that’s bothering him. (The Leafs still haven’t said, though there are whispers about his hips.)

Keefe said the team tried to deploy more “aggressive treatment” for the ailment during the prelude to the games in Stockholm and that it had taken Klingberg longer “to bounce back from it.”

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Is John Klingberg headed for LTIR? (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Klingberg didn’t play in either game in his native Sweden.

So, what now?

The Leafs have a relatively quick turnaround when they return to North America, with a back-to-back weekend set in Chicago and Pittsburgh. It would be surprising to see Klingberg play in either game.

Do the Leafs give the 31-year-old an extended break — i.e. long-term injured reserve — to try to tame this issue full stop? I suspect the organization isn’t there yet, but things feel like they’re trending in that direction.

Assuming he indeed misses the next two games, Klingberg won’t be all that far off from the 10-game, 24-day requirement for LTIR (though a sparse early December schedule will make the games qualification take a wee bit longer than the days required).

And what would an LTIR stint mean for the rest of the season? Would Klingberg return after that? How serious is this?

The Leafs can use Klingberg’s LTIR money on a replacement(s) only if they know or decide he’s not returning again this season.

(Top photo of William Nylander: Per Haljestam / USA Today)

 — Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey

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