TORONTO â€” With Winnipeg’s penalty killers closing in, William Nylander looks to be cornered and out of options. Then the Maple Leafs forward brushes off Joel Armia, protects the puck from the Jets winger’s prying stick and finally whips a cross-ice pass to Leo Komarov for another power-play goal.
Still just a rookie, Nylander is already a wizard on the NHL’s No. 1 power-play unit. He leads his team and all rookies with 19 power-play points and the entire league in power-play points per-60 minutes at 8.69.
“You’re just trying to see what they give you,” Nylander said Wednesday. “Maybe Leo might not have been open and then I maybe could’ve got a shot off or whatever so it depends what they do.”
Nylander had two points with the man advantage Tuesday in Toronto’s 5-4 overtime win over the Jets, including his eighth power-play goal that tied the game 4-4. That brought him to within one of the Leafs franchise rookie record for power-play goals (held by three players) and within six of Dan Daoust’s franchise rookie mark for power-play points (25), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“He’s very calm with the puck and I think he makes plays,” said teammate Connor Brown. “For him, I think just the way he can have the puck on his stick and be able to look around and see the ice (makes him effective), the way he handles the time and space well.”
Nylander spends most of his time on the Toronto power play with fellow rookie and Leafs leading scorer Auston Matthews. Each operates on one side of the ice â€” Nylander on the right, Matthews on the left â€” thereby creating dueling threats for opposing penalty kills to contend with.
Matthews set up Nylander’s goal against Winnipeg, his 17th overall this season. The American centre shot wide of Connor Hellebuyck in the Jets cage and the puck bounced directly to Nylander, who dropped to his right knee and fired. Matthews said the two had practised the play two months earlier and got “lucky” that it worked in a win.
“They love to pass to each other too â€” sometimes a little too much,” Komarov said.
From time to time the two rookies, both wildly skilled, like to play with the puck a little too often for teammates’ liking. But both also see the ice exceptionally well, Komarov notes, and have the skill to make decisive plays, whether by shooting or passing to open teammates.
On the Komarov goal he saw “a little lane” towards the net and caught his teammate creeping towards the back-post.
“We just see what they give us,” Nylander says of the opposition penalty kill. “You try to create stuff, but it’s mainly what they give you.”
Matthews sucked in the attention of all four Senator penalty killers last weekend against Ottawa and then dished to Nylander on the weak-side. He quickly received the pass and then loaded up for a wicked shot that beat Craig Anderson. Komarov credits the rapid release for his shooting success with the man advantage, something Nylander says is owed to practice and lots of it.
He often lingers with other young players after on-ice sessions to talk about his shot.
“He can flat-out shoot the puck,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “He can skate, turn and gets his feet around in a heck of a hurry. He’s got an elite, elite shot and he can score from the hash-mark area.”
“When he has the puck he makes a lot of good plays,” Komarov added, “and a lot of goals.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press