Could the 2014 NHL draft be remembered as the William Nylander draft?
No, this is not a case of a Leafs fan overvaluing his team’s player or a case of homerism – both of which I fully expect to be accused of. There is a legitimate case to be made that William Nylander was the best player taken in his draft class, and I’m not so sure that it’s much of an ‘out there’ thought.
There are three players who, in my mind, can currently challenge Nylander for the top spot: Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, and Nikolaj Ehlers. I decided to leave Viktor Arvidsson out of the first overall conversation because of his age, which is something I’ll get to in a second.
Also, I can already hear the “but what about Aaron Ekblad?!” brigade yelling at me for leaving him out of the first pick conversation. Before I discuss Nylander vs. the finalists, I want to explain why I left certain players out of the conversation.
The Best of the Rest
Aaron Ekblad is one of those players where you’ve always just been told that he’s good, so you assume that to be the case. He was granted exceptional player status in the OHL, and he’s been on a lot of hockey fans’ radars for a long, long time.
I’m not saying he’s a bad player – he’s not. However, when he hasn’t been paired with Brian Campbell, his numbers are less than stellar. Since Ekblad came into the league, he’s played just over 1700 minutes with Campbell – by far the most time he’s spent with any teammate. In those minutes, Ekblad posted a great 56.5 CF% and a 59.8 GF%. However, the pair received obscenely easy minutes, starting over 62% of their shifts in the offensive zone.
This has been a theme throughout Ekblad’s career, as he has only had one season in which his offensive zone start percentage has been below 59%, when it was at 55.8% in 2015/16. For reference, Morgan Rielly started 46.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone this past season. So, yeah, Ekblad is heavily sheltered.
Going back to Ekblad’s time spent with Campbell for a second, his results dipped pretty significantly when the two were apart. Ekblad went from a 56.5 CF% and 59.8 GF% player with Campbell to a 49 CF% and 46.5 GF% player without. That’s… not good.
Again, I don’t think Ekblad is a bad player. I just think that a first overall pick needs to be a player who doesn’t need to be heavily sheltered and can drive play, not need someone to drive it for him.
Sam Reinhart is a really #nice player, but I’m not sure he belongs in the conversation for first overall.
Reinhart’s main strength is playmaking, but other than his passing ability, I don’t think he has a skill that blows me away. He’s good defensively, as his shot suppression numbers are fairly decent. He’s not a dynamic player and will likely never put up significant goal totals. That’s not a bad thing, as the other things he does well compliment his game. In two full years, he’s put up 42 and 47 points, which is a little ways of from the other top-end forwards in his draft.
I really don’t have many negative things to say about Reinhart, he just seems to do most things at a good, yet unexceptional, level.
Viktor Arvidsson is a hell of a player and he’s one of the best shot generators in the NHL. He’s dynamic, makes things happen seemingly every time he steps on the ice, and is a player teams have been kicking themselves for not selecting.
So, why isn’t he in consideration to go first overall? Well, Arvidsson has an early 1993 birthday, meaning that he’s 24-years-old while the rest of the group is 21. From what we know about how players age, 24-years-old is right where a player’s sweet spot seems to be in terms of production, and for that reason, it’s not entirely fair to compare Arvidsson to the rest of the group.
I could go on and on about how great of a player he is, but what it comes down to is this: in two and a half to three years, will any of Nylander, Draisaitl, or Pastrnak be as good (or better) as Arvidsson is now? I’d bet yes.
Had we been talking about the 2011 draft, Arvidsson would absolutely be in the conversation for the top pick. Unfortunately, he was taken three years too late and cannot be compared to the others in this class.
Dylan Larkin burst onto the scene in 2015/16, scoring 45 points and dazzling fans with his speed and skill. However, he completely fell off the map this past season, scoring only 32 points and 17 goals. Digging a bit deeper, it’s clear that Larkin wasn’t just getting unlucky this past season – he was pretty terrible.
In his first season, Larkin had a highly positive effect on Detroit’s offensive game while having a pretty bad impact on the defensive side. In his second season, Larkin’s awful defensive impact remained, while his offensive impact plummeted.
Visually, here’s what the drop in his offensive production looks like:
If you’re a Wings fan… sorry for ruining your day.
Suffice it to say, Larkin is no longer in the conversation when talking about the best from the 2014 NHL draft. Having said that, let’s get to the cream of the crop.
As I mentioned, the ‘big-4’ from this class are (in no particular order) William Nylander, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, and Nikolaj Ehlers.
All of these players bring their own unique skillsets to the table. However, Nylander, Pastrnak, and Ehlers are all similar in regards to the type of game that they play. All three are incredibly good skaters, shifty, elusive, and immensely skilled. That’s not to say that Draisaitl isn’t as skilled or as good of a skater, he just plays his game relying more on his natural size rather than pure skill.
Because it’s very hard to compare players straight up and decide who’s better, I figure listing the pros and cons of each of the four, then deciding which player has the highest payoff would be the best way to go. Let’s get to it.
I’m starting with Draisaitl because I feel like he’s the guy most people would immediately peg as the best of the four. There are definitely reasons why he should be #1, but there are a few red flags as well. Let’s take a look.
First off, Draisaitl is the biggest of the bunch at 6’1, 214 pounds. I don’t put that much stock into size but, when you’re that skilled, being slightly bigger definitely has its advantages. Also, Draisaitl posted the best single-season point total of the four, with 77 points this past season.
Draisaitl has by far the most impressive playoff resume of the group, scoring an extremely impressive 16 points in 13 games this past postseason. The Oilers needed a scoring boost after Eberle and Pouliot went quiet, and Draisaitl stepped up bigly.
Draisaitl is also a great playmaker, as his passing and vision are easily the best part of his game. I don’t know if I’m ready to call him the best playmaker of the group, but he’s definitely up there. The difference between him and a guy like Sam Reinhart is that Leon also has the ability to play a power-forward type game, making him a much more dynamic player.
All in all, he’s a great player, but I do feel like I’m a little more down on him than most.
The thing that always needs to be taken into consideration when talking about literally anyone on the Oilers is the McDavid effect. It’s almost not fair that this has to be a constant conversation, but there’s really no way around it.
Connor McDavid will end up as one of the best players to ever play the game. Because of this, we have to take the numbers of players who play significant minutes alongside McDavid with a massive grain of salt. Patrick Maroon, for example.
Anyways, this past season, Draisaitl’s numbers were extremely underwhelming when he wasn’t playing with 97. His CF% dropped from 53.7 to 47.9, his GF% dropped from 59.4 to 44.2 (!!), and his CF60 dropped from 61.9 to 52.25. Listen, a drop in numbers away from McDavid is of course expected. The thing about these numbers, though, is that they’re horrendous. Draisaitl gets all sorts of praise for being this great talent, yet he’s never shown that he’s been able to drive play by himself. I understand that he’s still young and he has lots of room to grow, but I have to judge him based on what he’s done to date.
Another thing, by no fault of his own, is that Draisaitl is over half a year older than the rest of the group. Leon is a late October 1995 birthdate, while the rest of the group are mid-1996’s. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, of course, but anyone who trusts what ESPN’s Corey Pronman has to say knows that this isn’t something that can completely be ignored.
Draisaitl has a number of things going for him, but I feel like there are some question marks that aren’t being talked about as well.
Pastrnak is probably the player that gets the least amount of love out of the four but god damn, he’s great.
Here’s a look at how the four finalists stack up in career points per game:
Pastrnak has produced essentially at every level he’s played, and there’s no way he should have slipped to the mid-20’s in the draft. He scored 24 points in 36 games in the Swedish league in his draft year, which is incredible production for a teenager playing with men.
Since his move to the NHL, he’s done nothing but produce and make those around him better – the sign of a truly great player.
Here’s a look at Pastrnak’s WOWYs (with or without you’s) from this past season. The grey represents the player when he’s with Pastrnak, the red represents the player when he’s without Pastrnak, and the blue represents Pastrnak without the player.
As you can see, when players play with Pastrnak, essentially all of them post better numbers than without. In my opinion, this is a great tool to use when looking at a player’s overall impact on a team.
Also, Pastrnak has posted some of the best /60 numbers in the NHL over the past few years. The guy just straight up produces, and produces at a high clip. He’s really good. He’s similar to Nylander and Ehlers in that he’s incredibly creative and shifty and is able to create offense seemingly out of nothing. Those are the players that are going to thrive in the new NHL.
I really don’t have many bad things to say about Pastrnak, seriously. Coming from a Leafs fan who isn’t fond of the Bruins, it pains me to say so many nice things about one of their players.
Honestly, I don’t really know what to say about the guy in terms of negatives. He drives play offensively, is more than fine defensively, and just seems like he’s going to get better and better. I don’t know if he’s got as much straight up raw skill as guys like Nylander or Ehlers, but if that’s the case (and I’m not entirely convinced it is), he’s really not far off.
William Nylander. The Golden Boy™. There are many, many, many good things to say about one of the best young players the Leafs has ever had. However, as much as we’d like to truly believe that he’s the perfect human being, there are a few things we need to talk about.
When William Nylander slipped to 8th overall in the 2014 draft, it left many scratching their heads. How could a guy this skilled with NHL bloodlines be taken after names like Jake Virtanen and Hayden Fleury? Hell, Nylander was even touted as being the most talented player in the draft, but questions about his ‘character’, coupled with the fact that he wasn’t a good ‘ol Canadian boy (technically, he actually is), caused him to drop.
I really don’t think Dave Nonis was posturing when he called Nylander the most skilled player from his class. I think that as Leaf fans, we’ve been so spoiled lately with the type of high-end talent that’s been brought in, that we fail to realize just how good some of these players are. In terms of pure skill and offensive instincts, I really don’t know how many players in the NHL can stack up to what Willy does.
One of the main arguments against Nylander’s great rookie season is that he didn’t do enough of the work at even strength and relied too much on the powerplay for points.
Let’s break that argument up into two points:
- Nylander was arguably the biggest PP threat in the NHL this past season
- Nylander was fantastic at 5v5 and should have no problem scoring at a higher clip in 17/18
On the powerplay, Nylander ranked first in the league at 8.48 points per 60 minutes. For some reason, people are acting like this is a bad thing. Here’s some context: the four players who directly trail Nylander in this category are Nicklas Backstrom, Jack Eichel, Victor Hedman, and Steven Stamkos. Stop complaining about PP points.
As for the even strength argument, yes, it’s true that Nylander should have scored more points at 5v5. However, the underlying numbers suggest he did very well at even strength and got unlucky more than anything.
Here’s a side-by-side of how the Leafs fared offensively with (left) and without (right) Nylander on the ice:
Clearly, Nylander was exceptional at creating dangerous chances at even strength. The issue is that he shot under 8% on those chances. Ask yourself, is William Nylander a sub-8% shooter? If your answer is yes, well, you’re incorrect. Nylander will be fine at even strength next year.
Lastly, Nylander can (and likely will) play centre at some point soon. Mike Babcock has talked publicly about how the team views Nylander as a centre long term, and that certainly increases his value.
I know I just told you that Nylander will be fine at 5v5 this coming season but, until he produces, he’s just going to be seen as another guy who can’t get it done at even strength. Again, I fully expect him to produce at a high level in 2017/18 but, until he does, no one’s going to care about the underlying numbers or shot charts. At some point, it does come down to production.
Another part of Nylander’s game which draws some question marks is on the defensive side. Personally, I happen to think he’s more than fine defensively, but I can see why some people don’t like what he brings on that side of the puck. I don’t think it’s so much that he makes stupid plays or isn’t good defensively – I think it’s the same thing that sometimes plagues Jake Gardiner. He always wants to make the high-reward play, but sometimes, that leads to turnovers, scoring chances against, etc.
Personally, I love when players think this way, but the glaring errors that it sometimes leads to just seem to stick with fans. This is the reason that so many think Jake Gardiner is a bad d-man.
Anyways, yes, Nylander does need to do some cleaning up in his own end. That’s the thing with these ultra-high end players, though. You just have to accept that sometimes, they’re going to try to make something out of nothing and it won’t work. It comes with the territory.
When it came time for Toronto’s pick in the ’14 draft, I had my sights set on two players: William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. There’s not much that separates the two – they’re both immensely skilled, shifty, and can skate very well. Let’s take a look.
Out of the four finalists, Nikolaj Ehlers actually posted the best 5v5 points per 60 minutes with 2.29. That also places him 21st in the NHL for this past season, which is incredibly impressive for a guy in his second NHL season.
Sure, there will always be the ‘but he plays with such good players’ argument and, yeah, that’s true. However, unless we’re talking about a Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, I’m less inclined to hear that argument.
Also, it was apparent to me (in the 7-8 Jets games that I watched) that Ehlers asserted himself more instead of deferring to Mark Scheifele. I noticed that in Ehlers’ rookie campaign, he seemed to always want to let Scheifele do the work. This past season, though. Ehlers took charge, which is a great sign for Jets fans.
Lastly, Ehlers did a fantastic job of getting the bulk of his shots from right in front of the net. As a smaller player, one of the obvious concerns is that you won’t be able to get to the prime scoring locations. Here’s where Ehlers’ even strength shots came from in ’16/17:
Not that 6’0, 172 is ‘small’, but there are certainly those who will and have questioned his size. Hopefully Ehlers’ knack for getting great chances in great spots stops some of that talk.
The biggest knock on Ehlers is his defensive game.
It’s tough because the Jets as a team are horrendous defensively. Also, Ehlers played a bunch of minutes with Patrik Laine, who was a black hole defensively this past season. Because of this, it truly is hard to judge Ehlers on this facet of his game, although he has all the tools to be a great defensive player.
Another thing is that Ehlers was deployed with top-line players, but they weren’t always matched up against top-line competition. Here’s how his matchups and linemates looked for this past season:
As you can see, Ehlers played a lot of minutes with some of the top players on his team but was playing average competition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a second-year forward who played with an 18-year-old rookie all year long. Still, just something to watch out for.
I know this article has been pretty long, so I’m just going to cut straight to it. Here’s how I’d re-draft the 2014 NHL draft.
- David Pastrnak
- Leon Draisaitl
- William Nylander
- Nikolaj Ehlers
Then, just for fun, I’d throw Arvidsson in at number five.
The reason I had Pastrnak first overall is because he’s proven the most out of the four players. He’s proven he can make each and every teammate that plays with him, better. He’s proven he can light it up offensively, and he’s proven to be responsible defensively. That’s not to say that other guys on this list haven’t proven that, but Pastrnak has done it for longer.
I really found myself wanting to place Nylander and Ehlers above Draisaitl, but in the end, we’re talking about a highly skilled offensive player who’s shown he can play centre in the NHL and who’s also shown that he can keep up with guys like McDavid. Draisaitl has a long way to go to round out his game but the potential he’s shown is through the roof.
Lastly, I’ve got Nylander slightly ahead of Ehlers because I believe that Nylander has done more with less throughout his young NHL career. I really didn’t know which of the two I wanted the Leafs to choose on draft night, and I still don’t know that I have a definitive answer for why one is better than the other. If anyone has a legitimate argument for why Ehlers should be third off the board, let me hear it.
So, yes, there’s a definite shot that Nylander could go first overall in a re-draft. I believe that had Nylander been brought into the league a centre, I most likely would have had him in the top two.
Anyways, that was fun. Next up, Jake Virtanen…