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Finding Nuance with William Nylander

Talking about William Nylander at all on the internet is a minefield. When he's good, he's good. But when he's bad, it's noticeable. Mike Stephens looks at the recent play of Nylander, and how to discuss his career as a whole.
William Nylander

I like to think of myself as an analytically inclined person. 

I served on the frontlines of the Corsi Wars in 2013 as a 14-year-old with a far-too-active Twitter account. I've smiled politely through countless "eye test" lectures. And when it comes to goals, I don't discriminate -- expected or otherwise. 

I"m also a big fan of William Nylander, whose contract, in my opinion, is one of the best bargains in the entire NHL.

But here's the thing: William Nylander has played poorly for the entire month of March. And if the underlying numbers tell you otherwise, perhaps they should weigh into your analysis a little less. 

Talking about Nylander at all on the internet is a minefield. 

Few players in the Twitter era of Maple Leafs fandom have garnered such ardent armies of supporters and detractors as Nylander has, with either group ready to die at a moment's notice on whichever hill will prove their point. 

One side of the aisle views Nylander as a lazy pretty boy whose mere presence is the reason for the Maple Leafs' struggles. The other views him as a deity that has never done a wrong thing in his life. 

And despite being so diametrically opposed, there is one thing both factions actually have in common: a distinct lack of nuance. 

A player like Nylander needs nuance. There are things the 25-year-old does extremely well, and there are areas in which he struggles. The strengths overwhelmingly outnumber the weaknesses, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. 

This past weekend is a great case study.

Nylander was bumped from Tavares' wing down to the Leafs' third line ahead of the team's matchup with the Florida Panthers on Sunday night. The demotion made sense when you look at it. The night prior, Nylander was caught dogging it on a backcheck that led to a game-swinging goal by the Montreal Canadiens, and Nylander himself even admitted that the effort wasn't good enough. 

Sheldon Keefe shared that sentiment, as well; not good enough. 

Nylander also scored on Saturday, something he has done an impressive 24 times this season, which confirms the beliefs of the Nylander faithful that he is, indeed, a fantastic player. 

And he is! But, like all other NHLers, he's not infallible.

Of course, the ensuing Twitter response to public criticism of Nylander's play was expectedly ravenous. 

And you know who you can blame for that? Mike Babcock.  

The scars that Babcock left on the Maple Leafs fanbase run deep. Extremely deep. Three years after his dismissal, Leafs fans still seem to navigate the team's day-to-day with the same defense mechanisms that they used to survive under Babcockian rule. 

With Babcock at the helm, players would be shunned to the coach's doghouse and never return. Babcock would make the decision one day that a player was no longer fit for his lineup, and that was that. See ya. 

Keefe does not view things similarly. While any public criticism of Nylander's play from Babcock would assuredly be a prison sentence, Keefe takes a bigger-picture approach, which means the responses to his criticisms should, too.  

Really, he's just being honest. Keefe isn't saying that Nylander isn't good enough. Just that he hasn't been lately, specifically on Saturday night in Montreal. That's all.

A demotion doesn't mean that Nylander will toil in the bottom six for the remainder of the year. It's a means of strategy, informed by the lagging results of the Nylander-Tavares partnership dating back to December, with the unit barely keeping their heads above water in both scoring chances and expected goals against. 

There is a months-long sample size to suggest that playing the two together isn't working. Therefore, shaking things up makes sense. Keefe has even split Nylander and Tavares up previously only to put them back together when Colin Blackwell arrived to flesh out the roster's depth. 

That didn't tend to happen three years ago. 

These decisions deserve a brand of nuance that was simply impossible to apply under Babcock's methods. But he's not here anymore. And the fan reaction should shift accordingly. 

Another big reason for the ardent defense of Nylander seems to stem from how Babcock's lineup decisions were personal, operating as some form of unjust mental warfare waged against his players. It's only natural, then, that fans would feel the need to swing the pendulum the other way in defense of those on the receiving end -- which typically wound up being Nylander -- in order to compensate.

But Keefe does not want to break his players' spirits. Regardless of what you may think of him as a tactician, the root of his lineup decisions tend to lie in his desire for team success. 

Listen, I've seen how absurdly venomous the media coverage of Nylander was in the past. I sat through intermission segments during his contract holdout that suggested, without a hint of irony, that he should be traded for Brandon Montour and Nick Ritchie. 

Certain vocal subsects of the media seemed to carry the same personal tone with Nylander that Babcock did. And, as such, it elicited the same response. 

This is essentially a long-winded way of saying that the playing field for Nylander discourse is even again. He's no longer a martyr used by fans to rebel against the misguided tactics of a coach, or the uninformed ramblings of commentators. 

He's just a hockey player, now. And hockey players must be treated with a semblance of nuance in their evaluations. 

William Nylander is a very good hockey player who has played poorly for the past month. That doesn't mean he hasn't done good things on occasion during that time. And it doesn't insinuate that he'll never recover. The statement simply means what it says. 

And the ensuing response should do the same. 

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