Many see tonight’s Edmonton v Toronto NHL game as a simple matchup between Connor McDavid, unquestionably the hottest young player in the league, and his Toronto counterpart, 2016’s 1st-round draft selection Auston Matthews, also off to a smoking start this year. But leaving Matthews’ linemate William Nylander out of this conversation would be missing a vital part of the equation.
Nylander’s 11 points in 9 games actually put him ahead of Matthews in leading all first-year players in points so far this season. Nylander’s 7 assists attest to how well he sees the ice, and anyone who’s watched much of the Leafs this year has had ample opportunity to witness his extraordinary passing skills. While Matthews overpowers defenders with size, strength, and a fantastic instinct for the net, Nylander’s game is more outside, relying on finding open spaces and the skills and confidence to hang onto the puck until a play can be made. This is a guy you rarely see dump & chase.
Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock deserves a lot of credit here, for letting his young guns (Mitch Marner, Nikita Zaitsev, Zach Hyman, and of course the sublime Morgan Rielly) play creative, exciting hockey. While this strategy hasn’t been kind to either Toronto goalie in the first 10 games, it has made for some fun spectating and, likely, a template that can only improve as the team matures and learns to play defence.
So McDavid faces off tonight against not one but two of the other best young names in the game. The only safe bet is that at least one – but more likely all three – will find their names on the scoresheet this evening.