Nylander vs Marner: An Analytical Deep Dive and Comparison

They have opposite reputations among the mainstream media and a good portion of Leafs fans, but how different are they?

The Toronto Maple Leafs of today are best known for their offense: A high-octane, young, exciting core to watch. One of the leaders of this young offense has been criticized and put under a microscope by the Toronto faithful for the past two seasons, while the other has been glorified by fans and the media ever since he stepped into the league. The consensus opinion of each of these two players is very different, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that the mainstream opinion regarding these two players may actually be glorifying the wrong one.

Any Leafs fan could’ve told you, without any context clues, that the two players that are the subject of discussion here are William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Before looking at the data, let’s go over, in more detail: How did these players come to be perceived the way they are?

William Nylander is criticized by Toronto media and fans alike for many reasons. The first and most obvious one is his infamous contract holdout from the fall of 2018 - the time when he sat out the first two months of the season, holding out to get a long-term contract from a cash-strapped franchise that had much bigger financial priorities to deal with at the time, signing a deal just minutes before the RFA contract deadline. Upon his return, he only scored a whopping 7 goals in 54 games, much lower than his previous career-highs. This suddenly caused a lot of Leaf fans to view Nylander as a selfish player, one who didn’t play for two months only to come back and record by far the worst results of his career. Thus, the entire hockey world had adopted the opinion that the Leafs simply paid too much to keep him.

It’s not hard to see why Nylander held out, though. Many previous contracts signed by young stars had turned out to become massive steals just the year after they were signed. Take Nathan MacKinnon, for example. He signed a 7-year deal that would pay him $6.3M per year in the summer of 2016, and then a season after, broke out with a career-best year, finishing as an MVP finalist and doing a lot of heavy lifting on an Avalanche roster that squeaked into the playoffs. Another similar case is Boston’s David Pastrnak: He signed a 6-year contract in which he would earn $6.6M per year in the summer of 2017, before immediately breaking out to become one of the league’s best snipers. He was tied for the league lead in goals before the 2020 season ground to a halt. Nylander almost certainly used this as a bargaining chip, not wanting to sign a team-friendly deal before immediately outperforming it the year after.

Mitch Marner, meanwhile, is certainly more popular among Leaf fans than Nylander is at the moment. A big reason he’s so beloved by most of Leafs Nation is that he’s the poster boy for the team’s new identity: He’s fast, he’s young, he’s skilled, he makes watching the game fun. Sure, some Leaf fans were livid at the prospect of Marner signing an eight-figure deal last summer, but he signed before the season, and he saw results at an extremely high rate in 2018-19, leading the team with 96 points. Any Leaf fans who support the high-octane, speedy team that has emerged from the depths of an mid-2010s rebuild would certainly be an avid fan of Marner, because he represents the qualities of what the team has become so well-known for around the league nowadays. However, results aren’t everything. Now, I’m going to be using my all-original data visualizations, using stats from the sites you’ll see listed in the bottom-right corner of each visual, and analyzing what they say about these two polarizing figures in the blue and white.

The Data

Let’s start with Nylander. The first thing you may notice is that, according to my market value calculator, he is worth more than what the Leafs are paying him, by about $1.1M. One of the criticisms Leafs fans often have of Nylander is that he’s a “perimeter player”, but that’s just complete nonsense. As you can see in the offense chart, he generates a lot of shots, with quality, but didn’t quite see the results his underlyings indicate. Seeing as he scored 30 goals to begin with, it’s interesting to think of what could’ve been. He’s an elite passer in the neutral zone and enters the offensive zone with control at a high pace, and saw results on the powerplay despite not generating much offense in that regard. The only area of his game in which he grades out as a liability is defense. He doesn’t allow many shots to go against his team, but when he does, they’re from the high-danger areas of the ice, giving the opposing offense a higher chance to score. Very few right wings in the NHL provide the overall value Nylander does, as he was virtually irreplaceable throughout the season. Essentially, Nylander is an elite hockey player that some people just still hold a grudge against for their own reasons.

Now let’s analyze Marner. In comparison with Nylander, his 2019-20 seems to trend in multiple directions. The market value is a big thing here: Marner, like Nylander, is worth more than what the Leafs are paying him right now, but you may notice that he lags behind Nylander in many other statistical categories. The reason for this is, my market value formula is based primarily off a player’s GAR and xGAR over the past 3 seasons. So, Marner’s market value is inflated because he was stellar in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Nylander’s is deflated because of his poor 2018-19 results-wise. But if we look into this further, it becomes obvious that the difference between the two players value-wise may not be as large as the dollar figure suggests.

Offensively, Marner is quite good, but not quite up to Nylander’s level. In terms of shot generation, Marner goes for a quality-over-quantity approach, and gets the results to show for it. In the neutral zone, he doesn’t enter the zone himself as much, but like Nylander, is an elite passer. Unlike Nylander, Marner is an elite powerplay weapon through and through: He records primary shot assists and generates shots at a high rate, and gets results that are almost through-the-roof.

Defensively is where things get interesting to me. Those in favour of Marner receiving a very lucrative contract often argued, while negotiations were still ongoing, that Marner was worthy of upwards of $10M per year because he’s good defensively, citing his role on the penalty kill as their reasoning. This is partially true. Marner is very good defensively, preventing shot quantity, and to a slightly lesser extent, shot quality, to come against the Leafs when he’s on the ice . . . at even-strength. On the penalty kill, from a suppression standpoint, he’s pretty weak. Marner’s competence on defense at even-strength is the most underrated part of his game, and it contributes to his overall value a lot more than most people account for, but when it comes to killing penalties, it’s just not there.

One other little tidbit of information that should be of note: Only six NHLers started more of their shifts in the neutral zone in 2019-20 than Marner did.

Additional Analysis

On the surface, William Nylander appeared to be a better offensive weapon than Mitch Marner in 2019-20. Looking at that more in-depth, we can see where Nylander does his offensive damage. Again, he’s lethal in front of the net, as he generates and scores on a lot of the chances he gets in tight. He also sets up point shots at an extremely high rate, while making high-danger passes at a rate just above average. The one area where Nylander really sulks behind offensively is loose puck recoveries. Nylander can do many things offensively; he can be a passing and shooting threat from just about everywhere inside the offensive zone, but if there’s a loose puck in the corner, he isn’t the one going to get it. Now, let’s take a look at Marner’s offense in-depth:

The first thing you’ll notice here is that there’s no forechecking data for Marner; he just wasn’t tracked enough throughout the season in that regard. Like Nylander, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, Marner is a threat in the high-danger areas of the ice. He generates a ton of chances, and usually gets the results to show for it. The area in which Marner is inferior to Nylander offensively is passing. He sets up point shots at an above-average rate, but overall, he just doesn’t pass as much in the offensive zone. Both these players can certainly dish it in the neutral zone, but only Nylander can be a serious threat in that regard in the offensive zone.

For the final visual I’ll be using in this piece to compare these two players, we’ll look at how their overall value and expected overall value has changed throughout their careers:

William Nylander has had a strange career up to this point. In this visual, which outlines Standings Points Above Replacement versus Expected Standings Points Above Replacement, we can start to see the statistical case to be made against Nylander during his contract holdout. He broke out big-time in 2017-18 results-wise, but his xSPAR that year just screams future regression. Enter 2018-19, where Nylander regressed, and he regressed hard. His best season value-wise was also his worst season in terms of expected value, which makes it extremely puzzling as to why he didn’t see other-worldly results in 2019-20. There’s a reason that people expected Nylander to break out in 2019-20, and he certainly did, but what’s especially intriguing is that it appears Nylander has potential to take another, even-bigger step forward.

Mitch Marner, meanwhile, is trending in the opposite direction. He peaked in terms of expected value in his sophomore year, and has been trending downwards in that regard ever since. In hindsight, the regression he saw in 2019-20 shouldn’t be that surprising. Marner’s always been one to outperform expectations stats-wise, but looking at the gap between expectation versus reality in 2018-19, the outcome of his season this year was almost inevitable. If his xSPAR doesn’t trend up in 2020-21, then his SPAR won’t either, based on what we’ve seen from him so far.

Conclusions

There are many different ways to analyze the careers of these two young players so far. What isn’t up for debate is the events leading up to now: In the first three seasons of their respective careers, Mitch Marner contributed more than William Nylander in just about every way possible. However, in 2019-20, that trend reversed. Nylander has become a greater offensive threat at even-strength than Marner, while Marner is better defensively than Nylander. Both of these facts go extremely overlooked in my opinion, and it’s what makes the two players so hard to compare in terms of sole even-strength play. On the powerplay, Mitch Marner is far superior to William Nylander, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They’re both highly skilled puck-movers, and as for the penalty kill, only one of the two gets shorthanded ice time, but doesn’t bring much to the table in that regard. In 2019-20, William Nylander took a major step forward, as expected, and Mitch Marner took quite a step back, also not to the surprise of anyone who has kept up with how they’ve been trending statistically in seasons prior. The most puzzling part of this debate is that what we saw in 2019-20 doesn’t appear to be a one-time thing; and these players are trending in opposite directions. Is the real Mitch Marner the one we saw this past year, or the one we saw in seasons prior? Can we decide on an answer to that with confidence when talking about Nylander? One thing is for certain: These are two very good young wingers in the game today, who have both outperformed their cap hits to this point. The way Toronto media, the majority of the Leafs fanbase, and hockey fans all over, have thought about the comparison between these two players so far, may have to change in the near future.