On balance, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ problem this season has not been an inability to put the puck in the net. They currently rank fourth in the NHL in goals per game with 3.48 and have demonstrated the kind of scoring depth that was supposed to be a strength heading into the year.
Although the overall picture is promising, there is some concern when it comes to their super sophomores. Auston Matthews has been outstanding despite missing time, but the duo of William Nylander and Mitch Marner have scored a combined six goals – fewer than Connor Brown and half as many as James van Riemsdyk.
Now, both of these players – particularly Marner – are playmakers first, but they managed 41 tallies last season providing valuable secondary scoring to Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and van Riemsdyk. This year, not so much. So, what’s the problem?
The simplest answer is bad luck. Nylander and Marner are shooting a combined 5.4 percent, which is not in line with their skill sets. Last year, the two wingers shot 10.8 percent, finding the net precisely twice as often. If they had 12 goals right now they probably wouldn’t be moving up the lineup having their production questioned.
Otherwise it’s hard to see the difference in their games. In terms of both assists and possession numbers, their numbers are very similar to last year – with a nice Corsi boost for Marner.
If neither has fallen off when it comes to driving play or setting up teammates, the struggles pretty much amount to a shooting issue. Marner is finding his shot less and getting it through less frequently, whereas Nylander is going at the same rates as last season.
It seems like there’s a little more substance to Marner’s slump, whereas his Swedish counterpart is doing approximately what he’s always done. That’s borne out by the Canadian’s shot charts – which show a little bit more perimeter shooting than he did last year.
Marner’s size is always going to prevent him from being the next Tomas Holmstrom in front of the net, but he can do a better job of getting low for opportunities off rebounds or on the power play.
For those determined to be worried about one of these two wingers, Marner is the more logical pick, but realistically neither is cratering offensively, even if their goal totals remain unimpressive. We’re talking about shooting slumps here, which are difficult to predict and understand.
Sidney Crosby didn’t score for 11 games this year, then he scored four in his next six. Brent Burns has one goal on 88 shots this season after finding the net 56 times in the previous two. These things just seem to happen, and just because they fit into the narrative of a “sophomore slump” that doesn’t make them any more meaningful.
If you think Mitch Marner has forgotten how to shoot, keep in mind that his last goal looked like this:
Similarly, Nylander’s last goal was this nasty number.
When it comes to shooting neither player is a slouch, with Nylander possessing an especially dangerous wrister. That’s a big reason why both were high draft picks who found success early in their NHL careers.
As players with unsustainably high shooting percentages like Brown (27.6%) and Kadri (19.3%) fall to earth a little bit in the games to come, Nylander and Marner are two of the best candidates to pick up the slack.
There are plenty of things Leafs fans should worry about from a sometimes-porous defence, to a dubious backup goaltending situation, to the fact the team is getting outshot virtually every night. William Nylander and Mitch Marner don’t belong in that category.