Our Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-22 Preview is a part of our 2021-22 NHL Team Preview Series. Starting September 9th, we have covered one team per day in the leadup to the 2021-22 season. After a crazy busy offseason with a ton of player movement we need something to help summarize what happened and give an outlook of the impact on each team. Make sure to check back each day for the next team in the list!
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The Toronto Maple Leafs had a great regular season last year finishing first place in the North Division. They ended up with a 35-14-7 record and 77 points. They looked pretty good offensively. Mitch Marner had 67 points in 55 games, Auston Matthews hit 41 goals and 66 points in 52 games. Team Captain John Tavares had 50 points in 56 games, and William Nylander had 42 in 51. These guys get a lot of criticism because of their contracts, but nobody could say they weren’t producing during the regular season.
The team seemed to score at will with 187 goals total in the season, good for 6th in the league. The Matthews and Marner Leafs have always been good at scoring though. The notable improvement was in the back end. In 2019-2020 the team was 27th in the league for goals against. Last season they were 7th. Did the Maple Leafs benefit from being in a weaker division, away from Boston, Tampa and Florida? Sure. But that level of improvement speaks to more than just opponents. The team acquired Tj Brodie who served as a stable partner for Morgan Rielly. They also had a dependable solid second pair in Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. Holl really found his game over the past couple seasons and has emerged as a solid piece in the middle of the defensive corps for the team. The team also had veteran Zach Bogosian to play with Travis Dermott on the third pairing for most of the season. The team didn’t have Barrie or Ceci as defensive black holes.
The other improvement came in goaltender Jack Campbell. He joined the team in a trade at the deadline in 2019, played a few games and looked good. Last season he really ended up taking the starter role away from Frederik Andersen who’s play took a turn and battled injuries. Campbell had a great year, posting a 0.921 save percentage and a 2.15 goals against average in 22 starts.
It wasn’t a perfect season for the team though, as they did have their struggles. Most notably they really had a tough go with special teams. Their powerplay overall finished at 20.0%, 16th in the league. However this doesn’t tell the whole story. They were posting a record high powerplay at 31.7% for about the first half of the season and then went 2-46 over a stretch of 18 games. It really fell of a cliff. They were terrible to end the year. They were creating chances, but missing the net and not capitalizing. They needed to shake things up and couldn’t solve the issue. Part of this may be because Auston Matthews battled a wrist injury, but the dude still hit 41 goals. Their other issue was the penalty kill. Regular season they finished at only 78.5% effective, which is bottom ten in the league at 24th.
Regardless they were the best team in the North Division and they matched up against the old rival, the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Everyone chose the Leafs to win the series, and on paper they were the better team. They went up to a quick 3-1 lead in the series, and then lost 3 straight to Montreal to get eliminated. Why?
Their powerplay issues followed them into playoffs. In playoffs they only had a 13% effective powerplay, which is not good enough to win games. They didn’t take the opportunities that were given to them when it counted. Their team captain John Tavares was injured early on with an almost freak accident head contact. This may have shaken the guys up, but it also drew out a top centre on the team, which Toronto’s depth could not fill in for. The top scorer in playoffs was not Matthews or Marner with Tavares out, but William Nylander. He had 8 points in the seven game series, including 5 goals. Matthews and Marner together only had 1 goal. They each had 4 assists. Alexander Kerfoot was second on the team in points, with 6 and 37 year old Jason Spezza had more points than both Marner and Matthews with 5, including 3 goals.
The simple truth is that the big players need to play big when it counts, not just regular season. Marner faced a lot of criticism for his play and I think some of it is rightfully placed. In game six, with the Habs on the brink of elimination Montreal took a one goal lead in the third period. Toronto’s head coach Sheldon Keefe challenged for goaltender interference and lost the challenge. This meant Toronto just got scored on and had to go shorthanded. Marner got the puck near his own blueline, and with little to no pressure just air-mailed the puck out of play. So now the team was down by two guys. Of course Montreal scores on that to go up by two. The level of apathy shown in that moment was infuriating. Lucky for Marner the real offensive powerhouse players on the team Jason Spezza and TJ Brodie each scored to force overtime. Montreal scored in overtime to force game seven and ended up winning the series. Sure guys like Dermott made mistakes in overtime leading to a turnover and goal against, but he’s not relied upon like Marner and Matthews are, not is he paid like them. Keefe trusted his big name player to go out there for a timely kill and he blew it. Does this and his low points total warrant criticism? Yes. Should he be traded and struck down from the record book of ever playing for the Leafs? Depends who you ask I guess.
After such a dominant performance in the North Division, Toronto will be looking to re-join some old rivals like the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division this season.
In the off season they ended up signing a few former Bruins, Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase. They also saw off goaltender Freddy Andersen and brought in Petr Mrazek from Carolina. Toronto actually saw quite a bit of turnover, losing Andersen, Joe Thornton, Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, Alex Galchenyuk and Riley Nash. A lot of bottom six forwards needed replacing and like always general manager Kyle Dubas signed an army of guys to come in.
- Michael Amadio
- Michael Bunting
- Kurtis Gabriel
- Ondrej Kase
- Nick Ritchie
- Alex Biega
- Petr Mrazek
- David Kampf
- Frederik Andersen
- Joe Thornton
- Zach Hyman
- Alex Galchenyuk
- Nick Foligno
- Riley Nash
- Travis Boyd
- Zach Bogosian
Zach Hyman leaves the top six which means we will be seeing some different combos at the top end this season. Matthews, Marner and Hyman as a line had the most even strength time together on the entire team. They had great regular season numbers. Hyman had 33 points in 43 games so his production and hustle in that top six had to be replaced. The team brought in Nick Ritchie to fill that gap. Ritchie is a big rig, listed at 6’2″ and 230 lbs. He’ll be a great net front presence and in Boston served a lot of time on the powerplay doing just that. I imagine he’ll serve a similar role in Toronto, bashing bodies and creating space for Marner and Matthews and digging out loose pucks.
Alex Galchenyuk had a little bit of a career revitalization on the Leafs and I’m a little surprised to see him go. He played with Tavares and Nylander and seemed to be developing some chemistry. Because he’s gone, do the Leafs move Ilya Mikheyev back up with Tavares. They’ve looked good together before. They’ve got no shortage of options if it doesn’t work out. They will probably try a few combinations with Nylander and Tavares, see who fares the best and ride that while it lasts. Alex Kerfoot saw time on that line for parts of last season, newcomer Michael Bunting showed he had a scoring touch in Arizona last year as well. Or does the team go with a young player like Adam Brooks or Nicholas Robertson?
Another tempting option could be Ondrej Kase, who is looking to find his game after only playing a handful of games for the Bruins last season. He’s battled injuries but has looked good offensively a few years back on the Ducks.
The bottom six should have the majority of these possible linemates, as well as the veterans Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. Pierre Engvall also returns for a bottom six role. David Kampf was signed also to bring some depth at centre.
The Leafs brought in tough guy Kurtis Gabriel, so don’t be surprised if we see Leafs fights next year too.
The Leafs lost veteran Zach Bogosian but are otherwise the same. They still have two great pairings in Rielly Brodie and Muzzin and Holl. Beyond these four it looks like Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott are the likely locking down the third pairing. Sandin is the guy to watch on this team next season. He needs more ice time this year and he’ll likely get it.
Sandin is 21 years old. When he entered the AHL he had 28 pts in 44 games and 10 in 13 playoff games 2018-2019. In 2019-20 he had 15 pts in 21 games in the AH: and was named best defenseman at the 2020 IIHF world Jr’s where Sweden won bronze. 10 pts in 7 games.
He only played 9 games for the Leafs last season. Disappointing but considering they won the division, seems fair. He had 4 assists, all at even strength.
This season, not only should he have a full time roster spot, but he should compete for the number one powerplay blue line spot. His time so far on the leafs he’s played 14:24 on average, Corsi for of 55.3% with about 60% of starts in the O zone. Rielly didn’t do well on the pp last year with the Leafs terrible powerplay going into playoffs. Sandin could explode offensively onto the scene if he earns some PP time.
Defensively it could be shaky as it’s looking like he’ll be third pairing with Travis “spinorama giveaway” Dermott instead of one of the team’s veterans. Both Sandin and Dermott are lefties so it could be interesting to see if Sheldon Keefe is fine with a defender playing their off side, or he elects to shake things up. Sandin will make mistakes throughout the year since he is a younger defender and will undoubtedly get less sheltering this season. I hope that the Leafs keep him in the lineup and give him a shot, because it looks like he could be their number one powerplay quarterback. And they need to spur that limping powerplay into gear.
Beyond these guys the depth is Timothy Liljegren another young defenseman and Alex Biega who could fill in comfortably. Past this there are a lot of prospects that may see time, but it wouldn’t be ideal.
The Leafs will be running a new tandem in Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. Here the Leafs let Freddy Andersen walk and brought in a guy with better numbers. However, to me it looks more like moving on from an injury prone goalie with bad numbers, to an injury prone goaltender with good numbers.
Mrazek only played 12 games last year for Carolina, won 6 of them and posted a 0.923 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average. Pretty fin numbers but he also missed about 75% of the year, and lost the starter role to a rookie Alex Nedeljkovic (although Carolina traded the guy…). He is a good goalie, but needs to stay healthy. If he doesn’t Michael Hutchinson will be suiting up for the big club.
They should be a pretty 50/50 tandem throughout the season, and they should be a solid pair. This really depends on if Mrazek can stay healthy though.
Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-22 Prediction
The Leafs have come back into the Atlantic Division after another failed playoff run. Good news is they didn’t get eliminated by Boston. They have seen some movement amongst the goaltenders and depth pieces, but overall Toronto is still a very strong team. They will be led by the top four forwards and a solid two defensive pairings. They’ve got enough young talent to jump in and fill gaps and provide secondary scoring. Players like Nicholas Robertson and Rasmus Sandin may finally get some opportunity to jump into the lineup consistently. Between the pipes the team is set with a now established Jack Campbell and a veteran solid goaltender Petr Mrazek. The Leafs are definitely in the hunt for a playoff spot and should be right up there in the top of the division. I do think they’ll see a slight drop off due to facing some stronger teams this season.
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