By Liam Kindred
If there\’s one thing to know about being a Maple Leafs fan, it\’s to never get your hopes up about a regular season. Over the last few years, fans have seen the iconic franchise break their franchise records for regular-season wins and points yet continuously come up short in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Leafs entered this season coming off a 7-game loss to the rival Canadiens, seeing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner combine for just one goal while completely shut down by Phillip Danault and company.
A deeper dive into the 2021-22 Leafs shows a far more balanced team than in recent years. Production from the bottom six forward group, a stout defensive core, and a stunning first-half from Jack Campbell in his first season as a starter signals something very dangerous to Leaf fans everywhere: Hope.
#Leafs lines in warmup (Game 7 vs. MTL):
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 31, 2021
Full Leafs lineup vs Pens – this is how they go against Crosby and Co. tonight:
Mrazek backs up
— mark zwolinski (@markzwol) February 17, 2022
As Jake Muzzin returns from injury (he will take the place of Travis Dermott or Timothy Liljegren depending on the night), the differences in the Leafs Game 7 lineup outside of the return of John Tavares are not in the form of big names, yet have still been highly effective. The minor offseason acquisitions of Kyle Dubas have performed well above expectations- the most notable of these signings being Michael Bunting, a player that had only played in 26 NHL games before this season and was selected to play for Team Canada at the 20-21 IIHF World Championships.
Seen below, Goals Against Replacement measures player performance based on total goals added to the team relative to a replacement-level player. GAR compresses value based on even-strength offense and defense, powerplay offense, penalty drawing, penalty taking, and faceoff. Using regression techniques, value is calculated and summarized for each player- for example, shot generation and scoring are used as drivers for even-strength offense.
The stat can give an idea- albeit a rough one- of the total value generated by a player. In this case, bars look at actual numbers versus expected numbers based on these factors, with blue indicating positive and red indicating negative results. xGAR, or expected goals above replacement, aims to calculate the number of goals a player would expect to get based on their opportunities.
Seen as a Zach Hyman replacement with early reports before the season listing Bunting as an x-factor for this offense and a potential 20-goal scorer, the first-liner has been a welcome surprise for the Leafs on a sub-$1M deal compared to Hyman’s $5.5M AAV in Edmonton. The 26-year-old rookie has 33 points through 48 games, tied for the league lead in penalties drawn at 27 while on pace and is on pace for a 56 point season (25 Goals, 31 Assists).
While a slightly differing xGAR total does indicate a potential slight cooldown on Bunting’s high point total based on shooting percentages, it cannot be denied that he has been an incredible add for the Leafs. Refreshingly, an extra year for Bunting on his discount deal makes it hard to miss Hyman, especially with the complete game and edge he brings night in, night out.
What makes this such a welcome addition? In the last two series that saw losses to Montreal and Columbus, the team relied way too heavily on the ‘big four’ to generate offence. Not to excuse the fact that the team should have won both of these series, however the lack of depth scoring made it a lot easier for teams to set their line matchups.
This problem existed throughout each of the prior two seasons and continued into the playoffs, with this year’s team looking much more positive in this aspect. Bunting has not been the only welcome surprise for the Leafs. Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase are on pace to finish this season right around the 20-goal mark and Jason Spezza is set to close out around 30 points, these three guys will have an important impact come playoff time.
It was around this point of last season when the powerplay went ice cold only managing to score 6 goals on 76 attempts (7.8%) in the last 30 games. Starting the season newly-promoted Assistant Coach Spencer Carbery took over for Manny Malhotra in running the powerplay to incredible results.
Carbery’s new system is topping the NHL through the first 48 games of the season converting 31.6% of their opportunities. Incredibly, this number is 4.7% higher than the second-highest St. Louis Blues. The difference between the Leafs and second-place Blues is less than the distance between St. Louis and the 10th-place Colorado Avalanche (23.7%), an incredible feat for the Leafs.
The main difference between this season’s power play and the end of last season is its lack of predictability, with PP1 players constantly rotating through different positions. Take a look at this series of tweets showcasing the Leafs powerplay lines, via David Alter on Twitter.
This setup has been consistent over the past few weeks, with Marner and Matthews rotating between the different flanks while Nylander and Tavares rotate the bumper position in the center of the umbrella. You will also notice that cross-seam pass is a lot less common this year making this year\’s powerplay much more of a dynamic threat as opposed to past years.
Matthews (20) and Nylander (18) are leading the team in power-play points with Marner (12) looking like much more of a scoring threat in this system. After not scoring a power-play goal since the 19-20 season, he has four since returning from his injury and has been on a heater with 20 points in his last 10 games.
The key part of it all is Auston Matthews- who’s on pace for the first 50-goal season of his career after a COVID-shortened season had him fall just short last year. Overall, the powerplay has been producing consistently and the offensive talent it contains will give them a clear advantage over any team that they play in the playoffs.
One of the most important pieces of the offense throughout this point in the season has been Alex Kerfoot. He has been quietly having one of his best seasons in the NHL, getting top-six minutes consistently playing alongside Tavares and Nylander. This opportunity has allowed him offensive freedom which has translated into a big increase in point production. As seen, Kerfoot is a darling of the GAR stat, adding 19 goals this season compared to a replacement-level player.
In his two most recent seasons with the Leafs, Kerfoot was used as a depth forward, often playing in a shutdown role. When UFA David Kampf was acquired last offseason, the bottom six instantly became much stronger defensively which was a big factor in Kerfoot’s ability to move up the lineup. Kerfoot currently has 33 points with 30 of them at even strength which is on par with Patrick Kane and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He will have an underrated effect on the team in the playoffs as his ability to generate offense for the second line will help take the pressure off the high-powered Matthews line.
Since his standoff with Kyle Dubas to sign a contract back in December of 2018, it always seemed that William Nylander to regain approval from the majority of Leaf\’s fans. After a disappointing second-half to that 2018-19 season, last season he proved that he’s worth every bit of his deal with the Leafs. He was by far the best forward in the seven-game series in the Habs, totaling 8 points on 5 goals and 3 assists. With Tavares, Matthews and Marner all missing games throughout this season, Nylander has consistently been one of the most reliable forwards to generate offensive chances.
Nylander’s point totals sit at 45 points through 46 games while serving as a key element of the aforementioned powerplay, totalling the second-most power-play points on the team (6 goals, 14 assists). Nylander will be a very important piece of this offence down the stretch and makes his line a legitimate goal-scoring threat every time they are on the ice.
Similar to Alex Kerfoot, Morgan Rielly has been having one of his best years as a Leaf- on pace for 71 points, one shy of his career-high from the 2018-19 season. He’s a player that has been through a lot with the organization, experiencing the full rebuild and most recently signing a lengthy extension that will see him at Scotiabank Arena for the next seven years.
The Leafs defensive situation has been through a lot through the first half of the season- losing players to injury and COVID protocols on a regular basis. The overall lack of defensive depth in the organization has led Sheldon Keefe to rely heavily on veterans such as TJ Brodie, Rielly and Muzzin.
Rielly is seeing career highs in ice time and has been averaging upwards of 24 minutes a night. If rumours of GM Kyle Dubas shopping around for a depth defenseman are sound, some pressure may be taken off Rielly during the playoffs. The addition of TJ Brodie has allowed him a lot more freedom to take chances offensively- which puts him in the top 96th percentile of the league for offensive production.
With the trade deadline around the corner and the Leafs in a buying position, there are a few of areas that could use some strengthening to make them a harder team to play against come April. Kyle Dubas has already come out and said that the team has the potential to be aggressive at the deadline to address their weak spots.
A lack of defensive depth by way of the many injuries the team has experienced is a part of this. When healthy, this defense core can be relied upon to close out games and win playoff series’ more so now than in the last three-to-four years. However, as we have seen with the most recent injury to Jake Muzzin, losing one key player put lots of additional strain on the top pairing which would not be sustainable throughout multiple playoff series.
Entering a playoff series having two of the three, Dermott, Liljergren or Holl would be less than ideal- even though they have been adequate up to this point in the year. Potential liability for two-to-three mistakes each night could be costly in a playoff setting where the margin for error becomes far smaller.
This Leafs team has the most potential to make a run in the playoffs than any other team in the era of Auston Matthews, however, given the strength of the Atlantic Division, finishing out of the top spot all but guarantees a tough first-round series.
Everything seems to be working at the moment with the powerplay toping the NHL, balanced point production across all four lines, and solid defensive play. The x-factor heading down the stretch will be the goaltending tandem of Campbell and Petr Mrazek and whether or not they will be able to play well when it matters most.
The strengthening of the defense core is certain to go a long way as well, helping limit a barrage of shots on goal the Leafs have struggled with in the playoffs since Frederik Andersen minded the net against the Bruins. Campbell has already proved what he\’s capable of, among a handful of the league’s best in both save percentage and GAA. The netminder has earned the trust towards the idea that, with the offensive production he has been getting and a much-improved D-core, he can lead the Leafs on a run in the playoffs.
With this in mind, the importance of coming first in the Atlantic Division is more important for the Leafs this season than any of the last four. Drawing a wild-card team opponent allows them a chance to build up some momentum before facing powerhouses in the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. While the Leafs can certainly go toe-to-toe with these two teams, seeing either one later rather than earlier is far more ideal.
As mentioned, it will be the second line that will be the most important down the stretch and into the playoffs. Both wingers, Kerfoot and Nylander, on that line, are having career years with Tavares in between them providing offensive support. Every year seems like we get closer and closer to a series win and fall short in the series decider. If the Leafs can’t finally complete the task this year, it’d be hard-pressed to find formula that gets them there.
Featured Image: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports