Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs went into the 2020-21 season with a rare opportunity. They don’t have to deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins being in the same division as them. In turn, this meant they could not face the Boston Bruins in round one. They also finally had the opportunity to finish at the top of their division and face an opponent lower than them in the standings. The Leafs were at least top two in their division all season.
2020-21 Power Play
The power play was a talking point for both the first half and the second half of the season. But for drastically different reasons. Early in the year, the Leafs had a power play that was converting on around 40% of its chances. This was great to see, however, everyone knew it was unsustainable and regression was inevitable. No one could have predicted how hard it came crashing down though. At one point they had converted once in the last 38 power-play opportunities. The Leafs, however, continued to stay on top of the North division despite this.
The Leafs also had some goaltending issues and solutions in the 2020-21 season. Longtime starter Frederik Andersen didn’t have the same magic he had just two to three seasons prior. But, the Leafs saw the emergence of Jack Campbell. He was the first player to earn the starting role since Andersen took over in 2016. Campbell took the job and ran away with it. He started the season with 11 straight wins. It looked as though the Leafs had a new starter.
Then the Leafs headed into the playoffs with the first seed like everyone had projected them to. They faced down against the Montreal Canadiens. We all know how this ended though. Like each first round (or play-in round) prior. Losing round one in the final possible game. It seemed like some sort of twisted joke, a divine prank. Yet again the Leafs fell, and to a bitter rival yet again.
There’s always next year.
The biggest loss for the Leafs was of course Zach Hyman. Hyman really developed into a fantastic player during his time with the Leafs. He was a hard worker from day one, and eventually, the on-ice results matched his work ethic in the final few years. It all culminated in a fantastic two-way performance in the 2020-21 season where he could play up and down the lineup. There was no way the Leafs could afford to match the offer the Oilers made to Hyman, though. The term was just far more than what the Leafs should have reasonably offered to a player like Hyman.
The Leafs of course lost Frederik Andersen. Andersen was a valued member of the Toronto Maple Leafs for a long time, and he should be remembered fondly. However, it was time for the Leafs to move on.
Zach Bogosian turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He ended up being a fantastic bottom-pairing defender, but for reasons out of the Leafs’ control, he went back to Tampa. Joe Thornton went to the other team in the Sunshine State, joining the Panthers
Finally, Jared McCann. McCann was only a Leaf for a few days, but many saw him as the ideal replacement for Zach Hyman, myself included. Losing McCann to Seattle really hurt, despite never even having him wear a Leafs sweater.
The Leafs effectively went out and replaced almost every player listed above. Toronto will be replacing Hyman and McCann with players like Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and Nick Ritchie to play on the wing. The Maple Leafs got Petr Mrazek, who had a fantastic, albeit short, season in Carolina to replace Frederik Andersen. Though they didn’t replace Bogosian, as I’ll discuss in-depth later, as they find a replacement from within. They also went out and added some centre depth with David Kampf, replacing Thornton.
Four out of the six don’t need explaining. Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander are locks for the top 6. Although I wouldn’t mind seeing the Leafs try Matthews and Nylander reunited, these pairings are pretty much guaranteed to start the season. Michael Bunting had a great 2020-21 season and was fantastic in the pre-season. I think he’s as good a replacement for Hyman as any. I do believe Kase has the skill to be in the top 6, however, him being a natural right winger really works against him when the Leafs have Nylander and Marner as right-wingers on the team ahead of him. So rounding out the Tavares/Nylander line is Nick Ritchie. And how poetic would that be, coming full circle, the Leafs playing Nylander and Ritchie on a line together.
In this configuration of the bottom 6 it currently provides with an offensive bottom six line and a defensive bottom 6 line. I didn’t necessarily intend for it to happen this way, but Mikheyev and Engvall were too good together to end the season defensively last year to separate in my mind, and I believe that Spezza should be playing higher in the lineup than just the fourth line. As I mentioned previously, I think Kase is a top 6 skill, he just happens to be outclassed on the 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs. Wayne Simmonds is perhaps an expensive 13th forward, however, I feel he gets outclassed in some way by all the forwards ahead of him.
There’s not much to say on the top 4. It’s the same pairings as last season, which is kind of nice considering the history of the Leafs defence. Brodie and Rielly pair really nicely together. Brodie excelled last season as a fantastic defensive player, and while Rielly struggle during the regular season, he looked like the Rielly from years past during the playoffs. Muzzin-Holl has been a constant pairing for a few years now. They’re reliable defensively, and the Leafs lost a lot to protect Holl in the expansion draft.
If Liljregren is the 7th defenceman, I can see a three-way rotation of these players coming in and out of the lineup to get them all ice-time. However, I would like to see Liljegren get a shot next to Muzzin with Holl getting bumped down. Liljegren has proven in the AHL that he’s developed into a really sound defensive player, and could be moulded further to be the perfect partner for Muzzin. The Leafs need to move past their biases (primarily their endowment bias with Holl, and now potentially a bit of a commitment bias because they chose him over McCann) and just put forth the best possible lineup. In my eyes, that could include Liljegren taking over Holl’s role.
As mentioned before, Campbell earned the starting job last season. There’s no reason to assume he’d lose it right away from a newcomer. However, Mrazek is a very good goaltender. He was top 10 last season in goals saved above-expected according to MoneyPuck. While this was in a small sample due to injury and I wouldn’t expect him to repeat this level of success, Mrazek is a very good #1B or #2 goalie to be going into the season with. The Leafs could run a 60-40 tandem with him and Campbell to be sure to give lots of rest. This isn’t a luxury the Leafs have had too often, so they should make the most of it.
Players to Watch
As I mentioned previously, Kase has top 6 talent. Lots of people know this. It’s just been injuries that’s held him back over the years. If healthy, Kase could explode as a player, like many have been anticipating him to for a while now. He is a strong play driver with good defensive results when he’s been healthy. It’s a case of injuries derailing a young career. He has a fresh start in Toronto, and if Keefe felt comfortable with him on left-wing, he could snag a top 6 role.
I am a firm believer that Timothy Liljegren is good enough to be a regular on the 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs roster. He’s seen tons of success at the AHL as a strong defensive player. He is a wildly different player from when he was drafted. He likely won’t be that top offensive defenceman of the future, but that’s okay. They have Rasmus Sandin. Liljegren could be an all-around defender capable of playing in both ends and providing value everywhere.
Prediction for 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are back in the Atlantic Division, but should still be looking at solidly making the playoffs this season. While they likely won’t top Tampa, they have a really solid look at the second spot. Though the division is strong, they could finish as low as fourth, but still make the playoffs in a wild card spot. The Leafs are a good team again this season. But for most, the only question that matters is: will they win in the playoffs?
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