We have stated a number of times recently that we feel the 2021-22 roster that the Toronto Maple Leafs finished the regular season with was the best roster we have seen this team have in 17 years. It was 17 years ago that the Maple Leafs last won a round of a postseason playoff series.
One of our regular contributors, Old School made the following comment on a recent post: “Stan you need to look at the 2017-18 roster. Remove the maturation of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. This team isn’t remotely close to that roster.”
After reading that comment we decided it would be a good idea to compare the 2017-18 roster with the 2021-22 roster to see which of the two teams was the best.
Comparing the 2021-22 and the 20171-8 Maple Leafs
If we compare the results the two teams had we see the following:
Regular Season Records
|Team||Wins||Losses||OTL||Goals For||League Average||Goals Against||League Average||Points|
|Team||Wins||Losses||Goals For||Goals Against|
The 2021-22 version scored 42 more goals than the 2017-18 version but they also gave up 22 more goals. If we compare their goals for and against with the league average in each season, we see that the 2017-18 team scored 30 more goals than the league average while the 2021-22 team scored 57 more goals than the league average. The 2017-18 team gave up 10 fewer goals than the league average while the 2021-22 team gave up three fewer goals than the league average.
In the playoffs, of course, their records were the same, but the 2017-18 team gave up eight more goals than it scored versus the Boston Bruins, while the 2021-22 team actually scored one more goal than the Tampa Bay Lightning over the seven games, but still lost.
The edge in production would go to the 2021-22 team. But, to be honest, that is not really what the discussion is about. The discussion is about the talent on the roster. Let’s take a closer look at how the talent on each of these teams breaks down.
Goaltending is a good place to start.
The 2017-18 team’s number one goalie was Frederik Andersen and their backup was Curtis McElhinney. Calvin Pickard played one game. Their records were as follows:
While the 2017-18 goalies were better in the regular season, the 2021-22 goalies had the edge in the playoffs.
To be honest, we liked the 2017-18 combination of Andersen/McElhinney better than the combination of Campbell/Whomever, so the win here goes to the 2017-18 team.
The Core Three: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander
Old School stated in his comment “Remove the Maturation of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander….” to which we say No Way!
A big part of why this team was so much better was because Matthews, Marner, and Nylander were so much better players in 2021-22 than they were in 2017-2018. In 2017-18 they were four years younger, in only their second season in the NHL. They were still learning the game. Those three players were head and shoulders better in 2021-22 than they were in 2017/18.
If we look strictly at their production we see the following:
Regular Season 2017/18
Regular Season 2021/22
In exactly the same number of games, those three players scored 53 more goals and added 37 more assists for a total of 90 more points.
Similar to the regular season, the three players’ production was so much better in the playoffs in 2021-22 than in 2017-18. On top of that, each of them is a more complete 200-foot, and more defensively responsible player in 2021-22 than they were in 2017-18.
Conclusion Matthews, Marner, Nylander.
Rather than ignoring their maturation, we embrace that as a huge reason why the 2021-22 team was so much better than the 2017-18 team.
The Rest of the Forwards
We don’t want to gloss over the rest of the forwards, but we don’t want to write a novel either. What we will do is go down the list and do a quick comparison player by player
John Tavares > Nazem Kadri
Kadri had a great season this past season, but comparing Kadri in 2017-18 to Tavares in 2021-22 there is no comparison. Tavares is by far the better player.
John Van Riemsdyk > Michael Bunting
JVR gets the edge here because he was the better goal scorer and played that net-front role so well. We think Bunting is a better all-around player. Despite having 13 fewer goals he had more points (63 to 54). He is also more physical and fills the role of agitator, which is an important role. We still give this one to JVR.
Alex Kerfoot = Tyler Bozak
These two players are the mirror image of each other. Smart players that maximize their talent. Great at being quiet contributors to the offense while playing strong defensive games.
Patrick Marleau > Jason Spezza
Marleau at 38 was definitely a better player than Spezza at 38. He had two more goals (27) than Spezza had points (25).
Zach Hyman = Ilya Mikheyev
At first, we were going to go with Hyman better than Mikheyev, but in reality, the 2017-18 version of Hyman was not the Hyman of today. Hyman was better defensively and was more physical, but Mikheyev was the better offensive player, better with the puck, and faster. We are calling this one a draw.
Connor Brown > Pierre Engvall
This one was a toss-up. Engvall produced more (15-20-35 in 78 games) than Brown (14-14-28 in 82 games) but Brown was the more consistent player of the two in our opinion.
Ondrej Kase and David Kampf > Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson
Kapanen, at the start of the 2017-18 season, was not a full-time player yet. He was by the end of that season. Johnsson only played nine games. Kampf and Kase in 2021-22 were by far the better players and it’s not even close.
Leo Komarov and Matt Martin > Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford
We put these two pairs together because they represented each team’s physicality. Komarov and Martin were better players in 2017-18 than Simmonds and Clifford in 2021-22.
Tomas Plekanec > Colin Blackwell
Neither of these players made a huge difference. We gave the edge to Plekanec because he had the one great playoff game after Kadri was suspended.
Our overall conclusion is the forwards not named Matthews, Marner and Nylander were a better group in 2017-18 than the ones in 2021/22.
Morgan Rielly > Morgan Rielly
In 2021-22, 27-year-old Morgan Rielly was a much better all-around player than the 23-year-old Rielly was in 2017-2018.
T.J. Brodie > Jake Gardiner
Jake Gardiner in 2017-18 was much better offensively (5-47-52) than T.J. Brodie was in 2021-22 (4-24-28); but, as their plus/minus shows (Brodie +20, Gardiner +9), Brodie is the superior defenseman.
Jake Muzzin > Ron Hainsey
Ron Hainsey in 2017-18 and 2018-19 played a big role in Rielly becoming the player he is today. His ability to coach Rielly on the ice while covering for him defensively was an important reason that duo worked out well together. Jake Muzzin admittedly struggled in 2012/22 partially due to injuries. Muzzin at 32 was still the superior all-around player to Hainsey at 36.
Nikita Zaitsev > Justin Holl
While Nikita Zaitsev never seemed to achieve the level of play expected of him, he was a top-four defenseman for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18. Justin Holl was at best a competent third-pairing defenseman in 2021-22.
Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren > Roman Polak, Connor Carrick
That leaves Roman Polak and Connor Carrick compared to Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Of these four, Polak in 2017-18 was a solid defensive defenseman who played a quiet but physical game. He knew his strengths and limitations and got the most out of his abilities. Carrick on the other hand seemed like a round peg in a square hole. He worked hard but never seemed to accomplish much.
Sandin and Liljegren are infinitely more talented and their analytics showed it. They were top two in almost every category in underlying stats.
Travis Dermott = Travis Dermott
Travis Dermott was, well, Travis Dermott. He struggled to stay in the lineup in 2017-18 and ultimately failed to do so in 2021-22
Deadline Acquisitions on Defense
The 2017-18 Maple Leafs did not make any acquisitions on defense before or at the trade deadline.
The 2021-22 team acquired Ilya Lyubushkin before the deadline and followed that up by acquiring Mark Giordano at the deadline. These acquisitions improved the Maple Leafs’ defense so much that in our minds there is no comparison.
The 2021-22 defensive lineup the Maple Leafs had going into the playoffs was far superior to the one they entered the 2017-18 playoffs with and it wasn’t even close.
In 2017-18, the defense was looked at as a weakness. In 2021-22, it was one of their strengths.
While the goaltending and the forwards not named Matthews, Marner, and Nylander were better in 2017-18, the level of play those three players were at in 2021-22 was head and shoulders better, and more than made up for the rest of the forwards.
What really put the 2021-22 team ahead of the 2017-18 team was the vast improvement on defense.
In our opinion, the 2021-22 Maple Leafs were indeed the best team this franchise has iced in 17 years, and much better than the 2017-18 version of the team.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf