2021-22 Maple Leafs Team Was Franchise’s Best in 17 Years

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.

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews and Marner and teammates almost beat the Lightning in the 2022 Playoffs
(Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

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.”

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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

TeamWinsLossesOTL Goals ForLeague AverageGoals AgainstLeague AveragePoints
2017-1849267270240230240105
2021-2254217312255252255115

Playoff Records

TeamWinsLossesGoals ForGoals Against
2017-18342028
2021-22342423

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. 

Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews,
Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner when they were younger
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

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.

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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

Goaltending is a good place to start. 

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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:

Regular Season

GoalieGames PlayedWinsLossesOTLSV%GAA
Andersen6638215.9182.81
McElhinney181151.9342.14
Pickard1100.8573.83

Playoffs

GoalieGames PlayedWinsLossesSV%GAA
Andersen733.8963.76
McElhinney101.8265.07

The 2021-22 team had a total of five goalies take the ice during the regular season. Jack Campbell. Petr Mrazek, Erik Kallgren, Joseph Woll, and Michael Hutchinson. Their records were as follows:

Regular Season

GoalieGames PlayedWinsLossesOTLSV%GAA
Campbell473196.9142.64
Mrazek201260.8883.34
Kallgren14841.8883.31
Woll4310.9112.76
Hutchinson2101.8574.57

Playoffs

GoalieGames PlayedWinsLossesSV%GAA
Campbell734.8973.15
Kallgren1001.000.00

Conclusion Goaltending

While the 2017-18 goalies were better in the regular season, the 2021-22 goalies had the edge in the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Frederik Andersen
Maple Leafs’ Frederik Andersen was the starter in 2017
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Slocum)

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.

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If we look strictly at their production we see the following:

Regular Season 2017/18

PlayerGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPoints
Matthews62342963
Marner82224769
Nylander82204161
Total22676117193

Regular Season 2021/22

PlayerGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPoints
Matthews736046106
Marner72356297
Nylander81344680
Total226129154283

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.

Playoffs 2017-18

PlayerGoalsAssistsPoints
Matthews112
Marner279
Nylander134
Total41115

Playoffs 2021-22

PlayerGoalsAssistsPoints
Matthews459
Marner268
Nylander347
Total91524

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.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri
Former-Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri looks up from the ice as he is attended to by a trainer. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

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).

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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.

Tradeline acquisitions

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.  

Conclusion Forwards

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.

Defense

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.  

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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.  

Conclusion Defense

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.

Overall Conclusion

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. 

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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.]