There were quite a few changes with the Toronto Maple Leafs roster in the offseason after another disappointing end to what could’ve been a deep playoff run. With names like Frederik Andersen, Zach Hyman and Joe Thornton being lost to free agency, the Maple Leafs needed to fill the void and bring in new faces to serve as replacements. General manager Kyle Dubas did just that making some key depth signings from the beginning of free agency.
With a number of new faces coming in and the core of this roster still in tact for the upcoming 2021-22 season, a number of players have an opportunity to make a major impact for the team. It’s a new season and with that comes the potential for someone to step up and surprise everyone, be it a new face or veteran presence. Here are four players poised to surprise many for the 2021-22 season.
A late bloomer, Michael Bunting was a really great story this season for the Arizona Coyotes. Signed to a two-year deal worth $950,000 per season, Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games and is an early candidate to be a replacement for Hyman on the top line. While expectations should be tempered considering he has a small sample at the NHL level, the potential is there to be his successor.
His style of play is very similar as he can engage and setup an attack while still providing offensive production in a top-six role. It’s also noted that he likes to play with an edge and get under the opponents’ skin, a characteristic that has been missing from this team.
During the 2020-21 season, Bunting’s Corsi For percentage was very strong against all forms of competition, showing his ability to still maintain possession and be a factor offensively. He saw most of his minutes against middle six competition having a 56.1 CF%, but also had a strong showing against elite competition with a 55.7 CF%. On top of that, he had a goals for percentage of 71.4%. It’s a small sample as he played only 15.5% of his minutes against them, but it’s still impressive.
Those numbers could be a precursor of what’s to come. Even if he starts in a middle-six role, and continues to show that he’s capable of playing up in the lineup, it could very well work out. He has the speed to keep up with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He’s one of many that could turn some heads when the season starts.
After a promising first season where Ilya Mikheyev finished 13thin rookie scoring with 23 points in 39 games, he seemed to have taken a step backward in 2020-21. Mikheyev finished with 17 points in 54 games, 0.31 points per game compared to his 0.59 the season before. Call it a case of a sophomore slump, this season was more a result of just really, really bad puck luck and chances not going his way with his shot.
It seemed that whenever Mikheyev had a prime scoring chance, it became a wasted opportunity, as his shot wasn’t as strong as it was last season. It’s very possible that he’s still reeling from the wrist laceration he suffered that cut his rookie season short.
Mikheyev would get a number of prime chances by separating from defenders with his speed to get those opportunities, but it would not amount to anything. In total, he had 173 total shot attempts and 61.8% of them made it on net. That’s great, but the power behind the shots just wasn’t there and the results didn’t come as he had a shooting percentage of 6.5%. If he capitalized on a few of those chances, he would’ve added more to his goal totals.
I’m remaining optimistic that if he continues to work on it, he could become dangerous as result of his speed. He does everything well as a third liner and is an effective penalty killer. Here’s a look at Mikheyev’s time on ice and shots on the penalty kill.
|Season||Short Handed Time On Ice per Game||Short Handed Individual Shot Attempts||Short Handed Shots||Goals|
There was slight dip in ice per game on the penalty kill, though Mikheyev was still able to be reliable in that situation earning 36.1% of the Maple Leafs SH TOI/GP. He had one goal on 13 shot attempts in 2019-20 and increased those opportunities in 2020-21. Again, if the conversion was there, he would be extremely dangerous as he does generate chances in those situations.
Mikheyev is a very reliable depth player and solid penalty killer. He’s strong on the forecheck and has incredible speed. If he is able to work on his shot during the offseason, he could turn some heads and we might see a more improved player than what we’ve seen in the past.
Once viewed as a dominant two-way player with a scorers touch, Ondrej Kase has been dealt a bad hand since his sophomore season where he scored 20 goals and finished with 38 points. Injuries and concussions have plagued him throughout his career and only played in three games in 2020-21.
When healthy, Kase can be a major force and a real difference maker. He has great speed, a strong shot and the ability to be effective on the defensive side of the puck. He’s a player that won’t be pushed around, as he’s great at protecting the puck.
Kase has the ability to surprise everyone if he remains healthy and finds that production early on in his career. He’ll most likely be used in a third line role, but he’ll be extremely effective on the right wing. He could look to help boost the play of Mikheyev as they both can establish a forecheck.
If Kase remains healthy, this is a signing that could payoff as he has great strength, skill and can make significant contributions.
If there’s one player that would want to re-write the script from last season, it’s definitely veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds. We expected his production to take a decline as a fourth line grinder, as he had seven goals and nine points in 38 games. His first season as a Maple Leafs didn’t go according to plan.
Just when he started to get going offensively, he sustained a wrist injury that kept him out for six weeks. Upon return, he didn’t seem to exude the same intimidating energy and aggressive nature that he had before his injury. When the team needed him most to bring that aspect in the playoffs, he was a non-factor. He re-signed with the club and he definitely wasn’t happy with how things unfolded in a season that was different than others. He was left wanting more and to find that killer instinct.
As a result of his end of year conference, I would expect to see a more rejuvenated and energetic Simmonds this time around. If there is any player that can lead by example and set the tone of the game from the beginning, it’s him. His heart is with this team and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win. If we see the pre-injury version of Simmonds, then re-signing him is worth it.
I know we’ve heard this over and over, but he seemed more determined and it showed with his tone and comments. We will see a different player this season. The offensive numbers won’t be there, but the intangibles will be front and centre.
While all the focus is going to be on the core to lead the way, the Maple Leafs are going to have to get a lot of support from their depth in order to achieve the same regular season success they had last season. More importantly, to be a critical factor in helping lead the charge in the postseason.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.