It wasn’t the start the Toronto Maple Leafs had hoped for when the season started. However, after a dominant month in November– followed up by a beat down on a Stanley Cup contender in the Colorado Avalanche to start December– the NHL is now quarter of the way of the season and the Maple Leafs are sitting comfortably at the top of the standings.
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Whatever early season struggles that were present have not been an issue for the Maple Leafs. Going on a 14-2 tear, they have put their name in as one of the top teams in the league. There are multiple reasons for their success to be where they are. Here are five reasons for the Maple Leafs at the quarter mark of the 2021-22 season.
Maple Leafs May Have Found Identity
For years and even from the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the Maple Leafs have struggled trying to find their identity. They were always known for being fast, creative and dynamic in regards to their offense. However, they’ve had little to no results as that team when it mattered most– the playoffs.
After a slow start in October but a dominant November, the Maple Leafs might be turning a page and growing as a team. According to The Hockey News’ David Alter, Jason Spezza stated that the team is coming closer together based on the chemistry and that they’re, “winning the right way.” He added that the positivity is what’s keeping them dialled in.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe feels the same way as the team is excelling in many areas that’s contributing to their success in the standings. “That gives us confidence in our lineup and in our team,” Keefe said according to the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan. “I think there’s a great sense of team around here.” (from, ‘Keefe: ‘There’s a great sense of team’ as Maple Leafs look to win for 15th time in 17 games’, The Toronto Sun – 30/11/21)
We haven’t seen the confidence this high with the Maple Leafs in quite some time. Despite past failures in the games where it mattered most, this year could be a turning point for them. If they keep riding this mentality and their resilience in the regular season, it could translate to the playoffs. That’ll be the ultimate test for this team.
Campbell Is the Real Deal
If there’s one thing that critics are really quiet about, it’s the play of Jack Campbell and if he’s really able to play like a starter. Now that there’s no “easy” North Division and the Maple Leafs are back in the Atlantic, Campbell has gone above and beyond in net. Since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings, he is 33-9-4 with a .930 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. If those aren’t starter like numbers, I don’t know what is.
Campbell has done nothing but put up Vezina trophy-like numbers. With a minimum of 10 games played, he’s first in wins (13), first in GAA (1.72), first in SV% (.943) and tied for second in shutouts (three). His even strength SV% is tops in the league at .948 and has the best goals saved above average with 16.59. He’s also in the top-15 in allowing the fewest goals against with 31.
It’s safe to say that whatever issues the critics had of Campbell, it’s not showing at all. Yes, he has had some injury concerns last season, but the Maple Leafs appear to be managing his work load. Even when the team is in a tight or in a low scoring game, Campbell is there to provide the reassurance that he can rise to the occasion and be someone the team can rely on in those situations. He has been the team’s most valuable player to this point and it’s not up for debate.
Campbell has shown that he can provide elite level goaltending. It’s time to give him the respect that he deserves.
Offense Is Heating Up
In October, there was cause for concern as there was a lack of consistent offensive production. The Maple Leafs were ranked low in the standings in goals per game and only scored three goals or more four times in that month. At one point they had the 23rd best goals for per game rate, despite having strong and positive advanced metrics. Clearly it wasn’t for a lack of chances or generating offense, the conversion simply wasn’t there.
When the calendar switched to November, the offense started to heat up as they scored three or more nine times and four or more goals in the last five games. Auston Matthews leads the team in goals with 13 and John Tavares is second with 11, but everyone is starting to chip in. William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Michael Bunting and Alexander Kerfoot are all in double digits in points, great production from the top-six.
During the Maple Leafs most recent four-game road trip which included a sweep in California, they scored 18 goals and got contributions from all four lines. They currently have the fourth best goal differential with a +22 and a .923 winning percentage when scoring first– second behind the Edmonton Oilers.
Currently, they’re eighth in goals for (74) and their GF/G has jumped up to 3.08, putting them 13th in the league. In regards to their underlying metrics at five-on-five, they have the fifth best Corsi For percentage (52.79) and goals for percentage (57.30), they’re second in expected goals for percentage with 55.68 and have the fourth best scoring chances for percentage (55.52).
The fact that they’re among the best in shot attempts and scoring proves that at some point the offense was going to breakout. They’re now getting the offense and production, but they’ve managed to win whether it was in a high scoring or low scoring game as they have the third best winning percentage in one-goal games with .778.
This is a team that can score in bunches but also manage to get wins in close contests thanks to their improved defensive style of play. This is something that we haven’t seen much of in the past. It took some time but the offense is right where it should be.
Bottom Six More Reliable
When was the last time the Maple Leafs had a reliable depth that was capable of shutting down the opposition and providing great energy? You’ll probably look back at teams in the early 2000’s for that kind of success.
The Maple Leafs have longed to create a competitive bottom six that can be difficult to go up against. They have struggled to achieve that previously, but now they may have a winning combination that has proven to be a difference maker this season.
David Kampf and Ondrej Kase have formed great chemistry being effective in their own end and in the offensive zone, Jason Spezza hasn’t aged at all as he still looks like his younger self on the on the ice and Wayne Simmonds has bounced back after a rough first season with the Maple Leafs, offensively and physically. Despite only scoring one goal to start the season, Pierre Engvall has scored twice and has four points in four games. All five are either inside or outside the top-10 in team scoring.
While all the work is being done by the big names, the bottom-six forward group is more than capable of finding the scoresheet. However, they’re play away from the puck is even more noticeable, as they’re able to shut down the opposition when needed. This kind of depth is what makes teams successful in the post season and the Maple Leafs have a good thing going with them.
Sandin and Liljegren Should Get More Responsibilities
Even though they’re third pairing defenders, whenever Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are paired together, good things always happen. Although, it hasn’t happened lately, this is going to be an important duo going forward as they’ve had results.
Among defensive pairings that have played a minimum of 80 minutes together, Sandin and Liljegren have the 11th best CF% (57.95), the third best SCF% (63.82) and fourth best high danger chances for percentage (67.61). Impressive production from two young defenders at 5v5 when they’re on the ice.
Sandin has also looked good with Travis Dermott, but the chemistry and communication between him and Liljegren has been noticeable whenever they play. Liljegren has been a healthy scratch at times and is learning from his mistakes, but he’s looked more comfortable than Justin Holl, who has continued to struggle in the top-four. When he does make one, he shakes it off and bounces back with a strong shift. That mentality is going to go well for him as he continues to push others and move up in the lineup.
Sandin is already looking like a top pairing defenseman and Liljegren is showcasing his talents to be a reliable defender in his own end, yet be a strong transitional player with his accurate breakout passes. The Maple Leafs have a strong right-handed defenseman waiting in the wings.
While winning a playoff round is all that matters in terms of measuring the success of the Maple Leafs, you can’t ignore the fact that they are more motivated than ever. This is a major step in the right direction as everyone is doing their part to contribute to the team’s success. If they’re able to translate the success early on this season further down the line, then this is definitely going to be a year to remember for everyone.
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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.