After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be in a really good spot in the standings as we move closer to the Christmas break.
While the Maple Leafs have played more games compared to other teams, they’re resting comfortably at the top of the standings with a 20-8-2 record. They’re first overall in the league and in the Atlantic Division with 42 points.
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While things seem to be going well for them at the moment, they’re starting to reap the rewards as Christmas came early for them this year. If the Maple Leafs sent a letter to Santa Claus asking what they would want this year, he definitely listened and made sure that they received these three early Christmas presents.
Bunting Replacing Hyman
The Maple Leafs were in a serious hole to try and find a replacement for Zach Hyman, losing him to the Edmonton Oilers in free agency. Hyman seemed to be playing his best hockey over the last two seasons. He matched his goal total (21) in 51 games played in 2019-20 from the previous season and would’ve surpassed that as well as his point totals had that season not been paused. He then was on-pace for 50 points last season.
Losing Hyman was a big blow to the roster and the Maple Leafs needed to find a replacement to fill the void in the top-six. They appeared to have found a cheaper and affordable option with a late bloomer in Michael Bunting, signing him to a two-year, $1.9 million contract. While there was some skepticism, he did share the same characteristics and play style as Hyman. Now, 30 games into the season, it appears as if playing Bunting in the top-six is paying off.
Still being classified as a rookie, Bunting now sees himself in the Calder Trophy conversation. He is fourth in scoring with 19 points– a 0.63 points per game average– and fourth in assists with 12. Previously playing on all three lines, he appears to now be a mainstay on the top line, complementing the play of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. With a minimum of 200 minutes played at five-on-five on the team, Bunting has the third best Corsi For percentage with 55.04 and scoring chances for percentage with 58.24 and fourth in high danger chances for with 58.10.
The numbers show that Bunting’s having a positive impact on the ice, as he’s a great value signing. He provides great energy and tenacity on the ice as players like him become even more important down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’s doing everything that Hyman did and more as he’s a major factor on the forecheck, provides great net front presence and has the speed to keep up with two elite level talents in the league. In addition, he isn’t afraid to mix it up and get under the opponent’s skin frequently.
Finding a replacement for Hyman was going to be tough as he was a valuable player on and off the ice. Santa listened and gifted the Maple Leafs with Bunting.
Rielly’s Contract Extension
For the Maple Leafs and their fans, whenever there’s a pending unrestricted free agent, the question is always, “How are they going to keep him with their current cap situation?”
Defenseman Morgan Rielly was next on that list. He’s seen some good times, like a Norris Trophy caliber season in 2018-19 where he had a career-high in goals (20), assists (52) and points (72). He’s also seen the bad times, including going through a rebuild. No matter what had happened, Rielly stayed with the team dedicating himself to being a key player to the team’s success.
The defensive market this offseason blew up in terms of the amount of money being spent. Seth Jones got an extension with the Chicago Blackhawks at a cap hit of $9.5 million. Cale Makar signed for $9 million a season with the Colorado Avalanche. 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox’s extension is for $9.5 million with the New York Rangers. With this kind of money being spent, the bar was set for high-end defensemen and it seemed as if keeping Rielly was going to be a tall task.
However, Rielly signed for less than what the market was, agreeing to an eight-year contract worth $7.5 million a season. Before he signed his contract, he had only four assists in eight games. Since the extension, he has exploded offensively scoring four goals and tallying 22 points in 22 games played. As a result, he’s tied for fourth in scoring among defensemen with Cale Makar, behind Adam Fox, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi.
Currently, he’s on-pace to finish the season with 72 points, matching his previous career-best. He’s a strong, puck-moving defenseman and is finally playing with a quality top-pairing defenseman in T.J. Brodie. Among defensive pairings playing at least 200 minutes at 5v5, Rielly and Brodie are in the top 15 with a 53.17 CF% and are eighth in expected goals for percentage with 55.70.
While he’s finding success on the scoresheet, we’re seeing a calmer and more composed Rielly on the ice as he’s playing the best hockey of his career. Now that his pending UFA status is a non-factor and he’s in Toronto for eight more seasons, he’s dialed in and more determined than ever. Santa took note of the Maple Leafs’ cap situation and was really nice, helping to give them a team-friendly contract for an established defenseman. (Yes, I know that’s not how contracts work. Just play along).
Campbell’s Vezina-Like Season
I previously wrote that Jack Campbell was one of the reasons why the Maple Leafs were dominant at the quarter mark of the season. As we approach the Christmas break, Campbell remains a big reason for that, as his performance this season has caught the attention of everyone.
Even though the Maple Leafs got stellar goaltending from Frederik Andersen, the last few seasons saw his play decline. Campbell on the other hand has done nothing but impress ever since he was acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings in 2019-20.
Campbell continues to be among one of the goaltenders in every category with at least 15 starts. He’s tied for first in wins (15) and save percentage (.937), tied for third in goals against average (1.94) and tied for seventh in goals against (43). With at least 15 games played, he has the second-best even strength SV% (.941) and has the best goals saved above average with 16.93.
As a result, he’s vaulted his name into the Vezina Trophy conversation, being the team’s MVP so far this season. Something that we haven’t seen a Maple Leafs goaltender be a part of since 2017-18, where Andersen was fourth in Vezina voting and 10th in 2018-19. He’s been a big reason why the team is where they are because of his stellar play in the crease.
Also, he has a great personality who’s always positive and always has a smile on his face. That alone would put him on Santa’s nice list. Either way, the Maple Leafs are ecstatic to have this kind of performance early on in the season.
It’s safe to say that Santa was really good to the Maple Leafs for the 2021-22 season as they had a number of gifts they received. However, these three are the one’s that were at the top of the Maple Leafs wish list as they were major headlines heading into the season.
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.