The Toronto Maple Leafs are roughly a third of the way through a season that has been full of ups and downs. Things started off super rough, then got super exciting, then came to a halt when there was a COVID outbreak in the dressing room following their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 14. Since then, we’ve seen a league-wide postponement of games that went through Christmas, along with the cancellation of the World Juniors.
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While the start of the 2021-22 season has seen the emergence of players who have impressed such as Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and David Kampf, there are some players who I’d bet would like to leave the tail end of 2021 in the past and come into 2022 with a clean slate.
There are still 52 games left of regular season hockey to be played, and even though the Maple Leafs’ biggest demons lie in the postseason, the players who have had a rough go of things in 2021 will need a strong bounceback for not only the team, but themselves as well. Without further ado, here are three Maple Leafs players who are looking to bounce back in the new year.
Ritchie’s name had been circulating around the Toronto media for a while before he put pen to paper in 2014. Former Coach’s Corner host Don Cherry famously ripped the Maple Leafs apart for passing on the 6-foot-2, Canadian-born power forward in Ritchie in favour of Swedish now-Maple Leafs star William Nylander (talk about a take that aged like milk). Not that it matters nowadays, because Dubas signed the former in August 2021 and now the two play on the same team.
While Nylander blossomed into one of the Maple Leafs’ best players, Ritchie established himself in the league as a middle-six power forward capable of adding scoring touch to a lineup. Probably not a first round talent, but still an effective player. The Orangeville native was coming off a 15-goal season in 2020-21, on pace for roughly 25 goals over the course of a full 82 games.
It’s no secret that Ritchie didn’t get off to the start that he wanted to in 2021-22. It took him 13 games to register his first point with the Maple Leafs and 27 games to score his first goal, which leaves him with eight points in 27 games to start the season. The spotlight on him is even brighter when you consider that he’s being paid more than the aforementioned Bunting, Kase, and Kampf.
Having said that, the Maple Leafs have Ritchie under contract for two years, so all the Maple Leafs can really do is hope he eventually finds his game. He was looking much better prior to the postponements, with six points in his last ten games, and he’s looked much more comfortable in the bottom six versus on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, where he started the season. If he can regain his confidence and combine his newfound offense with some physicality, he could end up being a crucial part of the team towards the playoffs.
When the Maple Leafs signed Mrazek, the hope was that he would take some of the weight off of star goaltender Jack Campbell’s shoulders and provide the Maple Leafs with a tandem option. Give one guy two out of every three starts until he slows down and then look to the other, that sort of thing.
Well, in signing Mrazek, the obvious concern surrounding him was his ability to stay healthy. While the Czechia netminder put up some Vezina-calibre numbers for the Carolina Hurricanes in a small sample size in 2020-21, a freak injury kept him out for most of the season. He’s also struggled with groin injuries in the past, which carried over into 2021-22.
Because of these lingering groin issues, Mrazek has only made three starts so far. And if you only look at the numbers, which are a save percentage (SV%) of .880 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 4.13, it doesn’t look good. But most of this can be chalked up to the fact that he’s only been able to make those three starts.
Regardless, I can imagine Mrazek isn’t too happy with the way his season has started so far. And since he’s under contract for three years with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.8 million, his first half certainly isn’t something the Maple Leafs would want to become a trend. But if he can stay healthy and post even close to the numbers he did for the Hurricanes last season, the Maple Leafs could reach a whole other level of stability in the crease.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m sort of cheating by putting Mikheyev on this list. He suffered a thumb injury in pre-season this year which has kept him out of the lineup for all but one game, which was the last one before the Maple Leafs saw their games postponed.
But the reason he’s on my list of bounceback candidates for 2022 is because his reason for a bounceback extends beyond this season. Mikheyev got off to a great start in 2019-20 for the Maple Leafs, tallying eight goals and 23 points in his first 39 games. Of course, that was before he took a skate blade to the wrist on Dec. 27, 2019 and was forced to miss the rest of the season.
Mikheyev returned to the lineup full time in 2020-21, but didn’t look like the same player from the year before. The hustle and speed was still there, but he was about as snakebitten as a player can get. He didn’t score his first goal of the season until his 14th game, and finished the season with seven goals and only 17 points in 54 games. He was also held pointless through seven playoff games.
Things weren’t looking great for the Omsk native after the season ended. In fact, he actually requested a trade, which didn’t sit well with some fans. But general manager Kyle Dubas shut down his trade request, reiterating what Mikheyev meant to the team. And he was set to start the season with a great opportunity in the Maple Leafs’ top six before the thumb injury happened.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough two years for Mikheyev at this point. So, I don’t think there should be anybody on the team more motivated to turn things around. My guess is that whenever play resumes, Mikheyev will start on the third line alongside Kampf and potentially somebody like Ritchie or Pierre Engvall. We know the defensive value and speed he brings to the lineup, so if he could get some offense going the way he did before his initial injury, he could be a huge addition to the lineup.
Maple Leafs Will Look to Pick Up Where They Left Off
As it stands right now, the Maple Leafs are set to resume play on New Years Day against the Ottawa Senators. However, if the past three weeks have shown us anything, it’s that plans can change with the snap of a finger.
Either way, the Maple Leafs currently sit second in the Atlantic Division with a record of 20-8-2, and things are looking much better for them considering how their season started. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that all three of these players bounce back in the new year, let alone one of them, but with that, it will be interesting to see if the entire team clicks or if some of the players who started hot begin to cool off.
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After a rocky month of December, hopefully the NHL can sort out its COVID situation and get the season back on track at a reasonable pace. Assuming they do, these three players will be ones to keep tabs on as the Maple Leafs return to action.
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Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.