3 Maple Leafs Breakout Candidates For 2022-23

The 2021-22 NHL season saw a couple of Toronto Maple Leafs players have breakout seasons. The most obvious was Michael Bunting, who played his first full campaign at the age of 26 and finished with 63 points in 79 games along with a Calder Trophy nomination. You could also make a case for Alex Kerfoot, who hit the 50-point mark for the first time in his career, and recently-departed Ilya Mikheyev, who did the same with the 20-goal mark. 

Pierre Engvall Toronto Maple Leafs
Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Breakout seasons are interesting. Sometimes, having one leads to a storied career with many of the same results in the years that follow. Other times, it may end up being a flash in the pan, and even the peak of that player’s career. While it’s hard to predict how Bunting and Kerfoot will follow up their 2021-22 seasons, there are a couple of other Maple Leafs who could be in line for one of their own in 2022-23.

Pierre Engvall 

The 2021-22 season was an interesting one for Pierre Engvall, to say the least. Having spent most of his season in a third line role alongside Mikheyev and David Kampf, he was never really expected to be an offensive catalyst. And for the most part, he wasn’t, finishing the season with 35 points in 78 games, which is standard for a third line player. But there may be an opportunity higher in the lineup for him in 2022-23, and he could be poised for a strong season if he gets some regular top six minutes. 

Re-signed to a one-year contract worth $2.25 million on July 17, Engvall’s extension will take him right to unrestricted free agency. That alone should be reason to believe he’s going to take a step forward in 2022-23, considering it’s a contract year for him. Factor in the possible opportunity for him in the top six, and it seems like he’s destined to break out. He scored 15 goals last season, and his shot is very good in a deceptive way. If he wants to maximize his value in every aspect of the game, he could stand to use his frame (6-foot-5, 216 pounds) more to his advantage. Should he put all the pieces together, he could be a very dangerous forward option for the Maple Leafs this season.

Timothy Liljegren 

When highly-touted defenseman Timothy Liljegren slipped to 17th overall for the Maple Leafs to pick him in 2017, it was widely regarded as a steal. He was originally the number-two ranked prospect in the draft class behind Nolan Patrick, but a mono diagnosis caused him to miss a good chunk of the season. And with scouts not having much to work with from his draft year, his stock tanked and he ended up slipping to 17th. Since then, his development has been slow and steady. But, last season may have been a sneak peek of things to come for the Swedish defenseman. 

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

After playing 11 NHL games in 2019-20 and only two in 2020-21, Liljegren finally locked down a regular job on the Maple Leafs’ backend, and while there were some ups and downs, it was a successful season for him in the end. He had 23 points in 61 games, and especially looked comfortable playing with veteran Mark Giordano after the Maple Leafs acquired him at the trade deadline. With Ilya Lyubushkin leaving in free agency and Justin Holl’s job security unknown, he will have a chance to make a name for himself on the right side of that defensive corps, and potentially show the Maple Leafs why he was originally ranked as a top-5 prospect in the first place. It’s unknown who he’ll be playing with, but I think it would be wise to reunite him with Giordano and potentially give him some looks on the power play as well.

Ilya Samsonov 

When you take Engvall’s contract year motivation and Liljegren’s untapped potential as a former high draft pick, you’ve got Ilya Samsonov’s situation heading into the season. The Russian netminder was a first-round pick in 2015, the first goalie taken in that draft class, and had an impressive rookie season with a 2.55 goals against average (GAA) and a .913 save percentage (SV%). Since then, his numbers have taken a dip, and because of it, the Capitals elected not to qualify him seeing that his arbitration rights could have seen him earn $3 million on his next contract. 

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I wrote a separate piece on why the 25 year-old’s contract, which is valued at $1.8 million, could carry some sneaky value considering he’ll be a restricted free agent (RFA) by this time next season. Not only will Samsonov be battling recently acquired Matt Murray for the crease, but he’ll also be looking to show his former management that they gave up on him too quickly. The increased competition in the blue paint could bring out the best in his game, and with a new contract on the line (and possibly an extension depending on how things go), he is a surefire breakout candidate to keep an eye on this season.

Honourable Mention – Nick Robertson 

As I mentioned earlier, there will likely be a spot open in the top six provided the Maple Leafs don’t make any more moves before the start of the season. And if Robertson plays well enough in training camp to earn himself a job, I think it would make the most sense for him to start in a top six role where his skills can be utilized accordingly. He’s proven he can score at every level except the NHL, and he only has a 20 game sample size to work with in that regard. If he gets those minutes on a regular basis, I could see him having a solid breakout season. 

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The Maple Leafs’ season is going to be an interesting one, to say the least. The crease battle between Murray and Samsonov is going to dominate most of the discourse to start the season, and it could go in multiple different directions depending on how the campaign starts for them. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Samsonov as well as Engvall and Liljegren fare given their respective situations and roles.

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