It’s not the start that many had hoped for with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After another playoff with no results, expectations and pressure seemed to be mounting for them. They began the season 2-4-1 with three straight loses that caught the ire of the fan base. However, there seems to be a different mentality surrounding this team after a talk during the first intermission against the Chicago Blackhawks.
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Did that moment finally serve as wake-up call as the team has started to turn it’s play around winning two straight games with a different mindset? This could very well be the reason they start to turn things around. While it’s easy to focus on the negatives, here are four reasons to remain optimistic about the 2021-22 season.
Star Players are Angry, And That’s Great
Many in Leafs Nation have always been disgruntled at times in regards to the ‘Core Four’ that they lack the compete and drive to win. In the game against the Blackhawks where they were down 2-0 after the first period, it seemed like the frustration came to a boiling point. Everyone, especially the stars, needed to step up in a big way.
William Nylander summed it up perfectly postgame. “Time to wake up,” Nylander said according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “Enough feeling sorry for ourselves. Like, nobody’s going to get us out of this.”
Instead of talking the talk, Nylander and the rest of the team walked the walk and it showed in their play. John Tavares started the comeback and Nylander finished it off with the game-winner. More evidence to suggest that Nylander has taken on a more elevated role in terms of production and being more vocal in regards to the team’s effort.
Auston Matthews was visibly frustrated in that game, particularly with defenseman Justin Holl. This is the kind of fire and passion that we haven’t seen in the past. While I’m sure everyone is friendly off the ice, this is the kind of tough love and accountability that needs to be placed on the players. When someone isn’t at their best, it needs to be addressed in game. There isn’t time to wait for intermission or at the end. Matthews didn’t like what was happening and took charge. Nine games into the season, things may have finally clicked in that they weren’t going anywhere unless they play to the highest standard.
While many thought that Tavares seemed to be struggling and off to a slow start, he has bounced back in a big way. With three points in his first seven games, rebounded with four in two. Including back-to-back games with a goal and a three-point night against the Detroit Red Wings. This is a perfect example of a captain leading the way with his play to motivate the team.
After earning an assist in the first game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens, Mitch Marner went six straight games without a point until the game against the Blackhawks. He scored his first goal of the season against the Red Wings and first since May 8th last season. While it was a fortunate bounce, that’s all a player needs to get going. This season, there were times where he was noticeable and times where he wasn’t the player who is paid close to $11 million dollars. The production wasn’t there and fans were growing restless.
He needs to start showing that shooting mentality that he’s been working on and stop giving up prime opportunities for a good scoring chance. Lately, the production, speed and shiftiness that we’ve seen in the past, is coming back. If there was anyone that needed to get going offensively it was Marner.
New Look Defense
If there was one glaring issue to start the season, it’s that the Maple Leafs defense wasn’t where it was compared to last season. It’s safe to say, that a shake up was bound to happen at some point. Despite coming back against the Blackhawks, the defense needed to be adjusted.
Well, the changes came.
Holl was made a healthy scratch. Dermott was promoted to the top pairing with Morgan Rielly. T.J. Brodie moved down to play with Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren came in to play alongside Rasmus Sandin.
|Statistic||Jake Muzzin with Justin Holl||Jake Muzzin with TJ Brodie|
Muzzin and Holl together didn’t really excel very well. The 7-1 loss to the Penguins was a prime example of that. This season, they allowed 10 goals against at five-on-five and 12 in all situations, six of which were high danger goals. Holl’s deficiencies become more apparent in the second half of last season and continued into this one. He was jumping into the play too much, missing assignments, one step behind the competition and slow in carrying out an attack.
Muzzin looked more confident with Brodie knowing that he’s more reliable defensively so that way he can jump into the attack. With Holl being a healthy scratch, that opens the door for other opportunities to players who can step in and fill the void.
Sandin and Liljegren formed great chemistry with their time in the American League with the Toronto Marlies and in the three games they’ve played in 2021-22. Things are extremely promising for both players. In the game against the Red Wings, they had 13 shot attempts (seven on net) and only three against when they were on the ice. Liljegren seems to be adjusting well to the NHL and could very well keep his place in the lineup if his consistent play continues.
After signing a new eight-year, $60 million contract, Rielly really impressed with Dermott in their first regular season game together. Rielly looked more confident and Dermott was extremely noticeable with his decision-making. As Dermott was one player battling to keep his spot, he certainly stepped up to the plate and elevated his level of play to earn more minutes.
While it’s a small sample, these new pairings could be a major turning point from here on out.
The Offense Will Come Around
The Maple Leafs have always been a lethal offensive team. With a team that boasts one of the top goal scorers in the league in Matthews and great depth from Tavares, Marner and Nylander, you expect an insane amount of production.
From 2016-17 to 2020-21, they have the third best goals for with 1, 229 and third best goals for per game average with 3.30. They are only behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning in both categories. This season however, the offense hasn’t been all that great as they sit 23rd with 21 GF and 27th in GF/GP with 2.33. While that may be a cause for concern, this is a team that has been known to score consistently and often since the core has entered the league.
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Looking at some of the underlying numbers at 5v5, the Maple Leafs have the fifth best expected gaols for percentage (xGF%) with 55.61 and the third best scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) of 55.74. These numbers are too high for them to be a bottom tier scoring team. At some point, the conversion will come and their team shooting percentage of 6.61% will increase as well.
While they have the fourth best shots on goal per game (34.8), it still seems like they pass up on the perfect chance to shoot in order to keep the play alive. If they have a clear lane, don’t second guess and take the shot as it could be a very fortunate scoring opportunity.
Vintage Continues To Shine
It seems that whenever the team needs a spark, Jason Spezza is there to provide it. In losing efforts to both the San Jose Sharks and Penguins, it was him who got the ball rolling offensively, scoring the first goal for the Maple Leafs when they were down.
In the 2020-21 season, Spezza finished seventh in team scoring 30 points all while averaging 11 minutes in a fourth line role. That is really impressive production given his position in the lineup. Early on in 2021-22 with the stars struggling, at 38-years-old, he ranks fourth in team scoring with five points and is tied for first in goals with three.
Once again, Spezza remains one of the team’s top producers all while averaging 12:13 per game. That average puts him 21st on the team. You shouldn’t have to rely on your fourth line centre to be an offensive force. But, he has and he will continue to do so because he’s playing the game with purpose.
Spezza’s presence alone gives this team confidence and the energy they need. He’s laying everything on the line for the team every single game. Even during the team’s early season struggles, he remained optimistic, citing the Lightning as an example for success. It seems like there is no slowing him down as he continues to be a big part of the team’s success.
Yes, it was disappointing and frustrating to see the Maple Leafs fall back into their old habits to start the season. However, things look like they’re about to take a turn for the better. With a tough stretch coming up against the Vegas Golden Knights, Lightning and Boston Bruins it’s a good test for the Maple Leafs as now they appear to be forming a new identity.
If the energy, effort, consistency and production is there, then things will be looking up for the Maple Leafs.
Hockey has been a big part of my life since watching my first Leafs game to currently coaching minor hockey. I previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. Aside from hockey, I also enjoy drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.