Despite another early playoff exit against a tough opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs saw great success last season, both as a team and in regards to individual results. They set a franchise record in wins and points and Auston Matthews took home the league’s MVP award.
While those were outstanding accomplishments, there were many other players on the roster to have a strong 2021-22 season. It’s difficult to try and replicate the success one had the season before but for the Maple Leafs, they have a number of players who can do just that and build off of their strong performances last season. Here are three candidates that’ll look to repeat that success from last season in 2022-23.
Last season was by far William Nylander’s best season with the Maple Leafs. He was extremely productive as he set career bests in goals (34), assists (46) and points (80), being just under a point per game. He even took the most shots in his career with 256 while finishing with a 13.3 shooting percentage. While he’s 11.9 in his career, he’s been consistent enough to maintain a shooting average between 10-15%. Looking at his underlying numbers at five-on-five, he had his second-best scoring chances for percentage (56.01) and expected goals for percentage (55.80) of his career.
Nylander was a monster unleashed offensively. When Mitch Marner struggled and Auston Matthews was recovering from offseason wrist surgery, Nylander was the go-to player, carrying the offensive load. Many are going to point to his defensive deficiencies and ability to “float” around. Keefe has mentioned that he’s a player that needs to be pushed and when he’s at his best, he can turn the tides of a game with his shot, transitional speed and ability to cycle quickly in the offensive zone.
After receiving a lot of criticism for that in the playoffs and going quiet in the first three games, Nyalnder popped off for three goals and four assists in three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. When they needed an extra boost, Nylander was there.
But one thing many are going to overlook with Nylander is his improved defensive game and ability to become a well-rounded forward. He earned looks on the penalty-kill this season and the added responsibility is making him become a more valuable asset to the team.
Even though there has been talk of moving on from Nylander as a way to shake things up with another failed playoff performance, there’s one thing that’s been consistent with Nylander. He can produce and big time. If he’s able to replicate or even surpass 80 points for the 2022-23 season, then that’ll end well for both the team and Nylander as he continues to silence his critics.
With the loss of Zach Hyman, the Maple Leafs needed to find a replacement for him. Michael Bunting was the answer as he was a strong complimentary piece to Mitch Marner and Matthews, as the Maple Leafs signed him to a two-year deal, with a $950,000 cap hit per season.
Bunting had an impressive stint, albeit small sample with the Arizona Coyotes where he had 10 goals in 21 games in 2020-21. Many may not agree with his rookie status as he was 26, but he was still eligible. He was extremely effective and productive playing alongside two elite players. Among rookie forwards, Bunting was first in points with 63, even strength points with 58 and was tied for first in even strength goals with 21. As a result, he was a finalist for the Calder Trophy.
Even though Bunting was playing with top tier players, it took a while for him to get to that point as he had to work his way up the lineup and formed great chemistry. According to Money Puck, among forward lines to play a minimum of 250 minutes, the Bunting-Matthews-Marner line had the best goals for per 60 minutes with 6.6, the second best xG% of 65% and the third best Corsi For percentage of 61.5%. The trio were clearly the Maple Leafs top line, especially in the second half, as they were all firing on all cylinders.
Overall, Bunting was the perfect replacement for Hyman as he was effective on the forecheck, was quick in the offensive zone with speed and energy, attacked the net hard and was always in the opposition’s face. Bunting was also a factor in drawing penalties as he finished fourth overall in the league in that category. He provides great value for where he is in the lineup as a top-line forward.
Chances are Bunting will start the 2022-23 season with Marner and Matthews. Assuming he does, he could easily surpass last season’s point total with a full season on the top line.
The Maple Leafs were weak on the right side, but the rookie defenseman didn’t look out of place at all as he was able to earn a roster spot. Yes, there were some growing pains and mistakes, but for the most part, Timothy Liljegren was consistent as a strong two-way defender. As a result, he earned a two-year contract extension.
Liljegren logged an average of 16:24 per game, while also finishing in the top-20 in rookie scoring with 23 points. With each game that passed, Lilegren was looking more comfortable with his role and was continuing to take strides with development in order to be a possible top-four option in the future.
Even looking at Liljegren’s underlying numbers, they were impressive as he had a 55.09 CF% and a 57.58 GF% at 5v5 when he was on the ice. Even though he saw third pairing minutes, according to PuckIQ, he had a GF% of 64% when facing against elite level competition showing that can he can generate against tougher opponents. He was showing his ability to join the rush and help generate quality scoring chances. Defensively, he was displaying his awareness against the rush to block defenders to the outside. And while he did have some lapses, he’ll learn from those mistakes heading into his second season.
While Liljegren spent 33 games alongside Rasmus Sandin, his play with Mark Giordano was when it started to take off. As soon as Liljegren was paired up with Giordano after he was acquired, you noticed a big difference in his mentality and confidence. The pairing was productive offensively, having a 62.5 GF%, a 57.23 SCF% and a 66.15 high danger chances for percentage. Defensively, they were steady and sound positionally while also showing some physicality and tenacity in the process.
Liljegren was off to a great start last season and continued to get better. He’s poised to have a breakout season and with the possibility that Giordano might be his partner again, they already have that chemistry. There isn’t any doubt that after last season, Liljegren has the chance to replicate last season’s success.
There isn’t any doubt that Nylander, Bunting and Liljegren impressed and stood out in their own right. All three players had strong seasons with their production and overall play and all three have the chance to build off last season’s success with another repeat performance for the 2022-23 season.
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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.