In a memorable 2021-22 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have solidified their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season. Despite some questionable play at certain points, the Maple Leafs have proved to be a dominant force and a team that can keep up against the best in the NHL. Auston Matthews surpassed Rick Vaive’s franchise record of goals in single season and Mitch Marner is closing in on a 100-point season with a phenomenal second half, despite being in COVID-19 protocol and a slow start to the season.
The regular season success is great, but there is something bigger on their minds where they have yet to take the next step. The playoffs.
The Maple Leafs have failed to get out of the first round in the last five years and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. A long and painful drought. Many thought that last season was the season to go on a long run, however fate had a different outcome. While many are fixated on past failures, this team appears to have a different mentality as they head into the post season.
While all the attention will be on Matthews, Marner and company, there have been many standouts this season that go beyond the star players who can rise above and make a major impact in the playoffs. Here are four players who can do just that.
If there was a most improved award from the previous seasons, it would be going to Ilya Mikheyev. In his previous two seasons, his play away from the puck was great, but he faltered when it came to capitalizing on his scoring chances and increase his offensive production. In the past, he would get a number of clear breaks with no results to show for.
This season, it’s a complete 180 as he’s added a scoring touch, becoming another offensive weapon as a middle-six forward on an already offensively talented team. Mikheyev’s shot and hands to make moves in tight spaces has improved tremendously as he set a career-high in goals this season with 15.
Mikheyev has scored at all strengths this season, but more importantly, he’s become a fixture on the team’s “power kill”. With his explosive speed and ability to be a factor shorthanded, he’s tied for second in the league with four short-handed goals and is doing a fantastic job in generating offensive opportunities. Among players with at least 50 minutes of short-handed ice time, Mikheyev has the best short-handed goals per 60 with 3.90 and is in top-15 with short-handed individual shot attempts per 60 with 20.5.
Mikheyev has become a dangerous weapon for the Maple Leafs and takes advantage of the situation when in a penalty killing role. Defense, and more importantly the penalty kill, becomes more magnified in the playoffs. Now that he’s finding a consistent offensive game, strong on the penalty kill and a threat in transition, he’s a player that definitely can excel in the playoffs with his ability to catch opponents off-guard.
Much like Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall has shown to struggle at times even earning some criticism from head coach Sheldon Keefe in 2020-21.
One of the main reasons the third line has been successful this time around, is due to Engvall being more engaged with his speed and offensive output. Even with a big turnaround in 2021-22, there was the possibility that he could be dealt as teams were calling and the Maple Leafs could look to move some cap space. But given their success, Engvall has played a key role for the Maple Leafs and he could do the same in the playoffs.
At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Engvall is utilizing his size more to his advantage and it’s showing with strength in puck battles and protecting the puck extremely well. On top of it all, he has great speed and a very smooth stride to pull away from defenders in one-on-one situations. We’re now seeing the complete package as he now has a career best 27 points and 13 goals. His 55.18 Corsi For percentage ranks him sixth on the team with a minimum of 500 minutes played at five-on-five and is eighth in scoring chances for percentage with 57.06.
Like Mikheyev, Engvall’s been a major factor for the Maple Leafs on the penalty kill with his positioning and ability to pressure and anticipate plays. He even appears to have improved the strength on his shot as he’s scored some perfect snipes recently, including this shorthanded goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Being a key member on the third line, the Maple Leafs have something going for them if Engvall can still keep up with the consistency he’s had all season. While he wasn’t using his size to his advantage previously, Engvall has emerged as a player that can really be an underrated contributor in the post season.
The Maple Leafs improved their defensive depth at the trade deadline by bringing in both Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. However, throughout the season, there was one player that was showing promise of playing meaningful minutes. Timothy Liljegren came into the season fighting for a job and he has seen quite a bit of action with 52 games played.
Despite learning some things along the way, he’s showing great composure and consistency when he’s on the ice. Although he’s been mostly used on the third pairing, he’s making his mark with his breakout passing, shot and mobility with the puck. He’s put together a solid rookie season as he has 20 points while posting the second-best expected goals for percentage of 61.26 and fifth best CF% with 56.39 on the team.
When Giordano was acquired, it seemed the two found some great chemistry as they play a similar style being strong two-way defenders. You noticed it every time they were on the ice. They were calm, composed and made things happen offensively. Liljegren is learning from a veteran player with an extended resume as Keefe looks for pairings for the playoffs. He has a strong one that can get things done at both ends of the ice. That kind of poise will be critical when the pressure is on.
Liljegren is still learning as a rookie, but his play as of late shows that he’s becoming more comfortable at the pro level and the job that he’s been given. If he continues to play the way that he has, he could be a big difference maker for the Maple Leafs on the blue line.
Depth becomes even more important in the postseason. The Maple Leafs got another quality bottom-six forward in the Giordano deal in Colin Blackwell.
In eight games with the Maple Leafs Blackwell only has two goals, but he brings so much more to the table that makes him effective. He’s quick with his skating, he does a great job at pressuring the opposition and has some tenacity to his game. He doesn’t let his size affect him at all (5-foot-9) as he has great strength to engage in puck battles.
Even though he may not see big minutes, Blackwell provides what any team heading into the playoffs need– a boost of energy and ability to get in on the forecheck quickly. Since he’s come in, the Maple Leafs fourth line has looked livelier when on the ice. He could very well be an underrated player for the Maple Leafs if they do make a deep playoff run.
Who do you think is flying under the radar? Have your say in the comment section.
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.