FINALLY! A sense of normalcy for the Canadian hockey world has finally begun with the start of the 2021/2022 NHL Season. The North Division is no more, almost every arena can be filled to capacity, and that means the Leafs were able to properly kick off their new season in front of a packed Scotiabank Arena this past Wednesday.
A new season for the Leafs typically leads to an abundance of questions and concerns about the roster and that leaves a few things for the media and fans to focus on during the first week:
- What impact can the new faces on the team create? The players that will be answering this question this season are Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, David Kämpf, Ondřej Kaše, and Petr Mrázek.
- How do returning players with a new/different opportunity look? Specifically, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Jack Campbell.
- How do “The Big Four” forwards look? Are they driving play and making impacts that warrant their large salaries?
Let’s take a quick dive into my first impressions of each of these players (All statistics provided by Natural Stattrick).
It goes without saying that Ritchie has left a lot to be desired in his play these first few games. His lack of foot speed is apparent and he hasn’t been able to find chances in middle ice and that shows in his 42.87% xGF%, which is good for 18th out of 19 skaters on the Leafs thus far. It should be noted that Nick was never going to be someone who could drive one of the Leafs Top 3 lines, he was brought in to compliment the teams highly skilled forwards and provide some finishing and toughness. In other words, Nick is a player I think we can truly judge come playoff time and not in the regular season.
Bunting’s play so far can be summed up in one tweet, and to top it all off… the author of said tweet is one of the most popular former Leafs of all-time:
He’s drawn a penalty in each of the first three games, he is in the middle of every scrum around the opponents net and the Leafs are controlling 61.14% of the expected goals when he is on the ice (good for 3rd on the team). Getting him locked in at $950k for this year and next is proving to be the best deal Dubas made this off-season.
Simply put, he’s controlling 60.29% of the shot attempts and 57.28% of the expected goals while getting extremely tough matchup assignments and 85% of the time he starts in the defensive zone. I expect David to be a critical penalty killer and win faceoffs and he’s done just that winning 64.2% of them. Kämpf has been as advertised so far.
Similar to Kämpf, the former Bruin has been impactful in all facets of the game. He is getting tough assignments as he is stapled to Kämpf’s wing but the Leafs are still getting 53.14% of the expected goals when Kaše is on the ice. He also is providing some much needed skill to the bottom six that was desperately missing last year outside of Jason Spezza.
Aside from very unfortunate bounces in his debut vs Ottawa, Petr was exceptional until he suffered a groin injury saving a shot with less than a second before the second intermission. He is expected to be out for 2 weeks so I suspect that we will learn more about Petr’s ability to make an impact when he returns.
It is very hard to find something wrong with Ramus’ game right now. The team controls 70.13% of the expected goals when he is on the ice, he has two assists in his first 3 games, and he is breaking out clean every time he is retrieving pucks. I know a lot of people might think Sandin’s performance should warrant more minutes but I would argue this is the perfect spot for Rasmus to flourish at this time. Allow him to over-ripe in this situation, put up some points and build out his confidence to a point where he can better handle top four minutes when the time comes.
I have always felt Timothy was an underrated prospect forgotten by those who only pay attention to the box score of the Toronto Marlies. The reason that these people use in their criticism of Liljegren is he hasn’t arrived to the NHL as early as possible for former 17th overall picks. The organization clearly believes in him, Los Angeles tried to get Timothy in the Jake Muzzin trade but Toronto refused and instead opted to move Sean Durzi as the “defensive prospect” portion of that deal. Since then Timothy has outperformed Durzi in every aspect of the game at the AHL level, and Dubas extended Jake Muzzin who now wears an “A” for this team, a great deal on all fronts for Toronto.
I would like to take a look at a player like Rasmus Andersson in Calgary as an example to show the value Liljegren still has in Toronto. Andersson was drafted in the 2nd round in 2015 as a late birthday and spends the 2015/2016 season putting up a point-per-game in the OHL as a 19 year old and then spends 2-full seasons in the AHL as a 20 and 21 year old playing 110 games and putting up 0.55 points-per-game. At this point, hockey media has deemed this kid a bonafide top four defencemen in the future and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. So at age 22, he makes the Flames and plays in their bottom pair… now fast forward a year and a half and he is now showing he can play in the top four and Calgary rewards Rasmus with a 6 year, $4.55M AAV contract. He is now about to turn 25 and is on the top pairing for the Flames and part of the reason Calgary felt comfortable exposing Giordano (their captain and #1 defenceman) in the Seattle Expansion Draft.
Let’s move back to Timothy now! At age 18, he jumps right into the AHL after missing most of the previous year duo to a battle with mononucleosis. He is part of a Calder Cup winning run that year while playing 64 professional hockey games in North America before he turns 19. Andersson didn’t achieve this feat until he was 21. Fast-forward to now, Liljegren has 148 AHL games to his name with 0.49 points-per-game and is only 5 months past his 22nd birthday. So when we think of the long-awaited arrival of Timothy Liljegren that is now upon us, we should be just as excited as Calgary fans were to have Andersson make the jump to the NHL. The round they were drafted in does not matter when we are talking about the similarities in potential to be impact players, so get excited Leafs Nation… Timothy is here for the long haul and he showed why in his first game of the season on Saturday as the Leafs controlled 59.24% of the expected goals with him on the ice!
There is nothing really to say about Jack other than he has done nothing but perform to the absolute highest level possible since putting on the Leafs uniform, and he has continued that form into the new year. It is very early but Jack leads the league in Sv% with 0.968, GAA with 0.86, and Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) with 3.65. The one question I am sure everyone is still asking is he “Can he continue this performance when he is expected to start every game for a long period of time?”, and to that I would say we will never know unless he gets his shot. By all accounts, he is fully healed from his ailments from last season and he now has the net to himself for at least two weeks with Mrázek out. One thing is for sure and that he has absolutely every single Leafs fan rooting for his success because of how good of a person he is, one of the best examples of wanting good things to happen to good people.
The Big Four
To be perfectly blunt, this team needs more. John Tavares and Mitch Marner might show on paper that they are creating chances and have simply just been unlucky to not have multiple points each of the last three games. The Leafs have controlled just over 52% of the expected goals when each of them are on the ice, and you also might be thinking why I am critical of them when I used that stat to talk positively about other members of the team. Well unfortunately for them, the bar is simply higher! The last two playoff exits have eliminated the opportunity to deflect blame for losing on luck. Now, in a 3-game sample in October, the excuse of “just making sure we get our chances, and the puck will eventually go in” quote might fly. But again, I feel like I need to remind everybody that the same amount of games in May 2022 is now converted to half of a playoff series. The bottom line is the team needs production from Tavares and Marner each and every night. The expectation should be to perform at the level of an $11M player when they are at their best, but on the other hand… they should still be performing like a $7-8M player when they are not at their best.
Speaking of $7-8M players, I am really enjoying the play of William Nylander to start this season. He has picked up right where he left off last season and then some. He is impacting the game at every level, whether that would be in puck battles, puck transporting, and also special teams. I have noticed he is more engaged on the bench as a leader and I think that increase in maturity is naturally forcing the fans and media to have trouble pointing out any moments in the game where his switch is not turned on (something that William had trouble with at times in the past and would garner much attention from his criticizers. The best part about Nylander is he is not phased by a single word that is said about him amongst the fans or media, and combining that mentality with his increase in maturity can only lead to unlocking the best parts of Willy and that means nothing but good things for Toronto.
Lastly, it looks like the Leafs will finally get their Rocket Richard winning centre back in the lineup tonight vs New York. Adding Auston Matthews to the lineup is going to slot some players throughout the lineup into more suitable roles and that can only benefit Toronto. It also means, we can finally see the full wrath of the new look PP1 with Marner in the bumper role. Overall if his season debut gets delayed slightly, I am sure Matthews will be buzzing out of the gate and he’ll be hungrier than ever to lead this team to a deep playoff run and maybe even challenge for Rick Vaive’s single-season goal record of 54.