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The biggest surprises (good and bad) for the Leafs this season

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Photo credit:Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Scott Maxwell
11 months ago
With the NHL currently on pause for COVID and the holidays, now’s as good of a time as ever to take a look at some of the Leafs that have surprised fans so far this season. Some people came in with low expectations and have far surpassed them, some came with high expectations and haven’t quite hit the bar they usually do, and some even had low expectations and can’t even meet that. This will mostly be based on my own expectations of the players, so there might be a player or two that you won’t agree with. I’ll go over what about them has surprised me, and whether or not we can expect that player to continue doing what they’re doing.

Pleasant Surprise: David Kampf

At the time, Kampf might have been the most underwhelming signing for the Leafs during the offseason. He didn’t produce much offense, and he had really mediocre underlying numbers that basically said he wouldn’t be much of anything on the Leafs. Did he ever prove me wrong. Not only has he been an effective player on the team, he’s been a key cog for the Leafs shutdown line, which has allowed the Leafs to be flexible with their matchups and usually means one of the Matthews or Tavares line gets out against weak competition. I shouldn’t say I’m entirely surprised though, as I uncovered in Kampf’s entry for our TLN Top 20 Leafs series that his underlying numbers actually were pretty good when he wasn’t strapped to Patrick Kane, who’s notoriously a terrible player defensively, but even then, I wasn’t expecting this type of defensive prowess early on.
Will this continue?: If there’s one red flag about Kampf’s performance, it’s that his strong underlying numbers drop off significantly when he isn’t playing with Pierre Engvall. With Engvall, he has a 53.3% CF% and 55.97% xGF% at 5v5, but away from Engvall, it drops to a 44.94% CF% and a 45.68% xGF% (Engvall, meanwhile, sees his stay about the same at a 54.44% CF% and 53.94% xGF%). Considering Engvall is always talked about as a Leaf on the way out, that might not bode well for this line’s future if these trends are actual trends and not just a coincidence.

Disappointing Surprise: Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl

That day we all feared has finally arrived, as time remains undefeated and has claimed another victim in Muzzin. At 32, it’s not a surprise that it’s happened, but I think Leafs fans were hoping it wouldn’t come in just year two of his four year deal. Muzzin hasn’t exactly been bad, but has more or less taken a step back from the elite shutdown defenseman he once was, and is now a mere mortal. The bigger problem is the effect that it’s had on Holl. Holl has played pretty well in the shutdown pair role these past couple of seasons, but we all knew that it was more of a product of Muzzin carrying the load. Now that Muzzin can’t do that, he’s much more exposed and has been exploited a lot more this season. The pairing has a 49.54% CF% and 50.51% xGF% at 5v5 this season, which doesn’t look too bad on paper, especially when you consider they get the shutdown minutes, but when the team has a 54.32% CF% and 57.33% xGF% when they aren’t on the ice, that’s a significant drop off in quality, especially from your top pair.
Will this continue?: Maybe not, because Sheldon Keefe has already started experimenting with new partners for Muzzin, particularly with Timothy Liljegren and Travis Dermott. But the pair as a whole will probably keep at this mediocre pace unless Muzzin regains his form, or someone emerges as a partner who can lighten the load for him a bit, whether that happens internally or through a trade.

Pleasant Surprise: Morgan Rielly

One thing that’s helped mask Muzzin and Holl falling off a bit is Rielly stepping up his play a lot more. Having a lot more familiarity with TJ Brodie this season has helped, but he’s also improved his defensive significantly from past seasons. That’s not to say he’s amazing at it now, it’s more just settled down to about average defensively, but that’s a lot better than his usually horrid defensive results, especially when it hasn’t quite come at the cost of his offense either. He’s got 26 points in 30 games, tied for fourth in defensemen scoring, and he’s also been a lot more effective on the power play than he has been in past seasons as well. He also currently leads all defensemen in the league in GAR with 9.7, almost a whole goal above replacement than second place. It could be a legitimate Norris caliber season for Rielly, although there are also some other strong candidates with better name value as well.
Will this continue?: Like I said, finally having a stable partner that’s actually good in Brodie really helps Rielly’s game and has probably played a role, but his improved defense is an actual improvement in play, not just “less goals are allowed when he’s on the ice”, which usually just means the goalie is better. He’s gotten better at suppressing chances, and that’s really helped the Leafs be a lot more consistent this season. It also couldn’t have come at a better time since we just locked him up for eight more years after this year. I’ll have to see this for more than just a season before I come to any real conclusions, but it’s a good sign.

Disappointing Surprise: Nick Ritchie

So Ritchie falls into the camp of “low expectations that he couldn’t even reach”. While there was some hope of him possibly being a Zach Hyman replacement, especially when he slotted next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at the start of the season, but I think most reasonable fans expected him to just be a solid middle six forward, probably slotting on the third line. But, any time he hasn’t been on the fourth line, he looks out of place. When he’s in the top six, he’s usually hurting the offense more than helping it, and when he’s on the Kampf line, it usually stops being an effective shutdown line (Kampf sees his CF% drop from 51.37% to 42.58% and his xGF% drop from 53.96% to 41.75% at 5v5 when Ritchie joins the line). He’s worked alongside Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds, but considering he was the most expensive free agency addition, that’s not good enough.
Will this continue?: I hate to say it, but probably. Keefe keeps giving him plenty of chances and he doesn’t really do much with them. He seems destined for the fourth line, or maybe even a trade, considering he still has a year on his deal after this.

Pleasant Surprise: Michael Bunting

Speaking of free agents brought in to potentially replace Hyman for cheap, Bunting has definitely done a good job of replacing him for the money he makes. Heck, he might even be better than Hyman. While Hyman has been putting up more points, a lot of it has come on that dynamic power play in Edmonton. At even strength, Bunting has five goals and 16 points while Hyman has eight goals and 14 points. Not just that, but he’s actually helped elevate the Matthews line to new heights that it never really reached with Hyman. This season, that line has a 60.9% xGF% when it’s Bunting-Matthews-Nylander, and a whopping 74.55% when it’s Bunting-Matthews-Marner. The highest best those pairs ever got with Hyman was 55.08% xGF% with Matthews-Nylander in 2016-17, and a 65.11% xGF% with Matthews-Marner in 2020-21. Not to put Hyman down, he was amazing here and is still a really good player, but I’d rather have Bunting doing what he’s doing at 26 for two years at league minimum than Hyman at 29 for seven years at $5.5 million.
Will this continue?: Bunting only has NHL 56 games to his name, so you don’t necessarily want to get carried away and say this is what he’ll be like for his whole career (remember when we thought Ilya Mikheyev was really good?). That said, even if the scoring doesn’t keep up, the fact that he’s driving play, or at least not hindering Matthews’ play, shows that he can at least be effective in that regard. Plus, he’s only shooting 11.3% this season, compared to his 26.3% shooting percentage last season that caused a lot more red flags.

Disappointing Surprise: Petr Mrazek

I mean, you can’t really blame Mrazek for his start to his Leafs career because I’m pretty sure if given the choice, he’d probably try to not get injured. But, he was brought in to provide the Leafs with a stable 1a-1b tandem for the first time since James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, and avoid what they had to do with Frederik Andersen for the last five seasons and run him to the ground, and unfortunately he hasn’t been able to do that yet.
Will this continue?: The good news is right now Mrazek is healthy, and he’s also going to get an even bigger break because of all the COVID delays, so his injury should definitely be healed by the time they get back into action next week, so he can probable be a much more stable presence for the Leafs for the remainder of the season.

Pleasant Surprise: Jack Campbell

Thankfully for Mrazek, the Leafs haven’t really be impacted by the lack of a backup because Campbell has been killing it. There were some concerns going into the season about how he was getting the starting gig based on 22 games (and only 86 total), but he has continued to be dominant in the crease, at one point having as high as a save percentage in the .940s. He leads all starters in 5v5 save percentage, fourth in goals save above expected, and 8th in goals above replacement, having a campaign that is Vezina worthy, and even had many saying he should’ve gotten a spot on the US Olympic team.
Will this continue?: Technically no, expecting a goalie to maintain a .937 save percentage over the course of the season is insane, and he’s already seeing his play drop off a tad bit, with three games with a save percentage below .905 in his last five. He’s definitely going to regress, but I’d say he’s probably solidified that he’s a starter right now.

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