Top 5 Maple Leafs at the midway point of their 2021-22 season
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
By Joseph Zita10 months ago
We’re now officially at the midway point of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2021-22 season after they played their 41st game of the season Monday night against the New Jersey Devils. It’s been quite a weird season, to say the least for not only Toronto but for almost every single other team in the league as everyone pretty much has had to adjust to COVID situations yet again just like last season. And for the Canadian teams, not only did they have to adjust with COVID hitting their teams and games being postponed due to it, but the Canadian teams have been faced with attendance issues due to restrictions in some of the provinces.
So in my opinion, the current Maple Leafs team we see right now could maybe even play better in the second half of the season when they get their fans back into the building when some restrictions start to lift in Ontario. They’ve pretty much played half the season with no fans already, whether it’s been at home or on the road in Canada and it just doesn’t feel the same because you got all the American teams with their arenas almost fully filled.
However, enough about attendance issues, let’s start getting into the Maple Leafs’ first half of the season and the top five players from the first half of the schedule.
Before we get into the top five Maple Leafs at the midway point of the season, I want to quickly talk about how Toronto as a team has done through 42 games, how their special teams have been and where they rank, and a couple of other things as well.
All stats are as of February 2nd, 2022 (game 42 vs NJ) their last game before the NHL All-Star break
Record: 29-10-3 (61 points) 3rd in Atlantic – 6th in Eastern Conference – 7th in NHL
Goals per game (GF/GP): 3.60 – 4th in NHL
Goals against per game (GA/GP): 2.64 – 6th in NHL
Power-play: 30.5% – 1st in NHL
Penalty-kill: 84.3% – 3rd in NHL
Face-off percentage: 55.9% – 1st in NHL
5. John Tavares – 31 years old – C
2021-22 stats: 41 GP – 17 G – 23 A – 40 PTS
It’s been quite the comeback season for John Tavares you could say after the way his season ended last year in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens. I don’t have to go into detail about what happened because I’m more than certain everyone remembers what went down in game one in the first period to the Maple Leafs captain. Anyways, after going through what he went through at that moment, he has had a tremendous season so far with this team and is honestly looking like the Tavares we saw in his first year in Toronto.
Obviously, the same goal pace is not quite there when he scored 47 goals in 82 games, but his point production is kind of there and his overall game is there too and he’s been getting his chances to put the puck in the back of the net so I know for a fact he won’t be stuck at 17 goals for that much longer. Tavares is currently on a 34 goal pace if he plays all the remaining games this season and that is without a doubt easy for a player of Tavares’ calibre. However, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he ends up cracking 40 simply because of how hot their power-play is and how consistent their top two lines have been this season.
Tavares, in my opinion, has been one of the five standouts this season for this Toronto team and a huge reason for that is for his consistency since the very start of the season. He, along with William Nylander were the only two forwards out of the “big four” that were producing for Toronto early on, despite the team starting the season with a 2-4-1 record. When guys like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were struggling to produce and show up anywhere on the scoresheet, it was someone like Tavares who would no matter if they won the game or not.
40 points through his first 41 games this season is more than you can ask for, for someone who plays second-line centre and averages around 18 and a half minutes of ice-time a night. With his consistency throughout the majority of the season thus far, Tavares is still going to be a very important piece down the stretch this season for Toronto and into the playoffs because they’re going to need their top two lines along with their depth to win them games.
4. Morgan Rielly – 27 years old – D
2021-22 stats: 42 GP – 5 G – 33 A – 38 PTS
What a season Morgan Rielly has been having so far, wow. I honestly want to call his season a little underrated to be honest, because there are a handful of other defensemen in the NHL who are having better seasons and getting a lot more recognition, but what Rielly is doing for this Toronto team this year is very special and it’s very big for Rielly too. Rielly has always been known as a defenseman who can put up offensive numbers but also someone who struggles defensively and someone who really has never had a legit top-pairing partner by his side throughout his career in Toronto.
Well, fast forward to last season and the Toronto Maple Leafs now have TJ Brodie who will slot in right beside Morgan Rielly on the first pair and it honestly felt like a sigh of relief. That pair for Toronto was wonderful last season and fast forward now to this season, Morgan Rielly is playing even better offensively and defensively which was something not a lot of people expected from him this year.
He currently has 38 points in 42 games – which puts him on a 74 point pace which would also be a career-high – and is playing very well defensively too and has been arguably the teams’ best player back there on the back end through the first half of the schedule. He has just taken massive strides this year in his own end, whether that’s being more patient with the puck and not turning it over in his zone or reading two on one’s better or even just being tough on his man and not giving him any room to do anything.
Rielly has been a massive bright spot for this team and has definitely put his name in the Norris conversation. Now, before you start saying “Norris conversation?” Yes, I mean Norris conversation. I’m not saying he should win it or will be a finalist, but he definitely should get some recognition for the type of season he’s having and should be looked at as a top 10 defenseman this season so far. He currently ranks seventh in points among defensemen and is fourth in assists among defensemen too, so take that how you will, but on top of that production and his defensive play which has improved a lot, he has been a tremendous player for this Toronto team this season without a doubt.
3. William Nylander – 25 years old – RW
2021-22 stats: 42 GP – 17 G – 23 A – 40 PTS
I’m glad we’re not seeing the same amount of hate being thrown towards a player like William Nylander anymore. Now, yes he still does get some hate thrown at him from the odd hater here and there, but compared to how he was treated right after his contract holdout and even into the 2019-20 season, Nylander has won over a ton of Leaf fans and hockey fans in general with his play over the past season and a half to two seasons.
Nylander was one of the very few bright spots in their first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens last year and he has continued that into this season and has not looked back. He, along with Tavares as I mentioned earlier in this article, were the only two forwards from the “big four” that were actually producing for the team from the very start of the season. From game one of the season up until game 42 right before the NHL All-Star break, Nylander is at 40 points and is currently on pace for his best season yet and would set career highs in goals, assists and obviously points.
He’s currently on a 78 point pace – 34 goals and 44 assists – and his current $6.9M AAV contract that looked like a huge overpayment to many people years ago is looking like one of the best contracts on this entire Maple Leafs team, that’s for sure. Nylander in my opinion has been a top-three player on this team through the first half of the season and I don’t think it’s up for debate unless you have him at four and someone else at three but with his production, consistency, and ability to carry the team or his line some nights if the other big boys aren’t performing is something special and something we’ve been waiting to see from Nylander.
I’m excited to see what Nylander can do in the second half of the season, I’m excited to see him try and break his current career highs in goals (31) assists (41) and points (61) and I’m just excited to see him, along with the rest of the team focus in on the task at hand which is going out there and try to win the Atlantic division and then try and make some noise in the playoffs. It’s time to slay the dragon and take down the demons that have been holding this team back for the past five years.
2. Auston Matthews – 24 years old – C
2021-22 stats: 39 GP – 29 G – 22 A – 51 PTS
There’s really not that much to say when it comes to Auston Matthews as he’s one of the league’s best players and arguably the best goal scorer in the league as well at just the age of 24. After coming off winning the Rocket Richard Trophy last season with 41 goals in the Canadian division, Matthews has certainly picked up from where he left off as he has picked up his sixth straight season with at least 25 goals and is top three in the league in goals, despite missing the first three games of the season and having a very slow start out of the gate through his first six games.
The 24-year-old has quickly become one of the best players in the NHL and has without a doubt become Toronto’s best player as well, and for this season, Matthews has been a very important piece in the lineup with his offence, defence, and even face-off abilities as he’s currently ranked 11th in the league generating at 56.25%. Whether it’s the highlight reel goals he scores almost every night, or him putting up assists, or even a stellar defensive play, Matthews has been arguably Toronto’s MVP this season, but if we’re being honest, I think the next guy has been the teams’ MVP.
Through 42 games so far – 39 games for Matthews – he has 29 goals and 22 assists for 51 points which puts him tied for third in goals and 11th in points. However, despite him missing some time to start the season, Toronto also has a handful of games to be played due to some of theirs being postponed earlier on in December, so it’s safe to say Matthews will slowly creep back into potentially first in goals and maybe even top 10 in points as well if he keeps playing how he has been playing as of late.
He’s the type of player that can put the team on his back and carry them to victory on any given night and we’ve witnessed that first hand this season, and pretty much throughout his career as he’s a game-changer and is one of the league’s very best. He’s capable of winning multiple Rocket Richard Trophies and even Hart Trophies as well, and so far this season, he has been arguably their MVP again.
1. Jack Campbell – 30 years old – G
2021-22 stats: 32 GP – 21-6-3 – 2.30 GAA – .925 SV% – 4 SO
Wow. Just wow. It’s been quite the first half for Jack Campbell this season after playing unreal last season in the Canadian division after he kind of stole the crease from Frederik Andersen, who, yes dealt with a couple of injuries himself, but his numbers last season were just not starter worthy and Campbell got the opportunity to start in some games and he just kept making the most of it and the rest is history. Literally, he made NHL and Toronto Maple Leafs history last season with the most wins to start a season by a goalie, and clearly hasn’t looked back and has just kept going with the flow of things.
Anyways, enough about last season, let’s talk about the 2021-22 Campbell and how good of a season he has been having. For starters, he’s been in the Vezina Trophy conversation for pretty much all season long so far along with a handful of other world-class goalies and goalies who have just been absolutely unreal this year, to say the least. To many, Campbell was always a “backup goalie” and someone who, despite being in his late twenties – at the time last season – will never be a starting goalie and someone who can’t handle a starting goalie’s workload given his little experience in the crease at the NHL level.
Well, it’s pretty obvious that narrative is quickly becoming pointless right now given how good Jack Campbell has truly been for the last year and a half for this Toronto Maple Leafs team. Although he does only have 118 career games of NHL experience in the crease over seven years, it’s clear as day that over the last two to three years he has really taken that step and established himself as an NHL goalie. Whether it’s a starter or a tandem goalie, Campbell belongs here and his journey to this point just makes it even better.
Without him this season, and to be honest, even last season, who knows where this Toronto team would be in the standings. We all know Toronto is a team with elite offensive talent and a team who – at times has looked rough defensively – is still a team who when healthy is a pretty good defensive team. Yes, they’ve been a little suspect over the last couple of weeks with weak defensive coverages and just look completely lost out there sometimes, but they’ve had their fair share of injuries/COVID on the backend and we just got to wait until the defence is fully healthy again and playing at their best. Although I still think Toronto should be eyeing a defenseman to add this trade deadline for a little insurance and a little bit of extra help if they want to go far this season.
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