On the surface, the 2021/22 Toronto Maple Leafs season feels quite similar to their 2020/21 campaign. In each of the last two years, Toronto had record-setting regular seasons in years that seemed to drag on at the tail end while simply hoping for no injuries heading into the postseason.
Now, there are plenty of differences between the two seasons when you begin to dig a bit deeper.
The discussion around the North Division’s legitimacy in 2021 was exhausting. So what did the Leafs do? Go out and post a higher points percentage upon returning to the gauntlet that is the Atlantic. With a .698 points percentage with one game remaining, Toronto is guaranteed to top their .688 points percentage from 2020/21.
And yet, they’ll still face the two-time defending champions that rank fourth in the conference, because of course they will. But that’s for another time.
5v5 Corsi-for, against
Looking at 5v5 on-ice metrics, the 2021/22 Maple Leafs took a notable step forward in creating offence while maintaining similarly strong defensive results to 2020/21. Their 61.6 Corsi-for per 60 at 5v5 ranks fourth in the NHL and is a full eight shot attempts per 60 better than their 2020/21 rate of 53.6.
This is one of the biggest areas Toronto has improved year over year. In 2020/21, the Leafs maintained offensive zone time to a great extent but did not generate a significant amount of shot attempts from it, ranking outside the top ten in 5v5 Corsi-for per 60 a year ago. That has not been an issue this season, as Toronto has put an emphasis on getting more pucks towards the net, and it shows in the results.
At the other end of the ice, the Leafs are allowing 1.8 shot attempts per 60 at 5v5 more than in 2020/21. With goal and shot rates increasing league-wide year over year, Toronto actually ranks higher in Corsi-against per 60 in 2021/22 than last season despite the slight increase in shots attempts against.
5v5 Expected goals for, against
These results translate over when accounting for shot quality. Despite their lower Corsi-for in 2020/21, the Leafs were still a top-five team in 5v5 expected goals-for per 60 a season ago, but Toronto has still improved on that result. The Leafs 2.88 expected goals-for per 60 at 5v5 in 2021/22 is third in the league and 0.31 higher than their 2020/21 rate.
Defensively, Toronto has actually improved relative to the league in this area as well. While their 2020/21 5v5 expected goals-against per 60 of 2.11 was lower than their 2.34 rate in 2021/22, Toronto ranks fourth in the category compared to ninth a season ago.
5v5 Goals against, 5v5 save percentage
Now, this brings us to the big point of regression that I’m sure you are all aware of. While the Leafs’ metrics have improved defensively relative to the rest of the league, that hasn’t resulted in better raw goals against.
At 2.76 goals against per 60 at 5v5 in 2021/22, the Leafs rank 22nd league-wide. Compare that to their very strong 2.07 goals against per 60 at 5v5 in 2020/21 which was just outside the top five in the NHL.
The culprit? An abysmal 5v5 save percentage, a factor Leafs fans have been well aware of for months now. After receiving .924 goaltending at 5v5 in 2020/21 to rank seventh in the NHL, the 2021/22 Leafs have had .908 goaltending at 5v5 to rank an astonishing 28th in the NHL. The only teams to have had worse goaltending this year at 5v5 are the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, and New Jersey Devils, all of which are, believe it or not, nowhere near a playoff spot.
If you are glass half full, you look at the goaltending results and think “wow, if Toronto has been this good with that goaltending, just imagine what they will do if they get league average results in net.” The glass half empty folks, which if we’re being honest is about 90 per cent of Leafs fans, will look at that and think “well there’s the Achilles heel.”
After looking at the area the Leafs have regressed the most in 2021/22, let’s go to a positive and look at the area Toronto has improved the most this season. And simply, it isn’t even close: Special teams.
In 2020/21, Toronto entered the playoffs with the worst special teams among postseason teams. Ranking 23rd and 26th in net powerplay and net penalty kill, it was arguably the biggest factor in the team failing to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in the first round a year ago.
It was a focal point of offseason moves too. Spencer Carbery was brought in to work on the powerplay, while Dean Chynoweth was scooped up from the Carolina Hurricanes to take over the penalty kill. Needless to say, it’s been a smashing success.
Toronto ranks first in net powerplay at 25.4 per cent in 2021/22, a whopping 9.9 per cent increase year over year. On the penalty kill, their net results rank third in the NHL and are also an incredible 7.4 per cent increase from the season prior.
Personnel changes have of course played a factor, but the jobs Carbery and Chynoweth have done overhauling the Leafs special teams from a bottom feeder among playoff teams to a legitimate strength should not go overlooked. Given how few opportunities teams receive on the man advantage in the postseason, being able to convert on your chances while preventing the other team from scoring on theirs can be the ultimate difference-maker in a tight series.
Finally, Toronto is seeing slightly more depth scoring than a season ago, another factor that has been an issue at times in the postseason for the Leafs. In 2020/21, the Big Four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander combined to score 51.9 per cent of Toronto’s goals. This season, that number dipped slightly to 49.7 per cent.
It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, and production from these four will make or break the Leafs playoff hopes, but any kind of additional scoring from lower in the lineup will be a huge boost for Toronto.
Overall, the Leafs are a better team statistically in 2021/22 than they were in 2020/21. Will that result in better fortunes come next week in the playoffs? We’ll have to wait and see.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com
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