Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-2022: What Went Right?
Over the past few weeks, since the Toronto Maple Leafs lost their first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the questions of “what now?”, “what went wrong?”, “who should be fired?” and “who should be traded” have been the most consistent conversations by Maple Leaf fans. Every app, forum and web blog have asked these questions, and will continue to ask them over the next months, and for good reason, but Leafs fans should take a step back from their frustrations and look at what went right for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the 2021-2022 season.
The Replacement: Michael Bunting
After the Toronto Maple Leafs were not able to re-sign Zach Hyman, Kyle Dubas turned to Nick Ritchie to fill that hole on the left wing of the Matthew-Marner line. While Ritchie did not have success in that role, Michael Bunting did. Bunting was a left winger for the Arizona Coyotes with only 26 games played over two seasons and was initially projected as a bottom six winger for the Maple Leafs at the beginning of the season. By the end of the season, Michael Bunting had reached 63 points and was nominated for the Calder Trophy for his proficient debut in his first full-length season. In Bunting’s year as the first line left-wing for the Maple Leafs he had more goals and points than Hyman had during any of his five seasons as the left winger on the Matthews-Marner line. Michael Bunting also has one more year on his two-year deal worth only $950,000 a season, which is arguably the best contract on the Maple Leafs.
The Rise of the Defensive Kids: Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren
Timothy Liljegren is becoming a bonafide top-4 defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Liljegren, who appeared in 61 games for the Maple Leafs this season, scored 5 goals and 18 assists during the regular season. This point total has Liljegren in the top five for rookie defencemen and is tied for third most in goals by a rookie defenseman this season. Liljegren proved, especially after gaining defensive chemistry with Mark Giordano, that he will be an impact player for the Maple Leafs, both offensively and defensively, for years to come and is not far away from being a regular top-4 defenseman.
Rasmus Sandin has continued his development during the 2021-2022 season with very positive outcomes. Sandin is becoming a strong offensive defenceman and has shown that he has the potential and talent to be a regular in the top-4 as well as a regular on the point during the powerplay. Sandin has also had success with his physical game especially considering Sandin is a relatively small defenceman. Sandin had 88 hits and 39 blocked shots in only 51 games this season. Sandin’s season was cut short due to injury but is expected to be in the opening day lineup next season and will likely see more top-4 minutes and a larger power play role.
The Trade Deadline
At the 2020-2021 trade deadline, Kyle Dubas traded a first and two fourth round draft picks for Nick Foligno. Nick Foligno went on to play 11 games for the Maple Leafs and scored no goals. The Foligno trade was one of the worst trades of Kyle Dubas’ Career as General Manager of the Leafs.
The 2021-2022 trade deadline was different for Dubas. The Leafs traded two second round picks and a third-round pick for Colin Blackwell and Mark Giordano (50% salary retention). Both players became regulars in the Maple Leaf lineup and produced at a solid pace. Blackwell was a steady defensive presence and an upgrade on the 4th line while Mark Giordano produced 12 points in 20 regular season games and was a strong defensive option in the Maple Leafs own zone. Giordano also had a leadership role on the team and helped elevate the game of rookie defenseman Timothy Liljegren. Although the Maple Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kyle Dubas still managed to make his best trade deadline day move of his career, while not giving up any young prospects or a first-round draft pick.