The good and bad of Maple Leafs’ hot start

The good and bad of Maple Leafs' hot start
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Remember (the latest instance) when the sky was falling for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

In late October, the Maple Leafs were 2-4-1, mired in a four-game losing streak. In losses to the behemoth Hurricanes and beat-up Penguins, the Maple Leafs were outscored 11-2. Fans who pledged to only care about the playoffs suddenly got quite worried about the regular season.

After a few hot weeks, the Maple Leafs backed up requests for fans to stay calm. Now those fans can go back to worrying about the playoffs, because the Maple Leafs’ regular season’s back on track.

By squeezing past the Rangers, the Maple Leafs pushed their winning streak to five games. Over their past 11 games, they’ve only lost once (10-1-0). The Maple Leafs enter the weekend with a 12-5-1 record, tentatively ranked second in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

So, which forces are driving Toronto’s hot streak? What could continue, and where are the red flags?

And, most importantly, why might the Maple Leafs break through in the playoffs — and what could once again hold them back?

Let’s get crackling like a fallen leaf under a winter boot.

The mostly good of the Maple Leafs so far

By just about every measure, the Maple Leafs look like a very strong team so far this season. You have to dig pretty deep to nitpick.

Mostly positives at even-strength

Whether you prefer sheer shot volume, or quality stats like high-danger chances, the Maple Leafs generally rank seventh-best or better.

Peel things back, and the flaw may be that the Maple Leafs are a “high-event” team whose style might not translate well enough to the playoffs. So far, the Maple Leafs blend dominant offense (via Hockey Viz):

The good and bad of Maple Leafs' hot start 5v5 offense Viz
via Hockey Viz

With defense that looks vulnerable, but not quite terrible:

Good bad Maple Leafs defense Hockey Viz
via Hockey Viz

The lazy temptation would be to call the Maple Leafs “soft.” If that were true, would they be so overwhelming in the most dangerous areas of the ice? After all, those spots aren’t just where you get the best chances; they’re also where you risk the most peril.

All things considered, it’s surprising that this team’s only averaging 2.67 goals per game, 10th-worst in the NHL. If they continue doing what they’re doing, the offense is almost bound to come. Probably in buckets.

Campbell’s been Vezina-level, which is good and bad

If you want to credit any single player for the Maple Leafs’ hot start, it’s undoubtedly Jack Campbell.

Campbell leads the league in Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, with 12.95. Calgary’s shutout machine Jacob Markstrom is the only other goalie above double digits this season (10.99).

Overall, Campbell’s 10-3-1 with a fantastic .944 save percentage. For a team lambasted for salary cap management, his contract is the gift that keeps giving. (At least, for now. His $1.65M cap hit expires after this season.)

That’s all great stuff — inspiring, even. But let’s get to the worrying part.

[No surprise, Maple Leafs look strong in PHT’s Power Rankings]

As a first-rounder-turned-journeyman, Campbell’s never played more than 31 NHL games in a single season. Meanwhile, Campbell’s played in 15 of the Maple Leafs’ 18 games in 2021-22. Glance at the other goalies’ work (no one else’s save percentage is above .877), and it’s easy to understand why the Maple Leafs lean so heavily on Campbell.

At some point, they need to ease up. Maybe that means Petr Mrazek finally getting healthy. Or, as unpleasant as it may be, the Maple Leafs might want to punt a few games to keep Campbell as fresh as possible.

(When pressed, that offense might outscore a few problem nights.)

So, as great as Campbell’s been the past two seasons, there are some questions in net.

Then again, you could extend those worries to plenty of teams. What if Andrei Vasilevskiy gets hurt? Thus far, Campbell’s been brilliant, and that’s a positive (and fortunate) development for the Maple Leafs.

(Note: many of these stats come from the indispensible Natural Stat Trick.)

Strong special teams

So far, the Maple Leafs boast the NHL’s fifth-ranked power play (26.5-percent) and fourth-most-efficient penalty kill (87.8). That said, we’re not quite a quarter through the 2021-22 season, so are those units legit?

Well, they could both slip, but there’s a lot to like when you look under the hood.

On the power play, the Maple Leafs mix quantity (top Corsi For) with quality (second only to the Oilers in expected goals for [per 60 minutes]). There’s even room to grow, as their power-play shooting percentage is middle-of-the-pack.

Promisingly, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill isn’t just the Jack Campbell show. They rank second only to Carolina in shot volume stats, and are a top-10 unit in limiting high-danger chances and expected goals on the PK.

It’s early, but both the Maple Leafs’ power play and penalty kill look improved compared to last season. Arguably significantly improved.

The $10.9 – $11.64M question: can Maple Leafs deliver in playoffs?

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the 2021-22 Maple Leafs as of mid-November. Of course, there was plenty to like about last year’s team, which in some ways was better.

To break through in the playoffs, the Maple Leafs need the obvious: their best players to be at their best.

No doubt, depth is valuable, especially as the playoffs grind on. Yet, sometimes it can get a bit overstated. While the Lightning repeated as champions with a versatile lineup, they also depended upon a select group of players to do the heaviest lifting.

So, the Maple Leafs will need Auston Matthews to score goals, Mitch Marner to stay confident and crafty, and John Tavares to stay healthy. Beyond William Nylander, they’ll need points from the Alexander Kerfoots here and there. (And it’s certainly promising that Ondrej Kase‘s heating up.)

Yes, health can “be a skill,” but there’s absolutely a luck element, too. Maybe the Maple Leafs will need the right opening opponent, too?

Truly, the Maple Leafs could fire on all cylinders and still lose to a very good team in the Panthers, Bruins, or Lightning.

Fair or not, few will have much mercy for the Maple Leafs if they once again fail to win a playoff series. Plenty of signs point toward success or failure. Even with a talented roster, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy.

But maybe they can pull it off?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.