Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
Here is your fantasy outlook for all 32 teams. The annual Pool Guide is available now and also check out Matt Larkin’s Top 250 Players for the upcoming season.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: Oof. The road was a little bumpy, but the Leafs made it all the way to the top of the North Division with a five-point lead over second place, the largest margin among the four divisions. There was little doubt the Leafs would come out on top, and even after securing home ice where they were 6-1-1 over the final two months of the season, they were ousted in the first round for the fifth straight season. This one especially hurt because the Leafs had clinched a playoff berth and the division title against the rival Habs, only to blow a 3-1 series lead and watch them advance to the Finals. The loss extended their championship drought to 54 seasons, the longest in the league despite fantastic individual seasons from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who finished fifth and fourth in league scoring, respectively.
Best option: Auston Matthews, C
Since entering the league, Matthews has scored 199 goals, trailing only Alex Ovechkin’s 205, and among those who have registered at least 1,000 shots, Matthews is first with a 16.2 S%. Translation: not only is Matthews a high-volume shooter, he’s also frighteningly efficient and effective. Most fantasy leagues – rightly or wrongly – place a premium on shooting and goals, and that’s why Matthews gets the top spot over Marner, who is projected to score four more points according to THN’s Pool Guide, or Tavares, who has never struck fear into goalies the same way Matthews does. He’s a perennial Rocket Richard candidate and easily a top-five player in any format. The environment he finds himself in is really conducive to his playing style; he’s got an excellent playmaker in Marner, a coach who is willing to play him a lot and a system that places an emphasis on speed and skill. THN’s Pool Guide is projecting Matthews to score 61 goals… making him just the third player after Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos to score more than 60 in a season in the cap era, and nearly 20 more goals than the next highest projected total.
Hidden gem: Morgan Rielly, D
We could make a strong case for Nick Robertson, who could force his way onto the top six, or William Nylander, a talented playmaker who gets far too much criticism. But all that offense has to start somewhere, and if the Leafs aren’t forcing turnovers in the neutral zone, a lot of it will start from the back end with Rielly. His offensive profile isn’t particularly exciting because he’s not really a standout skater in the Quinn Hughes mold or a shot-generating machine like Roman Josi, but he’s still very effective at controlling the puck. Among defensemen who have played at least 100 minutes on the power play last season, Rielly ranks 13th with 103.28 shot attempts per 60 minutes, according to naturalstattrick.com. It obviously helps when Matthews is on your power play, but at the very least, Rielly is taking the most of his opportunities and ranks 17th among defensemen with 70 power-play points over the past five seasons. It’s a role that he’s unlikely to relinquish because there’s no one else other than T.J. Brodie who the Leafs trust, and youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren aren’t quite ready to take over yet. Rielly’s 60 points, as per the Pool Guide’s projection, would make him the fifth-highest scoring defenseman in the league.
This is the biggest question facing the Leafs this season. Jack Campbell was excellent but even his biggest supporters have to admit that going on an 11-game winning streak requires some luck. It’s been a hard-fought battle for Campbell to get to where he is, but fantasy hockey takes no prisoners and sentimentality can be a death knell if you get too attached. Injuries have also hindered Campbell in the past, including hand, knee and groin ailments, and he has never appeared in more than 31 NHL games. That may change this season, but Petr Mrazek is also jostling for the No. 1 job.
Mrazek is a befuddling case. When given the reigns to be the starting goalie, as he was in Detroit, Philadelphia and Carolina, he was never really able to establish himself as the undisputed starter. His three seasons with Carolina could be described as mercurial, with a very good first season (ranked 13th in GSAA, according to naturalstatrick.com’s model), an atrocious second season (71st) and a very good third season (14th). But, when the chips were down, very few goalies were capable of stealing games like Mrazek. With Detroit, he led them to upset wins against the Lightning. With Carolina, he led them to the conference finals after dispatching the defending champion Capitals.
It makes valuing Mrazek’s fantasy value particularly difficult, but at least he’s playing on a very strong team that could win a lot of games. According to Yahoo’s ADP, Mrazek (83.8) is expected to be the backup to Campbell (65.9), but Mrazek has more experience in the NHL and the most likely result is an equal timeshare to start until either Mrazek or Campbell get hot and emerge as the starter.
To be safe, that means managers should target both Mrazek and Campbell, who should combine for at least 45 wins on a Cup contender, though, personally, I would give the edge to Mrazek to receive more starts by the end of the season because I think he’s a little more talented and has a lengthier track record.
The regular season is no problem for the Leafs and that means they will be excellent fantasy options. Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander and Rielly are all projected to score at least 60 points this season. It’s the depth and goaltending that are a little bit worrisome, but some of those holes won’t be exposed until the playoffs when the margin for error gets smaller and the Leafs can no longer beat up the minnows in their division such as Detroit or Buffalo.
The Leafs are safe options for fantasy leagues. The agony usually comes later when the postseason begins.