Maple Leafs’ Forwards Ranked for Defensive Play – 2021-22 Season

Auston Matthews, David Kampf, Ilya Mikheyev, John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs

In our series of articles ranking the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players using five-on-five, on-ice stats tracked by naturalstattrick, we are going today to look at the defensive play of the top twelve Maple Leafs’ forwards in the 2021-22 regular season. We will be ranking them in Shot-Attempts Against, Shots Against, Scoring-Chances Against, High-Danger Chances Against, Goals Against, and Expected-Goals Against, and then give them an overall ranking for defensive play.

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Keep in mind that these statistics do not take into account the quality of competition or the quality of a player’s line-mates. A fourth-line player putting up better numbers than a first-line forward does not mean that player is better. It might mean the fourth-line player did a better job in the role given to him by the coach. We also want to add that we don’t feel ranking the players by these statistics is the only way to rate a player’s performance. It’s only one of many available tools.

Shot Attempts Against per 60 Minutes Played

Rank Player  Shot-Attempts Against

1 Ilya Mikheyev 46.2

2 Auston Matthews   47.3

3 Pierre Engvall 49.3

4 Mitch Marner 49.6

5 David Kampf 50.2

6 Michael Bunting 51.1

7 Wayne Simmonds 54.5

8 Ondrej Kase 54.9

9 Jason Spezza 55.0

10 William Nylander 55.2

11 John Tavares 56.9

12 Alex Kerfoot 57.6

Shots Against per 60

Rank Player  Shots Against

1 Mikheyev 26.5

2 Matthews   26.6

3 Marner 27.5

4 Kampf 27.9

5 Engvall 28.4

6 Bunting 29.2

7 Kase 30.1

8 Spezza 30.7

9 Kerfoot 31.5

10 Nylander 31.8

11 Simmonds 31.8

12 Tavares 32.5

Related: Notable NHL Captains Who Got Traded

Scoring Chances Against per 60

Rank Player  Scoring-Chances Against

1 Mikheyev 23.3

2 Matthews   24.3

3 Engvall 24.3

4 Kampf 25.0

5 Marner 25.1

6 Bunting 25.9

7 Nylander 26.9

8 Spezza 30.7

9 Kase 27.4

10 Kerfoot 27.5

11 Tavares 28.1

12 Simmonds 28.7

High Danger Chances Against per 60

Rank Player  High-Danger Chances Against

1 Mikheyev 9.0

2 Kampf 9.4

3 Matthews 9.9

4 Marner 9.9

5 Bunting 10.1

6 Engvall 10.2

7 Kerfoot 10.3

7 Spezza 10.3

9 Tavares 10.7

10 Kase 10.7

11 Nylander 10.9

12 Simmonds 11.9

Goals Against per 60

Rank Player  Goals Against

1 Engvall 1.68

2 Kase 1.78

3 Spezza 1.80

4 Kampf 2.20

5 Mikheyev 2.23

6 Simmonds 2.59

7 Kerfoot 2.84

8 Matthews 3.06

9 Marner 3.07

10 Bunting 3.23

11 Tavares 3.29

12 Nylander 3.47

Expected-Goals Against per 60

Rank Player  Expected-Goals Against

1 Matthews 2.04

2 Mikheyev   2.08

3 Kampf 2.13

4 Marner 2.16

5 Engvall 2.21

5 Bunting 2.21

7 Spezza 2.38

8 Kerfoot 2.41

8 Nylander 2.41

10 Kase 2.48

10 Simmonds 2.48

12 Tavares 2.52

Overall Ranking For Defense By Forwards

Rank Player  Overall Ranking

1 Mikheyev 1.8

2 Matthews   3.0

3 Engvall 3.7

3 Kampf 3.7

5 Marner 4.8

6 Bunting 6.3

7 Spezza 7.0

8 Kase 7.5

9 Kerfoot 8.8

10 Simmonds 9.5

11 Nylander 9.7

12 Tavares 11.0

Observations

Ilya Mikheyev

It might be a surprise to some fans to see Ilya Mikheyev come out on top of the rankings for defensive play by a forward for the Maple Leafs. It’s something we might not have noticed using the eye test. We notice his play with the puck and the things he does well offensively.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire)

How a player performs without the puck is not always that noticeable. Mikheyev was first in four of the six categories. 

Auston Matthews

A second-place ranking for defensive play of all of the Maple Leafs’ forwards shows the maturation of Auston Matthews and how his 200-foot game has improved. This finding aligns with Matthews being a finalist for the Selke Trophy, which is awarded annually “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

This finding is more support that Matthews is not only the best player on the Maple Leafs but truly one of the NHL’s elite players

Pierre Engvall

Pierre Engvall ranking third defensively for Maple Leafs’ forward comes as no surprise to us. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has praised Engvall for his defensive play numerous times over the past two seasons. It’s interesting to note that his third-place finish is actually a slip. He was number one in the defensive rankings for Maple Leafs’ forwards last season.

David Kampf

David Kampf is the third member of Keefe’s most often used “shutdown” line along with Mikheyev and Engvall. The fact that all three of these players rank in the top four shows how successful they are in shutting down opposing players. They’re also not just your typical bottom-six line as they play a lot of minutes against the opposing team’s top players.  

Mitch Marner

With the exception of Goals Against, Marner’s numbers are much the same as last season. He slipped a little in the rankings this season because of the improvement of Mikheyev and the addition of Kampf.  

Michael Bunting

Michael Bunting’s sixth-place ranking confirms that he’s a top-six forward on this team as well as a member of the undisputed number one line.

Jason Spezza

As with his offensive rank, we have to admit Jason Spezza’s seventh-place defensive rank is pretty good for a player that has decided to retire.

Ondrej Kase

Ondrej Kase’s eighth-place rank in defensive play is better than his 10th-place rank in offensive play. Overall, it makes us wonder if maybe his numbers don’t match the eye test in regard to his effectiveness. 

Alex Kerfoot

When we saw that Alex Kerfoot’s offensive numbers were much lower than Tavares’ and Nylander’s, we wondered if his defensive numbers would make up for it. We now see that his average ranking in the six categories of 8.8 is indeed higher than Nylander’s 9.7 and Tavares’ 11.0

Wayne Simmonds

Simmonds ranked 11th in offense and 10th in defense. That’s unfortunately not a very good combination. 

William Nylander and John Tavares

We’re going to talk about these two players together. They ranked together fourth and fifth for offensive stats. Here they are together again; however, they rank a miserable 11th and 12th in defensive stats. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Putting up good offensive numbers is great, but if a player gives it all back in defense it’s not so great. This is the reason why they’re a combined -17 despite scoring a combined total of 156 points. These defensive numbers have to be an area of concern for Sheldon Keefe. 

Kyle Clifford and Colin Blackwell

As with the offensive numbers, we did not include Kyle Clifford or Colin Blackwell in the defensive rankings. We did track their numbers, however. If we would have included them, Clifford would have finished just ahead of Tavares and behind Nylander. Blackwell’s stats would have placed him below Tavares. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Forwards Ranked for Offensive Play – 2021-22 Season

In our next post, we’ll combine the offensive and defensive rankings to see how each of the top twelve forwards rank overall for the Maple Leafs. 

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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