Grading The Leafs at the Halfway Mark (almost)

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It’s hard to believe that we’re almost halfway through this shortened season. Shortened or not, these 26 games have gone by quickly.

It’s also hard to believe what the Leafs have managed to accomplish up to this point. With the best record in the NHL, they sit 1st overall in the league. They’ve weathered the injury storm but, as Kyle Dubas said in the past, every team goes through this each season and great teams find ways to win, regardless of how many injuries they have. This is something that the Leafs have used as an excuse when they play poorly in the past, but this year they are finding ways to win instead. I should also point out that the team isn’t as bad off as it would seem when it comes to injuries compared to other teams:

It may be less about the number of injuries and more to do with the players that have been sidelined, that make things seem so dire. Losing your 1st and 2nd string goaltenders is a tough way to go through parts of a season, for example. 

So, let’s start grading our team there, with the goalies. 

**Grades are based on performance vs expectations, rather than usage and/or importance to the team.

Michael Hutchinson: (3-2-0, 2.03GAA, 0.934SV%, 1SO) 

Grade: A 

With a 3-2 record this season, Hutchinson has had a better start to the campaign than he did a year ago. The two games that Hutchinson did lose weren’t on him at all. It was a 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames and Thursdays 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, but the team simply couldn’t get anything going at all in front of him. His season highlight was a stellar performance against the Edmonton Oilers, while his 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames was also a terrific performance. If you had told me one year ago that he would have a winning record for the Leafs this season, I wouldn’t have believed it. For that reason he gets an A grade.

Jack Campbell: (3-0-0, 1.33GAA, 0.951SV%)

Grade: B+

There isn’t much to debate here. Campbell has been outstanding. His three wins were by scores of 3-2, 3-2 and 4-0. He’s been solid all-around. With great positioning and a tremendous attitude, he deserves top scores for his play this year. I just wish he had avoided injury so we could see more of him. A lot of people think he has what it takes to be a starter in this league and are suggesting the team should allow Frederik Andersen to test the open market at season’s end, which would leave Campbell to run with the ball next year. With so few games to judge him by, I would suggest that to be unwise. However, with Frederik Andersen struggling, there may be an opportunity there for Campbell, or somebody else, moving forward. If it weren’t for injuries Campbell would get a better grade, but staying healthy matters so he gets a B+. 

Frederik Andersen: (12-4-2, 2.68GAA, 0.906SV%) 

Grade: D

Seven of Freddys first nine games ended with him posting a SV% of 0.905 or lower, with a couple of real stinker games in there. Six of his past nine games have seen him post a SV% of 0.920 or higher, with a couple of terrific games mixed in. Sadly, this is a typical season for Andersen. His starts are always terrible, with the Leafs having to outscore their/his issues early in the year. He tends to turn things around halfway through the year, before being a wild card in the playoffs. So, in short, we have never seen a consistent season from Andersen. 

On top of that, I’ve been saying for years that critiquing the play of this teams goaltenders is foolhardy. They’ve been a high octane hockey team for years now, with poor defense and forwards that appeared to care more about scoring than defending. That appears to have changed this season.

This year the team is scoring 3.46 goals per game, which ranks them 2nd in the NHL, that’s typical. It’s their 2.42 goals against per game, which ranks 4th in the league, that is far different and impressive. The addition of T.J. Brodie to the blueline has given the team a bonafide top 4, while Sheldon Keefe has the team playing a much more conservative style. 

We’re seeing Andersen play behind a more defensive team and it’s been disappointing. For that reason alone, I’m giving him a D grade. The question now is, even if he finishes the year spectacularly, will it be enough to give the team the confidence to re-sign him to a big contract? For me it will be his playoff performance that matters the most. If he isn’t at his best then I think he may have to find another team to play for next season.

Morgan Rielly: 3 goals, 19pts, 26GP

Grade: B

Morgan Rielly has been a polarizing figure in Leafland this season. He has never been the best player defensively, but his offensive instincts have largely outweighed the negatives. 

This year is no different from my point of view. 

As of this writing Rielly is tied for 4th in the NHL in points among defensemen. He’s playing nearly 24 minutes a night and is a leader on the team. Also, and I try to point this out as much as possible, when you compare him to other offensive defenders, I find that his defensive game is better than most. If you consider the games of players such as Quinn Hughes, Tyson Barrie and Cale Makar, his defense, among offensemen, is solid. These are all great things. 

For the negatives, he needs a player like T.J. Brodie to cover for him if he wants to play to his strengths. This is a knock on him, but this is a team game, so having somebody on the team that helps prop somebody else up is, luckily, possible. Also, a clear cut #1 defender, which is what this team is missing, would play on your top PP and PK units, which isn’t the case for Rielly. 

It’s his high end offensive abilities, combined with his run-of-the-mill defensive game, that earns Rielly a respectable B grade.

T.J. Brodie: 0 goals, 8pts, 26GP

Grade: A 

The point totals aren’t there for Brodie, but they don’t need to be. What this team has been missing since the departure of Ron Hainsey is a player that can play on the top pair with Morgan Rielly and provide a defensive conscience to the pairing. Brodie has stepped into that spot and flourished. He has experience playing with high end players, as he was often paired with Mark Giordano in Calgary and those abilities have transferred very well in Toronto. 

On top of helping Morgan Rielly, Brodie has helped steady the penalty killing unit and given the team the ability to play other players in their proper places in the lineup. They haven’t had to force players such as Cody Ceci or Tyson Barrie higher into the lineup than necessary, which has resulted in the entire defensive unit being more cohesive and effective. 

So, while some of his grade is based on individual play, it’s his addition to the group and how it has helped the entire unit that has earned him an A grade from me. 

Jake Muzzin: 1 goal, 13pts, 24GP

Grade: A 

Another high rank for one of the team’s defenders. Having this many good players on the blueline is uncharted territory for the Leafs.

Muzzin has been the team’s best all-around defender, full stop. He’s their best penalty killer, most physical blueliner, has solid offensive instincts and is a leader on and off the ice.

There isn’t much more to say about a player like Muzzin. Simply put, he’s exactly the type of player that every team needs, so he gets an A grade from me. 

*Bonus points for pissing off Matthew Tkachuk THIS much: 

Justin Holl: 1 goal, 9pts, 26GP

Grade: A

So many high scores!!! I’m in heaven!!! 

Justin Holl has been terrific. He pairs extremely well with Jake Muzzin and with that chemistry and the chemistry between Rielly and Brodie combined, it has given the Leafs a legitimate top 4 defensive group. 

His game has matured to the point where he has turned into a terrific penalty killer and a modern defensive defenseman. He uses his positioning and stick extremely well to shut down offensive chances and then moves the puck up ice, to transition the team to offense quickly. He’s physical, mobile, smart and effective, which earns him an A grade. 

Travis Dermott: 1 goal, 1pts, 22GP

Grade: B 

Travis Dermott hasn’t had to do a lot in order to score well. He’s playing just under 13 minutes a night, which is the lowest of his career. His season high came against Calgary just over a week ago. He played over 22 minutes against the Flames and did a terrific job with Jake Muzzin on the sidelines. So, in short, all he has had to do is play 12-13 minutes of responsible hockey each night to earn a high grade and he’s done that very well. 

The reason he doesn’t score higher is because he’s been in the league for 4 years now and hasn’t forced management to play him more than 12 minutes. I feel like we’ve been waiting for him to take the next step for a long time and he hasn’t done that. Now the question is if management sees him as a trade chip, or if reducing his minutes is an attempt to insulate him, develop him, and see him play a bigger role in years to come. 

My guess is with Mikko Lehtonen able to step into the lineup right away, as well as having Rasmus Sandin in the system and developing well, it’s a recipe for disaster for Dermott’s future in Toronto. This just leaves me to wonder if they intend to trade him at the deadline or after the season, but before the Seattle expansion draft, in order to avoid losing him for nothing.

Zach Bogosian: 0 goals, 2pts, 25GP

Grade: B+ 

Much like Dermott, Bogosian hasn’t had to do a ton to rank highly. He’s playing 14:48TOI/GP, with almost 2 minutes of that coming on the penalty kill. He has steadied the Leafs depth at the position and has played as advertised. That is, as a steady depth defender that plays a physical game. 

Not much to hate about that. 

Mikko Lehtonen: 0 goals, 3pts, 9GP

Grade: C-

If I gave Morgan Rielly a high ranking for being poor defensively but having the ability to outscore those deficiencies, then I’d be a hypocrite to score Mikko Lehtonen any higher than I have. 

His defensive game is lacking, but there is definitely potential within the player. One thing I always look for is if a player appears to have the physical tools to play at the NHL level and I do think Lehtonen has those tools. He skates, sees the ice, shoots and passes well, but he’s doing it all just a little too slow. With a little more development and time he could turn into a good 3rd pairing defender that can quarterback the 2nd powerplay unit. At the moment he just isn’t there yet. 

Auston Matthews: 18 goals, 31pts, 23GP

Grade: A++ 

For the past couple of years the fans of the Leafs have been asking their best players to raise their games to another level. They’ve been looking for the team to play with a little more physicality and determination.

Well, Auston Matthews heard those cries and did exactly as the fans wanted. 

Matthews is playing a man’s game this year. His defensive game has gone up 10 notches and his offensive instincts are better than ever. He’s 1st in the NHL in goals scored and, aside from the past three games, is showing no signs of slowing down. He has missed a couple of games and doesn’t appear to be fully healthy, so I’m hoping that won’t hurt his chances at the Rocket Richard Trophy at season’s end. 

I don’t think there’s much to debate here. Auston Matthews is the team’s best player right now. Luckily for us, it’s not a blowout victory.

Mitch Marner: 10 goals, 34pts, 26GP

Grade: A+ 

Just slightly behind Matthews in grading, Marner has also taken his game to another level this year. He’s playing with a sense of urgency that we’ve never seen before. I have seen moments where the old “bail on physical contact at all costs” Marner resurfaces, but for the most part he has been more willing to go to the dirty areas of the ice. 

At the moment he’s 4th in the NHLs points race and has finally meshed well with Auston Matthews. They’ve elevated each other’s games, which is a relief, because on paper you want your best goal scorer and most gifted passer to have good chemistry. 

That’s not an attempt to give credit to Matthews for what Marner has done though. Marner was John Tavares’ winger when Tavares scored 47 goals two seasons ago, the most of his career. He combined with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau before that, to create a terrific line. He’s always helped his teammates elevate their game, which is exactly what you need from your best players. 

Those facts, combined with his efficiency as a penalty killer and good teammate earns him an A+ grade. The only thing missing is just a touch more physicality. 

John Tavares: 8 goals, 22pts, 26GP

Grade: C 

As far as down seasons go, scoring at a near point-per-game pace has to be considered a very good down season. However, there is something just a little off about Tavares’ game right now. He isn’t handling the puck with the same authority that we’ve come to know and, outside of a few games to start the year, he hasn’t played that well with his most common linemate, William Nylander. While he is contributing secondary scoring, it needs to come more consistently, so, for that reason, he has earned himself a C grade. 

William Nylander: 8 goals, 17pts, 22GP

Grade: C

I could almost write the same paragraph for William Nylander that I did for John Tavares. He has been very inconsistent. Nylander produced 12pts in his first 11 games, only to follow that up with 2pts in his next 9 contests. Now it appears he is back on track, with 6pts in his past 6 games. He has all the skills in the world but sometimes it appears that he only uses those skills when it suits him. He can be the most frustrating and exciting player to watch, and both of those extremes could come on the same shift. 

C is for consistency. He earned the grade due to a lack of the word.

Zach Hyman: 7 goals, 15pts, 24GP

Grade: B+

Zach Hymans play has endeared him to Leafs fans. He’s a dog-on-a-bone kind of player that always gives an honest effort. He helps the penalty kill and can slot in up and down the lineup. His versatility and style earn him top marks for sure. 

However, he had a coming out party, of sorts, last season. He began the year injured, but when he returned he started to score and never stopped. By the time the final game was played he was on pace for over 30 goals and nearly 60pts. That production has dropped off. It’s partially due to his usage in the lineup, as he isn’t used exclusively in the top 6 at the moment, but he’s still getting enough offensive opportunities to leave me wanting a little more. 

His game is still an effective one and his offense hasn’t dried up entirely, so for that reason he has earned a B+ grade.

Joe Thornton: 3 goals, 11pts, 14GP

Grade: B+ 

I have to be honest, this grade is high because his expectations were pretty low. When the team signed Thornton I assumed he’d be used more like Jason Spezza. That is, in a depth role towards the bottom of the lineup. Instead, he finds himself playing left wing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. His first couple of games there didn’t look that promising, but he’s gotten better and is producing at a rapid pace. On top of all of that, I’ve never heard a group of players talk so highly about a veteran as I have heard this team talk about Thornton. They absolutely love him. He brings a morale boost to the team like I’ve never seen before, so big props for that. 

There are few negatives to report. He did start a little slow, so that has to come into account, but it’s his injuries that have hurt his grade the most. I know injuries aren’t the fault of the player, but if you’re on the sidelines as much as you’re in the lineup it has to be considered a problem. For those reasons I found it difficult to grade Thornton any higher than a B+, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Alex Kerfoot: 4 goals, 12pts, 26GP

Grade: B

You can’t write anything about Alex Kerfoot without mentioning Nazem Kadri, apparently, so there, I did it. 

I think Kerfoot has done a solid job as a 3C and left winger. He really came into his own in the teams play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and has carried that over into this season. He’s playing with a bit of jump and showing decent offensive instincts. He has also been added to the penalty killing unit and has done better there than I thought he would. 

He’s being used as a punching bag out there. I’m not sure if that’s a knock on him or not, because he doesn’t seem to really care that much, he just takes a beating and keeps pushing. There isn’t much to hate overall though, due to his versatility and expectations. In reality, if he can produce at a half a point-per-game and play safe minutes he’ll have earned his paycheque. 

Ilya Mikheyev: 3 goals, 8pts, 26GP

Grade: C+ 

This was a tough grade to give. Mikheyev seems to be all over the ice when you watch the games, but he’s simply not producing. He’s been terrific on the penalty kill, skates like the wind and goes to the net. All things that you would hope would result in goals, but they just aren’t coming. 

After last season, when he produced 23pts in 39 games, I expected more offense from Soup this year. In all other facets of the game he’s earning his paycheque, but for a forward that is playing top nine minutes on such a high offense team, you’d like to see more. 

It’s for that reason alone that he gets a disappointing grade of C+. It would have been lower, except for this:

Wayne Simmonds: 5 goals, 5pts, 12GP

Grade: B 

I’ll keep this one short. 

Wayne Simmonds looks better than I thought he would. Now that he’s injured they’re really missing the physicality that he brings. He’s a menace for the other team’s goalies, as he loves hanging out in front of the net and he’s been effective there this season. Maybe because of this: 

He’s providing some goals, physical play and veteran leadership. However, like Thornton, his injuries have hurt his grade. 

Jason Spezza: 5 goals, 16pts, 25GP

Grade: A+

Spezza was brought in to be a veteran leader and to help with depth scoring. 

That’s exactly what he’s done. 

There’s really nothing else to say here. These grades are based on expectations vs results, so to have a guy produce like he is, while getting just under 11 minutes a night playing time is outstanding. He even has Jimmy Vesey scoring goals. 

It’s even better when he does things like this: 

Travis Boyd: 3 goals, 8pts, 17GP 

Grade: B+ 

Boyd, like Spezza, isn’t getting a lot of playing time (just over 10 minutes per night), so for him to have had a positive effect on the score sheet, while playing safe minutes, is all he needed to do in order to earn a B+ rating. 

Terrific signing that adds solid depth to the team. 

Jimmy Vesey: 5 goals, 7pts, 26GP

Grade: F

At this point I feel like I’m picking on Vesey. He’s been the whipping boy for the fans and media alike for a chunk of the season, so to pile on just seems wrong. 

However, Vesey has been gifted big minutes with very talented players. With those minutes come big expectations and he did little with his opportunity. He hasn’t done anything to convince me that he deserves a spot on the team even if he has scored 3 goals in his past 3 games, never mind in the top 6. So, for that reason, he gets the worst grade I can give, an F. 

Pierre Engvall: 2 goal, 5pts, 17GP

Grade: C+/B 

The jury is still out on what Engvall can accomplish in his career. To begin the season he was sent to the taxi squad/minors, which brings his stock down a lot and accounts for the C+ part of his grade. After last season he should have been able to lock up a roster position immediately. However, as of late he has meshed well with Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman to form the ZIP Line. They’re fast, big, solid defensively and spend a lot of time in the offensive zone, those things account for the B part of his grade. If he tops out as a bottom 6 centre that can transition to the wing, when needed, then there isn’t much to hate about his game.  

Alex Barabanov: 0 goals, 0pts, 11GP

Grade: D

I’m actually hoping that Barabanov starts scoring and makes me eat my words. I’ve been critical of his place on the roster, as I don’t think he’s an NHLer. Yet, for a few games he played higher in the lineup and has looked better than he did to start the year. That hasn’t resulted in any points, but the chances were there. I still don’t predict a long, lustrous NHL career, but I’d love to see him score a goal, just so he can tell people that he found the back of the net in the best league in the world. He has worked hard enough for it, so he deserves that much. 

Nic Petan: 0 goals, 1pts, 7GP

Grade: D

Nic Petan looks like he has figured out what he should have been doing the entire time in order to stick at the NHL level. He’s been blocking shots, playing fearless hockey, and pushing the pace. Good on him for trying to find a way to crack the lineup, because before this it seemed as if he expected to stick in a top 6 role. His offense has yet to translate to the NHL, so that hasn’t worked out, but he does know his way around the net, so if he can add multiple dimensions to his game he may find a home in the NHL afterall. 

Final word

I left some players out that have played a game for the team this year. Rasmu Sandin, Nicholas Robertson and Joey Anderson among them. They haven’t played enough to justify a grade so I avoided doing it at all. 

Also, I tried to be fair and positive with my grades and basing them off of expectations allow you to do that. To say a player like Pierre Engvall, for example, isn’t scoring enough, when he has never projected to be a big time offensive player, is unfair. However, I’d still like to hear your feedback. Agree or disagree with any of my grades? Let me know in the comments.