It has been an interesting first quarter for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They have seen a lot so far. Some entertaining affairs to go with some real stinkers. They have won games by the skin of their teeth and lost a few where they should have definitely won. Overall, it’s been a great learning experience for the team.
The Leafs currently sit in a tie for 11th in the Eastern Conference. Obviously the demanding coach Mike Babcock, a born winner, is expecting a lot more. They are only 1 point back of a wildcard in a very tightly grouped conference and while tough stretches lie ahead, there is definitely an opportunity for the team to get back into the thick of the race.
It probably serves the Leafs best that they are competitive for the balance of the season. Playing out the string serves no purpose, as it has much to learn and nothing helps that more than having some success.
It makes the hard work put in seem to pay off and makes it all worth it. Constant losing builds that kind of culture, a culture that the Edmonton Oilers for example are still trying to dig out of.
We shall see what the second quarter and beyond brings but with that said, let’s look at how the Leaf players graded so far in the first quarter.
Auston Matthews: Grade A
Yes the rookie had a 13- game scoreless drought, but it’s still very impressive for a 19- year- old to be tied for the team lead in goals, have a four- goal game under his belt and lead the forwards in ice time.
More importantly, the team has seen a growth in his game. He is a 200- foot player. He has shown greater responsibility in his own zone, he has made improvements in faceoffs and is one of the main drivers in possession stats leading the team’s forwards in that regard. It’s only going to get better for Matthews and the Leafs.
Mitch Marner: Grade A
What can we say about this kid? Save for maybe a couple games, Marner has been dynamic and dangerous, a true treat to watch each and every night. He makes things happen. Marner is tied for the team lead in scoring and is tied for the team lead in assists.
The complaints about his size, or lack thereof, and his skating are non-existent so far. He has shown tremendous speed and a great battle level. He has been fairly responsible in his own zone and while he isn’t wowing the possession Gods with his below 50% Corsi and Fenwick numbers, the kid does lead the team in takeaways.
The B Team
Nazem Kadri: Grade B+
Not long ago, fans wanted to make way for Matthews and rid the team of Kadri who has been more often criticized than complemented in his time with the Leafs. Kadri though has impressed so far with his willingness to take on this new role as checking line centre. He has went up against the best of the best.
While he has struggled somewhat, who doesn’t against Sid Crosby, he was excellent against Connor McDavid, providing proof he can handle the task. Oh, he also is tied for the team lead in goals. He still can’t win draws, but his feisty play has really helped take his game to a different level.
Morgan Rielly: Grade B+
Reilly is tied for the team lead in assists and is the leader in minutes played. He is a workhorse and coach Babcock has put Reilly, for the most part, in all situations.
He too has had some struggles and some numbers, like his possession and goals for, suffer for it. But at age 22, he has already embraced the role as the team’s number one defenceman and has stood up to the challenge the team has given to him facing every league star. His game has elevated as he has finally settled in on a pairing with Nikita Zaitsev.
Jake Gardiner: Grade B+
Another B+ D? On the Leafs? Go figure but despite some still meathead, head scratching plays, Gardiner has been a steady, solid force on the Leafs D.
His skating and skills were never in question. His hockey sense was though. But, over the 21 games, we’ve seen a marked improvement in his decision making and he has provided some more offence. He is a huge driver in possession pretty much leading the team in all key possession stats and is a sound +5 on the season.
William Nylander: Grade B
Nylander started with a bit of a bang, but has seen his production slowed the last few games. He missed Saturday’s game vs. Washington with an injury but looks to be good as new heading into this key Western road trip.
Nylander has shown an ability to create offence and probably should have more points had Matthews not been so snake-bitten. He has great Corsi/Fenwick numbers and simply, the puck seems to follow him everywhere he goes. Keep in mind, he is adjusting to playing the wing after being mostly a centre through his young career.
James van Riemsdyk: Grade B
Being tied for the team lead in points thus offers you a solid grade. JVR has been solid save for a few rough games for which coach Babcock did call him and his linemates out on. That being said, he has been a nice compliment to Marner and he is tied for the team lead in goals with 10.
JVR though is that guy who many are talking about moving to get the team that coveted defenseman. Right now though, it seems not ideal to break up what is working. JVR is a force on the power- play, uses his size and skates well. When he is really engaged, he is a force and hard to stop. Its just keeping him in that mindset that has been the challenge.
Tyler Bozak: Grade B
Bozak is one of the Leafs key figures because he is such a tremendous face-off man. At 56% he is one of the league leaders in that regard. Him and JVR have been the best fit so far for linemates for Marner and the Leafs hope that trend continues the rest of the year.
Another player some deemed dispensable, the team right now is benefiting from his presence as few teams are able to field three solid scoring lines as the Leafs do and Bozak is one of their main contributors.
Nikita Zaitsev: Grade B-
Zaitsev has been adjusting to life in the NHL fairly well. It’s a lot different in the ‘K’ with the big ice and simply a lower standard of play. He has emerged as the team’s top right- handed defenseman spending time on both special teams and racking up minutes beside workhorse Reilly.
We have not quite seen the offence yet, as his main focus has been preventing it, and while his -7 is the team’s worst plus/minus, Zaitsev has been strong of late and really the early struggles were expected for a new NHLer. His game has grown of late playing with the much better Reilly and thus the team is hoping for more from Zaitsev as the season wears on.
Leo Komarov: Grade B-
The offence from last year isn’t quite there for Uncle Leo so far this year but that hasn’t been his role so far this season. He has been a dogged checker and key, quiet veteran leader of this young team.
He is fitting into the role that really is best suited for him, a checking winger with some skill. He seems a bit out of place on the PP, but he has been a big contributor to the team’s 83% penalty-kill so far this year.
Connor Brown: Grade B-
Though half of his eight points came in one game, Brown has been a good, all-around contributor for the Leafs. He has shown a tremendous amount of versatility that should serve him well in his career.
He has played a 4th line energy role, a checking winger and now is appearing as Matthew’s right wing on a scoring line. He is definitely capable of that based on his career point totals prior to the NHL. He has surprised with his skating and ability to get on opponents and get to pucks. He has been a dogged penalty killer and a valued member of that specialty team.
C-ing Some Improvement
Fredrik Andersen: Grade C+
Andersen will be the first to tell you that his first quarter wasn’t what he wanted it to be. He has had some terrible games mixed in with some fine performances. His last nine games though were way better than his first nine.
It has been an adjustment, the workload, the new team, the new surroundings, going from a mega-contender to a rebuilder. All these things, plus the injury he suffered before training camp and the long recovery, have all impacted his game. But we’ve seen some marked improvement. While the stats are a little bad still, they are getting better, and as he does, so will the Leafs. It will be Andersen who may decide if the Leafs can contend for a playoff spot.
Zach Hyman: Grade C+
He looks vastly out of place on a line with Matthews and Nylander, but then again, Hyman doesn’t. He is an industrious two- way player with a little bit of skill, but mostly a guy who’ll get by on hard work and determination.
Three goals playing with those two studs is certainly not enough for some people, but there is no questioning his work ethic. And a rating above 51% for Fenwick and Corsi? He passes the test for those possession geeks out there who live and die by that stuff. A key number though is his scoring. That will need to be on the up-tick for him to stay on that top line.
Connor Carrick: Grade C+
Carrick has not shown much offence, but he has not been much of a liability defensively either. He has had a couple of rough outings, but has been Gardiner’s steady partner on the second pairing.
He has seen some power- play time with little results and the team may want to see some more offence. But, since he isn’t sacrificing defensive play, the team will likely take whatever it can get from this young, affordable defensive option. He stays fairly out of the limelight and rarely gets talked about. That may be a good thing.
Matt Martin: Grade C
He is what you’d expect from a fourth liner. A grinder who is leading the league in hits and has had his share of fistacuffs so far. Though he has two goals in his last three games, he struggled somewhat for most of the 1st quarter.
He did though play with the same two players in a very key role with the Islanders the last two years. He has had to adjust to a variety of linemates so far with little success. Once he gets some suitable linemates, he may settle in and definitely be worth the dollars and term the Leafs gave him despite the analytics geeks protests.
Roman Polak: Grade C-
Polak is a “what you see, is what you get” type of player. He plays a no-nonsense physical game that involves taking the body at any time.
He has had his struggles. But has seemed to settle in playing on the third pairing with either Martin Marincin or Matt Hunwick. It’s a role that suits his game best. He is a solid veteran role player that provides physical play from the defense for a team who actually needs some of that.
Nikita Soshnikov: Grade C-
Sosh looked vastly out of place playing the fourth line. He is a guy who needs steady minutes and if he isn’t getting it here, may be best to send him back to the Marlies.
That being said, he did play his best game vs the Caps on Saturday having been moved up the lineup due to the Nylander injury. He looked solid in a checking role on the Kadri line and was both chippy and dangerous on offence. He is a good player but he needs to be in the top nine to be effective.
D-FA these guys
Ben Smith: Grade D+
Smith has to bring his lunch pail every game and outwork everyone whenever he gets a chance or else his NHL career will likely be played somewhere other than Toronto.
His saving grace is his 53% faceoff average. Otherwise, those atrocious possession numbers, on a team that values them, would likely send him packing. For now, he is what he is, a fourth line centre and has filled that role admirably.
Matt Hunwick: Grade D
An injury sort of derailed Hunwick’s first quarter. But in the game he did get in prior to injury, he was pretty atrocious. He gave the puck away, was soft on the body and just looked out of place. He may have been given too big a role to start.
His experience is valuable, but being now the sixth or seventh defenseman is what suits his game best. He has been better since he returned, but he too has been mostly a 3rd pairing D since. That’s a good thing.
Martin Marincin: Grade D
Marincin is now finding it difficult like Frank Corrado to get into the lineup. He is big and rangy, but awkward and lacks hockey sense.
He seems a bit lost a lot of the time out there. While the possession supporters are angered at his benching over say Roman Polak, Marincin was a major liability so far this season and his sub 50% Corsi/Fenwick numbers suggest he wasn’t such a darling they made him out to be.
Jhonas Enroth: Grade D
Tough spot for Enroth who is probably a goalie who is better playing more and seeing a ton of rubber. But for now, he will have to sit and wait until maybe he is called upon on a back-to-back.
When he has played he has not been good. A poor save percentage and a bloated goals against are stats you’d probably find more acceptable in a beer league than in the NHL. He needs to, when called upon, show something or else he’ll be shown the door.
Peter Holland: Grade D-
Looks like Holland may be gone for good already as he is not travelling on the Western trip. He has been a healthy scratch most of the year, losing his fourth line centre job to waiver pick-up Ben Smith.
Holland has again had the same problems. Lacks consistency, not engaged, soft play, poor production, he has just not fared well and it looks like his time is over.
Frank Corrado: Grade D-
A harsh grade for someone who probably hasn’t been given a fair shake. But, it really is in the end up to the player to make a difference out there. Corrado only has had one game and he struggled some.
Whenever his next shot is, he will need to show something or else he just very well could be the next waiver casualty. Too bad for a guy who dreamed of playing here in his hometown.
Milan Michalek: Grade F
A harsh grade indeed but Michalek is now out of the NHL when there was talk before the season of how a key piece he was to the team’s offence and potentially a good trade chip at the deadline. Nope. He was done as a Leaf after five games.
Seth Griffith: Grade F
Another harsh grade since Griffith wasn’t all that bad in the three games he appeared. But, he was a casualty of roster limitations and thus was put on waivers and claimed by the decimated Florida Panthers. With that side-show there, I bet he wishes he were still here.
There is still a lot of hockey to be played. The Leafs, being one of, if not the youngest team around, have a lot to grow. But the talent is there to make some sort of a run. As mentioned a lot will depend on Andersen and his ability to back stop this team.
There is a ton of confidence that this management team, led by Brendan Shanahan, and the coaching staff with coach Babcock, will continue to steer the team towards an upward trajectory. They are no doubt looking for ways to make improvements, from within, and from the outside and a lot could happen over the next couple months.
It will be up to the guys here now to decide what path is going to be taken by the team for the rest of the year.