The Toronto Maple Leafs are exactly one half into the second year of their ‘rebuild’ and suffice to say they’re exceeding expectations. The team sits in a tie for 3rd place in the Atlantic Division with the Ottawa Senators.
They are 3 points back of 2nd and the Boston Bruins with 5 games in hand. They are 2 points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild card spot, and the Leafs have 5 games in hand on them as well.
The rise in the standings was spurred by a 12-5-4 record in the 2nd quarter. Some slight improvements defensively, some super strong play on special teams and great goaltending for the most part has driven the Leafs so far. They’ll need that and then some to secure an elusive playoff spot in the East.
Things have gone well, and with that, the team is grading high. With that said, let’s look at the player grades for the first half.
Auston Matthews: Grade A+
What more good things can be said about Matthews? He managed 13 goals in the 2nd quarter and was on a point per game pace. He currently sits 3rd in the NHL in goals. Not bad for a 19 year old.
The kid is driving the bus already. He’s scoring, he’s not hurting them all that much defensively and he’s making those around him better. The Leafs are not at all sheltering him as he’s playing a lot. He still gets roughly 60 percent zone starts in the attacking zone but that’s where you want him. The pretty play with Connor Brown vs Ottawa in game 41 is case in point. The skill and imagination is a treat to watch.
Mitch Marner: Grade A
Speaking of skill and imagination, is there anyone else on the Leafs who embodies these traits more than Marner. There may be for argument sake, but Marner has delivered more production with pizzazz more than any other Leaf so far.
It’s unbelievable the creativity he has. I’m sure the Leafs cannot wait until he actually grows out of a teenage body. Marner is an out of your seats kind of player already. He’s driving possession more and if he can, at his size, handle the playoff drive and grind, he’ll definitely be in the mix for Rookie of the Year.
Fredrik Andersen: Grade A-
For the month of October, Andersen had a 2-2-3 record with a GAA of 3.67 and a save percentage of .876. Since then he’s been 16-7-4 and has a 2.40 GAA with a .929 save percentage. The guy’s been the rock for the young Leafs.
Since October he’s probably had 2 or 3 bad games, notably the game vs the Habs in which he probably shouldn’t have played since it was a back to back. Otherwise, he’s been the Leafs best player most nights. The sturdy goaltending has been missing from the Leafs since probably prior to the 1st lockout and Ed Belfour in 2004. That’s an obscene amount of time to finally get good goaltending. Though the sample size is still small, Andersen is proving he is a number 1 goalie after a couple years sharing the role in Anaheim. The key though will be finding him proper rest so he remains fresh in the second half.
Nazem Kadri: Grade B+
It’s probably safe to say Kadri has been the Leafs biggest surprise. He has surprised with his production, with 18 goals already, surpassing last years total and 2 off his career high. He’s been a power play beast with 9 goals.
And there’s nothing more surprising than his effort against the other team’s best players. He has taken that challenge from coach Babcock and running with it. Yes he isn’t perfect and isn’t good on draws, but he’s finding ways to get the job done. And he wants it. That’s all you can ask for.
Connor Brown: Grade B+
Brown has been a pleasant surprise to the Leafs. The year started for him as a 4th line energy player but he has played his way onto the top line with Matthews and Zach Hyman.
Brown has 11 points in his last 10 games riding a pretty hot streak. His 11 goals has him in a 3-way tie for 3rd in rookie goal scoring. His real value though has been shown on the PK. The improvements he has made in his skating and defensive play since his junior days in Erie has been remarkable. The effort he has put in shows on the ice and in his performance. The Leafs suffice to say are more than thrilled at the contributions he has been able to make.
Morgan Reilly: Grade B
Though Reilly will face some criticism for only having 6 assists in his last 21 games, there is no doubting his endurance.
He leads the Leafs in ice time at close to 23 minutes a game. He’s facing the league’s best every shift almost and hardly any of it is on the power play as he shares point duties with Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev. Though his PDO is low, 97.9, it suggests more bad luck than anything. He’s still driving possession and continues to show he’s very capable of being a top pair defender.
Jake Gardiner: Grade B
While Gardiner is still at times at his flakey worst, the numbers suggest he’s still a pretty solid secondary contributor. He’s become a fixture on the 2nd pair with Connor Carrick.
In the 2nd quarter he scored 13 of his 22 points in 21 games. He’s tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +8 and he’s a huge favourite for analytics as he’s creating chances and generating shots on net. The team may just have to settle for his questionable decisions should he keep putting up solid numbers.
William Nylander: Grade B
Nylander has seen his production drop slightly yet he still remains one of the leaders among rookies in points and assists. The kid has skill, there’s no denying that. It’s finding a spot where he can succeed the best that the team is still searching for.
Right now, that’s power play specialist. 15 of his 28 points are on the man advantage. Hes been excellent in that role. He’s seen work on 4 different lines playing both centre and the wing but it would maybe be best he play his natural position. But, with 3 centres ahead of him, having him on the wing is quite a luxury.
James van Riemsdyk: Grade B
JVR Is tied for second on the team in points with 35 and is 3rd in goals with 15. He’s first though in terms of intense trade interest.
Though it appears he’s not being shopped, the Leafs are listening. But with the team doing well, would the Leafs trade him during the year? He seems like a good fit for now on the line with Bozak and Marner and is a power play force. That’s a really tough call to make. But right now he’s a leaf and playing well. Why mess with success?
Tyler Bozak: Grade B
Bozak is your classic hot and cold type of player. He on a stretch now with 8 points in his last 5 after going 7 games with just 1 point. He’s staying hot though in the face off circle with at 56% clip.
His importance on draws makes him super valuable. You’d prefer more consistency in production from a veteran player, but for Bozak you pretty much get what you see. What the Leafs need to see is may be a bit more to help their playoff push.
Nikita Zaitsev: Grade B
Zaitsev is all of a sudden their second best defenceman. The Leafs tried to bring him along slowly but that attempt failed. He was too good to bury on the 3rd pairing.
He’s been a fixture with Morgan Reilly playing against the other team’s best. He’s been excellent on the PK and has fared quite well in a shutdown role for a perceived offensive defenceman.
Leo Komarov: Grade B
Komarov is a player who you have to look beyond the numbers to appreciate his value. He has just 6 points in the last 21 games and has some below average possession numbers. (his high PDO suggests more team luck than him being at that kind of level)
The penalty kill has been very successful and Komarov has been a big help in that area. He’s a smart player who plays an in your face kind of style and playing on the checking line with Kadri against the other team’s best suits him just fine. He’s also taken some key faceoffs that have been very important and don’t get highlighted that much on the scoresheet. Its not just about the numbers for Leo.
Zach Hyman: Grade B
After hardly producing any points in the first half of the season, many questioned the logic of having Hyman play alongside Matthews on the Leafs top line. Those questions have dissipated somewhat after Hyman produced 13 points in 21 games in the second quarter.
Hyman is one of Babcock’s favorite players. He plays the game the way Babcock wants it played. He is a dogged checker and plays with lots of speed and pace. He goes into the scoring areas and into the dirty areas. He quietly does his work without much fanfare. His work on the PK has been tremendous as he leads forwards on the team in PK minutes. The Leafs are 7th on the PK so far.
Connor Carrick: Grade C+
The Leafs have settled on Carrick being Jake Gardiner’s full time partner and he has played pretty consistently through the whole season. What you see is what you get from Carrick. He is a guy who isn’t big, but isn’t afraid to mix it up and can skate and move the puck.
The points haven’t really come for the skilled blueliner, and as such he hasn’t seen as much power play time of late, but he’s a player who’s graded quite well on possession metrics, while being limited in minutes. The Leafs are doing a good job not over-exposing Carrick and putting him and Gardiner in too many bad situations.
Matt Martin: Grade C+
Martin is not producing as much points as he was with the Islanders where he enjoyed a greater role on that team. Martin has been a fixture on the Leafs 4th line with several rotating centres and wingers next to him.
In limited minutes he has been fairly effective and still is one of the NHL’s hit leaders. His main role is to protect his teammates and that he definitely does. He does offer a deterrent to other teams wanting to take out any of the Leafs skilled forwards. Though that need has dwindled over the last few years, it still has some value. Martin too has been a valued leader helping the many young players adjust to NHL life.
Roman Polak: Grade C
Polak had a bit of a hard time getting into the lineup in the early part of the season, but now has settled in with Matt Hunwick on the team’s third pairing.
The two play extensive minutes on the PK and use their veteran savvy and experience to get the job done for the Leafs. Coach Babcock leans on Polak and Hunwick when things are getting a bit greasy to help calm the waters with a couple of veteran players at his disposal.
Nikita Soshnikov: Grade C
Though the point totals are way down and the goals are not coming, Sosh has been a valuable depth piece for the Leafs.
He offers the team a player who can play up and down the lineup and has been used on both the power play and penalty kill. He uses his speed and grit to solid results on the forecheck and has created some chances in limited playing time. He can fill in on any line and any role Babcock wants and is usually with Komarov and Kadri late in games.
Fredrik Gauthier: Grade C-
The Goat has probably won the 4th line centre job after coming in for Ben Smith who got hurt. Though a few mistakes and bad penalties have cost him some playing time, especially on the PK, he still seems like the best option on the 4th line.
Gauthier has scored a couple goals, provided some energy and used his big size as an advantage in the offensive and defensive zones. He needs to sharpen up the faceoffs and be more dominant to really cement his status as a depth forward, but he’s a pretty solid 4th line player and that size can be a difference maker.
Matt Hunwick: Grade C-
See Roman Polak. Hunwick has played much better after a brutal start in the early part of the season.
He has settled into a defensive first blueliner who’s main role is to kill penalties. He has done a good job in that regard.
Ben Smith: Grade D+
Smith is your typical 4th line centre who can win faceoffs and kill penalties. There’s not much more you can ask for from Smith.
Unfortunately for him, he’s been hurt and probably now has lost his job to Fredrik Gauthier who is younger and probably fits better in that role on this young and up and coming team.
Martin Marincin: Grade D
Marincin is another player who has been hurt much of the second quarter and probably is not going to find an easy way back into the lineup.
Coach Babcock like him and his long reach and size and the analytics fans like his numbers. But he this year has made many mistakes and poor decisions and since he’s been out, the team has started to settle in on a set lineup and started to win. He might get back in to replace Hunwick or Carrick but don’t expect him to play with Reilly again on the top pairing. At least, lets hope not.
Backup Goalie: Grade F
The Jonas Enroth era was very short in Toronto. Waived and demoted, he has since been traded to the Ducks for a 7th rounder. In came Antoine Bibeau, but the team didn’t find it right to have a young player sitting on the bench for long stretches and not playing. Coach Babcock didn’t find it right to play him anyways showing little faith in him by not playing him during a back-to-back.
Now steps in Curtis McElhinney. He did win his debut as a Leaf and looked fairly good. That’s a good sign if the Leafs can get a goalie Babcock can trust other than Andersen. Andersen has only played at most 53 games in a season. He’s already played in 34 games. The team really needs a backup to step up and play. There are 8 more back to backs. Its guaranteed McElhinney or someone else will be playing those games. The Leafs are going to need points in those matches.
Josh Leivo: Grade F
Leivo has only gotten into a handful of games and has not impressed. Though stuck on the 4th line probably doesn’t help a player who’s more offensive than defensive, he had to try and impress and was pretty well invisible.
Leivo, after a lengthy injury absence, probably needs to simply play, but unfortunately there may not be a space for him with the Leafs.
Frank Corrado: Grade F
Corrado got only one chance to crack the lineup and failed to win over the coaching staff.
He was on a conditioning stint and is back with the team. But when he’ll get back into the lineup is anyone’s guess.
The Leafs are making a push for the playoffs. Who would have thought that a year ago as they were pretty well playing out the string with an eye towards last overall and the highest chance at the lottery.
It was almost a year ago at this time the team traded captain Dion Phaneuf setting in motion the series of moves to strip the roster bare.
This is probably a bit of a surprise that this young team is in a playoff spot currently and has done as well as it has. But this probably isn’t a surprise to the playoffs and coach Babcock.
The game plan the team has put in place has worked very well. The new faces, the young faces have brought a strong energy and enthusiasm to the franchise than hasn’t had any in years. There is some sense of optimism around the team and seeing them succeed only betters them in the long run.
It will be an interesting few weeks leading up to the trade deadline to see where the Leafs are and what they will end up doing at that time. Staying the course may be what they do though as they leave the wheel in the hands of their youngsters. Its worked so far, why change a thing?