Twenty-one games into the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference and on pace for 94 points – enough likely to earn them their first playoff berth since 2004.
It’s a better start that many predicted, and much of it is thanks to their top offensive guns in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul finding the back of the net so often.
So at the one-quarter mark, here’s a closer look at which players have helped the Leafs out to an 11-8-2 start and who needs to contribute more for them to stay on this postseason pace.
(Players are sorted in order of significance and graded based on expectations, their role and salary. Minimum six games played.)
Phil Kessel: A+. Kessel’s numbers to this point speak for themselves. He leads the NHL in goals and points, is a plus player, is logging more than 20 minutes a night and is facing the other team’s top lines every game. At 24, he’s found another level to his game – one few knew he had – and along with linemate Joffrey Lupul, has essentially carried this team (offensively anyway) to the record it has. Kessel remains very reluctant to speak with the media but has definitely become comfortable in Toronto behind closed doors. While he can’t possibly manage to score on 22 per cent of his shots all season, 40 to 45 goals now seems a reasonable target.
Joffrey Lupul: A. Up next to Kessel as one of the team’s MVPs to date. Lupul is one of the NHL’s biggest surprises through 21 games, putting up 10 goals and 25 points to sit among the league leaders less than a year after he returned from a devastating infection that threatened his career. He looks bigger, stronger and more committed than he’s ever been in his career and is well on his way to bettering his highs from his days with the Flyers. While Lupul continues to have issues defensively at times, he’s more than making up for them up by being so productive at the other end.
Mikhail Grabovski: B-. After a career year last season, Grabovski got off to a slow start offensively and is out for at least two weeks with a leg injury. A big part of the problem for him this year has been his linemates’ early season funk, as they have too often been looking to give Grabovski the puck rather than generate their own chances to score. (That’s another way of saying he’s been the best of the bunch on what was the team’s struggling second line.)
Tim Connolly: B. Do you penalize a player for being injured? Connolly’s missed 12 games with various upper-body woes – which hasn’t done his oft-injured reputation any favours – but when he’s been in the lineup, he’s been what the Leafs needed up front. Connolly had his best outing of the season in Sunday’s loss in Carolina and should be able to break the 50-point mark and play a solid defensive game if he stays healthy the rest of the way. He’s also been a good mentor to Tyler Bozak.
Tyler Bozak: B-. Expected to fill far less of a role this season (and with a $1.6-million salary that says as much), Bozak has nonetheless been thrust into a key one with injuries to both Connolly and Grabovski in the early going. After labouring badly to fill a top-six spot last season (and posting a minus-29 rating), he has shown some growth in terms of strength and defensive awareness through 21 games. Toronto is still being out shot when he’s on the ice, however, and he will be a better fit on the third line when the Leafs are healthy.
Nikolai Kulemin: D-. A 30-goal man a year ago, Kulemin has had a disappearing act often in games early on this season and has just two goals in 21 games. More troublingly, he began the year with hardly any shots on goal, something he’s improved on in recent games. Coach Ron Wilson is no longer using him against other team’s top lines or much on the penalty kill and he’s down to under 16 minutes a game.