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.
Clarke MacArthur: C. The impressive energy and determination he showed last season in earning a new contract has been strangely absent on too many nights – although an early season suspension and two injuries have hardly helped. MacArthur is in a similar funk to Kulemin, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which one is more at fault. Apart from one hot streak, he’s rarely produced offence and his shot totals are low given his ice time.
David Steckel: C+. The faceoff king has been as advertised on the draw, putting up some of the league’s best numbers there, and his line tends to do well in terms of possession of the puck and shots on goal. Roughly 60 per cent of the non-neutral zone draws he takes are in his own end, which explains in part why he’s a minus player, but his offensive contributions (four points) remain too low given his ice time. Wilson also likes to use him on his top penalty kill unit, something he has been better than most at.
Matt Lombardi: C+. Lombardi gets a bit of a pass given just how long he’s been out. That he’s playing at all is remarkable after missing a year with a concussion and being given up for LTIR fodder by the Preds essentially for nothing. He’s clearly not yet the player he was, something that will take another couple months, but Wilson has broken him in slowly with only 13 minutes a game. Lombardi’s plus-minus is also misleading given the goaltending has been very poor (847 save percentage) when he’s on the ice at even strength. Given his latest arm or shoulder injury will keep him out at least another month, we may not see Lombardi at full strength this season.
Matt Frattin: D. He has a great attitude but would benefit from some time in the minors at this point. Only two points in 18 games, even in only a third-line role, isn’t cutting it. There are signs, however, he may be able to fill that spot down the line.
Joey Crabb: C+. Not making the team out of camp seemed to spark him, as Crabb lit up the AHL and earned a call-up in short order. He’s still mostly just a tweener who can chip in some offence once in a while – although his play on the penalty kill could keep him in the NHL.
Philippe Dupuis: C. Not only does he not have a point after 19 games, he hasn’t even been on the ice for an even strength goal this season. Wilson still loves to use him killing penalties, where he skates well and has been one of the more effective forwards, but otherwise, not much is happening when he’s on the ice other than giving Kessel and friends a breather. He hasn’t been a liability, however. (That’s actually an upgrade over what Toronto’s had on its fourth line in recent years, by the way...)
Mike Brown: B-. Brown has been just fine in playing less than 10 minutes a night, including duties on the penalty kill. He brings energy, he fights and he moves the puck in the right direction down the ice – something that can be rare for a fourth liner. Limited upside or downside here.
Jay Rosehill: C. Well, he punches well. And he has been far less of a liability than Colton Orr generally is. So there’s that.
Dion Phaneuf: B+. The Leafs very own Neon Dion hasn’t been perfect, as in recent games there have been defensive lapses, but as Wilson’s go-to No. 1 blueliner, he has gotten the job done while providing plenty of offence. Phaneuf leads the team in ice time with 26 minutes a game and with 15 points is on pace for nearly 60 – one big reason Toronto’s power play is suddenly among the league’s best. In terms of more advanced statistics, he leads the team in Corsi, as the Leafs out shoot their opposition by an average of 31-24 when Phaneuf’s on the ice at even strength.
Carl Gunnarsson: B. The stay-at-homer on the Leafs top pairing, Gunnarsson has been a fairly steadying influence for Phaneuf, hanging back while the captain charges into the rush. Gunnarsson has been at his best when you don’t notice him – and while his offensive game has been almost nonexistent, he’s been mostly mistake-free against other team’s top lines in more than 22 minutes a night. Being a big part of a PK unit that still isn’t getting the job done bumps his grade down.
John-Michael Liles: B+. One of Toronto’s pleasant surprises so far. Liles is fourth on the team in shots on goal – a welcome change from the man he replaced, Tomas Kaberle – and has made the Leafs blueline more of an offensive threat than it was a year ago. Wilson has remarked how surprised he’s been with his defensive game, and Liles has even taken on a leadership role by wearing Mike Komisarek’s ‘A’ while he’s out of the lineup. Not a very big guy, but he works his tail off in his own end. His biggest weakness is a key defensive mistake once in a while, as witnessed on the winning goal in their loss Sunday in Carolina.
Jake Gardiner: B. Not even expected to make the NHL in his first full season as a pro, Gardiner has instead been picking up more and more minutes as some of the Leafs veteran blueliners have struggled. Since his first two games, Gardiner is second in the league in minutes played by a rookie and is getting time on the penalty kill, where he’s used his skating to help Toronto take a more aggressive approach. He has not produced much offence, even on the power play, and Wilson has sheltered him from top opposition. Even so, Gardiner’s been a welcome addition with Keith Aulie playing his way into the minors in training camp.
Mike Komisarek: C-. This has been Komisarek’s best showing so far in Toronto, although given how much he’s struggled in the past, that’s not high praise. The Leafs are still getting out shot badly when he’s on the ice (25-18) and Wilson has been reluctant to use him in more than third-pairing minutes. He was progressing in the right direction, however, before he got hurt.
Luke Schenn: F. Fresh off receiving a five-year deal for $3.5-million a season, Schenn’s season has been a mess. For the first 15 or so games, he looked tentative, with and without the puck, and nothing like the player who logged 22 minutes a game a year ago. He’s down to under 15 so far this season, has sat one game as a healthy scratch, and while he’s been better of late, still has a ways to go.
Cody Franson: F. Franson was thrown for a loop almost from the get-go in training camp, as he was trying to learn to play the left side for the first time and in a radically more offence-first system than he was used to in Nashville. Then, when Wilson predictably scratched him to start the year, it was a blow to his confidence, and that was clearly evident in his first few games. Franson has talent and is a hard worker so there’s no reason to believe he can’t turn things around. With Komisarek out two months with a broken arm, he’s going to get every opportunity to chip in offensively like he did with his first goal against the Capitals on Saturday.
Jonas Gustavsson: D. Prior to his best game of the season – and best game in more than a calendar year – in a 7-1 win over Washington, Gustavsson would have received an F. The Monster has struggled mightily at times in attempting to fill in for James Reimer, allowing untimely bad goals and costing his team wins. His 3.46 goals-against average and .892 save percentage remain two of the worst marks in the league even if he has found a way to win more games than any other Toronto netminder. The next 20 games of the season are big for him.
Ben Scrivens: C+. For a rookie third-string goaltender playing in his second pro season, Scrivens has been just okay. His two wins were both terrific outings on the road, but he’s also been prone to allowing bad goals. Only eight games into his NHL career, however, Scrivens has shown signs of being able to play full-time at this level and his .904 save percentage is better than many Leafs goaltenders have posted in recent years.
James Reimer: B. Reimer was off to a fine start to the season, with a 4-0-1 record, before leaving his sixth game with concussion-like symptoms. While he wasn’t winning games singlehandedly, Reimer was a calming influence on the team and had an above league average .912 save percentage when he went down. The Leafs clearly miss him.