Dion Phaneuf: C. The late-season whipping boy when it all fell apart was always going to be in for a tough finish. Phaneuf rode sky high save percentages (and by extension PDO) much of the year, which kept his plus-minus respectable through 60 games, but that came apart late when it seemed like he was on the ice for every single goal against. Prone to poor decisions in his own end at times, Phaneuf was forced to play there basically all season, bearing the brunt for his team’s terrible possession game with some of the most brutal zone starts and quality of competition in the entire NHL. That his offence suffered and the opposition took advantage was inevitable.
Key stat: Just 11 power play points, a career low (even compared to the half season last year), stands as one key concern given how much damage he’s done there in his career.
Jake Gardiner: A-. Feuded with Carlyle, who can’t stand when his freelancing goes awry, but emerged as perhaps the best Leaf during the disastrous finish. Gardiner was Toronto’s top possession player on the season – finishing 10th in Corsi Relative among all NHL blueliners – and racked up 14 points in 22 games after the Olympic break. If they can live with the mistakes, the Leafs may just have more here than they thought.
Key stat: Was the only Leafs defenceman to draw more penalties than he took (plus-six).
Cody Franson: C-. After missing training camp with a contract dispute, he battled nagging injuries and never really regained the breakout form he showed in the shortened season on a surprisingly effective third pair with Mark Fraser. Franson’s mobility and defensive acumen remain a concern and were particularly exposed as his minutes crept into the top three defenceman territory, and it may well end up he’s far better suited for the No. 6 role Nashville always had him in. Finished the season with limited production as his minutes were cut back to 19 a game after the Olympic break, but the tough nights were still there.
Key stat: Had just one power play point in his final 24 games and was dropped from the top unit altogether to work Gardiner in. May be a casualty with younger, better blueliners pushing for offensive minutes.
Carl Gunnarsson: C. Still battling a nagging hip issue when camp opened, Gunnarsson never looked himself all year and his ice time fell to the point he was more a No. 4 than a top pair option by late in the year. Tasked with a similar defensive load to partner Phaneuf, Gunnarsson ultimately was just a 40 per cent possession player and his offence completely deserted him – at least until late in the season when he started jumping into the rush a little more often. A bit of an enigma, especially if the issues go beyond the injury, which he has tried just about everything to correct.
Key stat: His 0.60 shots per game was basically half what he put up in his breakout third season two years ago, primarily under Ron Wilson.
Morgan Rielly: B+. These were not easy circumstances for a teenage defenceman to step into his first NHL action. But Rielly impressed right from training camp, beating out John-Michael Liles for the role of small, speedy and skilled puck mover, and he grew more confident as the season wore on. On the ice, Rielly showed creativity with the puck and decent production, especially on the second power play unit. Off it, he displayed remarkable maturity, confidence and intelligence, rarely beating himself up when mistakes happened. One of the few positives on the blueline this season and someone whose rise could turn meteoric in the next year or two.
Paul Ranger: C+. A remarkable comeback story given just how long and total his absence was from the game, Ranger struggled with the minutes he was dealt early but seemed to grow more confident and comfortable as the season wore on, filling in nicely when Carlyle went to seven D. By the numbers, he was the Leafs best blueliner on the penalty kill, where he kept things simple and used his big body to complicate life for opposition forwards.
Key stat: Only six Leafs scored more goals after the Olympic break (four).
Tim Gleason: D. A useful addition when he first came over from Carolina on New Year’s Day, Gleason struggles deepened the longer the season wore on, eventually cratering to the point he was the team’s weakest possession D. Age and injuries appear to have caught up with him earlier than most and living up to even modest expectations ultimately proved difficult, even as Liles excelled with the ‘Canes. Gave it his all, but may be a buyout candidate given the size of his contract.