The calls will be there to fail the lot of them.
After a 3-13-0 finish to the season that led to the Toronto Maple Leafs sinking from ninth in the league to 23rd in the span of a month, that’s understandable, even if not everyone involved had an equal hand in the collapse.
The reality was the Leafs actually received some strong performances this season, with the top line producing at an elite level most of the year and Jonathan Bernier emerging as a very good goaltender in his first season as a starter.
Keep in mind that these grades are based on expectations, salaries and roles for the players, meaning a fourth line plugger making league minimum has to do a whole lot less than a top pairing defenceman who is one of the highest paid players on the team.
According to most, expectations for the Leafs coming into the season were that they’d be a bubble team and finish in the 95-point range. Their poor start meant they wound up with just 84, despite winning a franchise record nine games in a shootout.
Consider this report card an attempt at apportioning blame for falling short of even that modest goal.
Phil Kessel: A. Up until the Olympic break, Kessel was an A+, earning plaudits from around the league and on pace to finish second to only Sidney Crosby in league scoring with what would have easily been career highs. Like the rest of his teammates, he faltered down the stretch, with only six goals and 15 points in his final 22 games as he ran out of gas and opponents found ways to shut down the overworked top line. Despite his defensive limitations, Kessel remains a dynamic, dangerous player, one who lived up to expectations despite a limited supporting case and was the team’s co-MVP despite the ugly finish. And he did it earning only $5.4-million, in the last year he’ll come cheap.
Key stat: He had 30 first assists, seventh best in the NHL. He’s not just a shooter.
James van Riemsdyk: A-. The 24-year-old winger easily shattered his career high in goals and points, becoming an even better complement to Kessel in their second season together and showing terrific creativity and growth in tight to the goal. JVR became such a workhorse than he ultimately led all forwards in ice time with more than 21 minutes a game, but a late season injury – believed to be his back – hampered his effectiveness. The fact he didn’t record a single point on the power play after the Olympic break stands out.
Key stat: 279 shots on goal, top 10 in the league. He and Kessel combined for nearly one-quarter of all of the Leafs shot attempts (just shy of 1,000) – another sign of just how much pressure the team’s lack of secondary scoring put them under.
Tyler Bozak: A-. In the first season of a controversial new five-year contract, Bozak also delivered a career year offensively, surprising many by scoring at a 70-point pace despite battling two separate injuries. The tough part in evaluating Bozak is that his line continues to struggle in its own zone and, as the centre, a considerable portion of that naturally has to fall on him. Coach Randy Carlyle piled a ton of difficult minutes on the 28-year-old and he still produced, but the fact remains he would be better suited for a less onerous role. His work on the power play and penalty kill also left something to be desired.
Key stat: An 11.6 per cent on-ice shooting percentage, tied for third highest in NHL. This indicates his production will regress next season, likely to just below the 60-point range.
Joffrey Lupul: C. Part of the problem with Lupul is simply expectations. He had been a surprisingly productive player in his first 110 games in Toronto – with 45 goals and 103 points spread over parts of three seasons – and his charismatic personality had many wanting him to be the captain. Lupul, however, was always most productive when playing with Kessel and his fall into the 50-point pace range on the second line isn’t as unexpected as it looks. But if you add up the injuries, the contract and his lacking defensive game, it’s no wonder there’s talk he may be on the move this summer.
Key stat: 40.6 per cent possession rating when not on the ice with Nazem Kadri.
Nazem Kadri: B-. Don’t believe the critics. In his first full season, at 23 years old, Kadri had a fine year, with 20 goals and 50 points despite a rotating cast of linemates that weren’t always ideal. His short stint with Phil Kessel didn’t go as planned, however, and he still seems suited for a sheltered role, but the reality is he will probably settle in as more of a secondary scorer than a leading man. What rubs most old school hockey types, and especially former players, the wrong way the most about Kadri is his so-confident-it-borders-on-cocky attitude – although that may serve him well playing in the nut-bar market that is Toronto.
Key stat: 45.3 per cent possession rating, best among all Leafs forwards (albeit in some easier situations than most).
Mason Raymond: B+. For a $1-million free agent signing out of the bargain bin, it’s hard to quibble with what Raymond brought to the table, even if he tailed off as the year went on. With David Clarkson expected to bring secondary scoring on the second line, it’s a good thing Raymond was able to fill that void, contributing on both special teams and finishing fifth in team scoring with 45 points. His contributions will be less impressive when he costs more, but a find is a find.
Key stat: A 32.5 Corsi Relative on the penalty kill, top five in NHL, in limited minutes. The surprising part is he didn’t get more of a chance there than 1.3 minutes a game.
Nikolai Kulemin: C+. One of the few rock solid defensive forwards on the team, Kulemin was put in a shutdown role from the start and showed only fleeting glimpses of the offensive player he was in his 30-goal season. Getting 50 per cent of his minutes with Jay McClement as his centre didn’t particularly help, but Kulemin was pretty quiet with an awful lot of players on the whole. Could still break out next season – with a different team.
Key stat: Just 81 shots on goal in 70 games, with by far the lowest per game rate of his career (1.16 per game). Why that is, only the big Russian knows.
David Clarkson: F. Enough said.
Key stat: One point in 21 games after the Olympic break. Eleven points in 60 games overall. And $36.75-million over seven years.
Jay McClement: C-. Inexplicably given ridiculously high minutes early in the year when a few centres ran into injury problems, McClement struggled mightily under the load, with even his work on the penalty kill suffering dramatically. Part of the problem was, in McClement’s first season, he was heralded as “the answer” while shorthanded and received plenty of unwarranted Selke votes as a result. The reality was he was a better fit as a bit part, a fourth liner who chipped in on the PK, and age appears to be catching up with him early.
Key stat: The only NHL forward with more than 1,000 minutes played and 10 points or less this season.
Peter Holland: Incomplete. Acquired from the Ducks with the Leafs in desperate need of a centre, Holland had a promising start with seven points in one seven-game span early on. But he ran into some crippling health problems – a bad case of lace bite that landed him in the hospital – and was rarely used or productive down the stretch. Seems to have some real potential given his AHL totals but may also be a tweener. Still, seems worth the gamble.
Key stat: Had zero points in the 17 games he played 10.5 minutes or fewer in. But he scored at a nearly 40-point pace when given more of a chance.
Troy Bodie: A-. The big minor league veteran who became known as the “son-in-law” early on due to the fact he is married to MLSE president Tim Leiweke’s daughter certainly quieted the calls of nepotism quickly. Hard working and salt of the earth, he earned his eight minutes and near-league minimum salary every night.
Key stat: His 1.49 points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time blew away Clarkson (.65), McClement (.53) and Orr (.00).
Colton Orr: F. An inexplicable waste of a roster spot from Day 1 of the season, one that cost the Leafs worthwhile young players like Joe Colborne and ice time for developing others. And Bodie was living proof more useful toughness is readily available in the minors for an organization willing to look for it.
Key stat: Managed to go pointless all year and be outshot 2-to-1 when on the ice despite facing primarily only other Colton Orrs.
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.
Key stat: At even strength, the Leafs scored only 31 per cent of the goals when Gleason was on the ice. Only Frazer McLaren ranked lower.
Jonathan Bernier: A. Airlifted in and given a rather sizable contract given his lack of experience, Bernier nonetheless impressed right off the start, posting a gaudy save percentage in the first month of the season and keeping in the Leafs in a ton of games they had no business being in. Ultimately, the workload got to him, as his body broke down after facing 34.8 shots every 60 minutes over 50-plus games. A unique specimen in an era of behemoth goaltenders, Bernier could be a real gem, although duplicating his .923 save percentage next season may be tough.
Key stat: His .933 even strength save percentage was topped by only three goalies that started 30-plus games this season.
James Reimer: C+. No goal support, no support from the coach, a greater workload per minute than any other NHL goalie and a thinly veiled vote of non-confidence from management right from the summer when Bernier was acquired. Reimer was placed in a tough situation, especially when asked to play saviour late in the year, and his three or four poor starts late were obviously poorly timed during the Leafs death spiral. To pin the blame on the very goaltender that carried them through the shortened lockout season and to Game 7 of the first round, however, isn’t fair. But there’s every indication the organization plans to use him as a scapegoat until the end, and he’ll be the first one traded out of town.
Key stat: An okay .909 save percentage after the Olympic break, when he supposedly cost the team the season.
Randy Carlyle: F. Give Carlyle credit for this much: He recognized there was a problem right from the start. Prior to the first game of the season, the veteran coach had told Bob McKenzie that he wanted his group to be more of a possession team. The problem was he was left saying it right until the end. The more Carlyle tried to correct the issue, the worse and worse in their shot differentials, zone time and just about any other tangible area of defensive play possible became as the season wore on. One doesn’t have to look much further than the Ducks, who have rebounded marvellously without Carlyle, to see a longstanding problem, and there’s far too much of a pattern here to chalk that all up to coincidence. Toronto’s defensive woes have become so ingrained that the players appear to have lost faith in the system itself, creating a snowball effect that makes it difficult to gauge how much better this roster might be under different guidance. Add in the feuds with young players, the goalie controversy and far too much reliance on his pluggers and the bottom line is Carlyle deserves to pay the price for the collapse as much as anyone.
Key stat: A 41.5 per cent possession rating, one of the lowest since the statistic became available in 2007.
The higher ups
Dave Nonis: D. The indestructible, buyout proof David Clarkson contract alone is grounds for a fail. Attempting to build the roster around a struggling coach’s asks ranks up there, too. And a flat out refusal to consider what some of hockey’s very basic analytics (like shooting percentage regression, for example) were saying about his team and how it could be improved is concerning as well. What Nonis did well is keep most of his youthful core together, lock up Kessel, avoid panic moves and make some bargain buys like Raymond when he ran up against the cap. Overall, however, it’s not a pretty picture, and he has only himself to blame for the fact Brendan Shanahan will now be watching over his every move.
Tim Leiweke: Incomplete. A culture change doesn’t happen in an instant. Or even in the span of 10 months. It would take anyone time to turn the Leafs around, and the fellow from Missouri who came in talking about planning parades and pulling down photos of the legends is no exception. This franchise is a complicated animal, far different than anything he’s tangled with before, and it’s going to require cutting through the BS to point things in the right direction. If the Shanahan hire works towards that end, it’ll look brilliant. If it brings more of the same, well, the grades in years to come won’t be so kind.