With all the fanfare over the Winter Classic and the holidays, the report cards are late. But they’re in.
Here are the player-by-player grades for the Toronto Maple Leafs first half, which for these purposes will include the first 43 games. I’m considering the C+ to B- range to be average or adequate.
Players are ranked according to their ice time and graded according to their roles, salaries and expectations, meaning a minimum wage fourth liner has to do a whole lot less to earn an A than a top pairing defenceman making big money.
Goaltenders (Overall: A)
Jonathan Bernier: A
The 25-year-old former top prospect has been everything he was hyped to be so far in Toronto. Quiet and calm both off and on the ice, Bernier has been a pleasure to watch, putting on a clinic in goal even while his team gives up an absurd 37 shots per game. He sits sixth in the NHL with a .928 save percentage and his .938 even strength save percentage is better than all but three other regular starters. His 25 starts is still a small sample size so this may not continue at this high a level, but so far, so good.
James Reimer: A-
It’s really nitpicking to separate Bernier and Reimer by much, as they’ve been the co-MVPs of the Leafs season so far. Reimer’s .923 save percentage is one of the league’s best and basically identical to the .924 he posted a year ago. He is getting some of the lowest goal support in the league – and quite a bit lower than Bernier – which has made his job doubly tough. Ruling him out at this point would be a mistake.
Defencemen (Overall: C)
Dion Phaneuf: C+
The Leafs entire blueline has struggled this season, but the captain has been the best of a bad lot. Yes, his pairing with Carl Gunnarsson is one of the weakest in the league in terms of possession, but they are also getting ridiculously tough zone starts and quality of competition every night. Compared to last season, Phaneuf has had an especially tough time killing penalties, however.
Jake Gardiner: B-
In the eye of the storm with trade rumours swirling and a contentious relationship with the head coach, Gardiner has nonetheless been tasked with the second most minutes on the Leafs at just 23 years old. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s the only Toronto defenceman consistently keeping the puck out of the defensive zone to a reasonable degree and the offence has started to come on a little. A lot of potential mixed in with the problem areas.
Cody Franson: C
It’s been a frustrating step back for Franson after a breakthrough season a year ago. He’s getting far more minutes and playing against better players, which explains why his skating and mobility are being exposed more in the defensive zone. On the plus side, he’s on pace for nearly 40 points and has been a huge contributor to a dangerous Leafs power play. But probably better suited overall to a third pairing role at even strength.
Carl Gunnarsson: D
Whether it’s an injury (possibly a nagging hip problem) or just a falloff in performance, Gunnarsson has not looked himself this season. He has just four points in 43 games, isn’t generating any shots on goal and has struggled handling what are admittedly some of the toughest defensive assignments in the East. He’s playing under 20 minutes a night much more often than in recent years for a reason.
Paul Ranger: D
Expectations were not sky high for a player who has been out of the NHL for four years, but Ranger has nonetheless been up and down and all over the place in the 35 games he’s dressed for. Generally solid on the penalty kill, his decision making and lack of speed have been exposed at even strength, although the coaching staff is convinced he’s now turning his game around. He continues to play 19 minutes a night in spite of it all, but a lower workload would likely help.
Morgan Rielly: C+