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+
Playing with struggling partners and often on his off-side, the 19-year-old West Vancouver native hasn’t been dealt the easiest hand in his rookie season. He has shown uncommon maturity for a teenager, however, and has had some eye-opening forays up the ice with the puck that show signs of what he can become. The biggest concern is that his ugly plus-minus will weigh heavily on his confidence when the best is very much yet to come here.
Mark Fraser: F
Just a lost season for one of the very best stories of the Leafs season a year ago. An early knee injury robbed Fraser of some of his limited mobility, and it’s been more difficult to shelter him than a year ago with so many blueliners struggling. A tremendous player to have in the dressing room and someone whose effort is never lacking, he would nonetheless likely benefit from time with the Marlies right now – especially with TGOTS*.
Forwards (Overall: C+)
James van Riemsdyk: B+
Unstoppable early on, he has slowed a little through this this tough stretch, but remains on a 30-goal pace and is generating his highest shot per game rate of his career while meshing nicely with Phil Kessel. Hard to quibble with much here although his defensive awareness remains where he has the most to gain.
Tyler Bozak: B
Injured for long stretches with two separate muscle issues, Bozak has been remarkably productive thanks at least in part to a sky high on-ice shooting percentage (12.8 per cent) in the 19 games he’s played. Still not well suited to playing the 21-plus minutes a night Randy Carlyle insists on giving him, he has played some of his best hockey this season while handling very difficult checking assignments. Proving deadly on breakaways and in shootouts, too, although where has that faceoff prowess gone?
Phil Kessel: B
On fire early, Kessel has been one of the only Leafs players producing through their two month slide, with a strong December (13 points in 14 games) against some very good teams. His defensive intensity has been all over the place but the fact he’s on pace for a career high 38 goals speaks volumes. On a team desperate for offence, especially lately, he’s earning his paycheque.
Joffrey Lupul: C+
Lupul has experienced a disappointing but understandable drop off from his remarkable production to start his Leafs career, something that he probably sustained longer than anyone expected. Part of the problem is likely that he has been shuffled just about everywhere in the lineup, seeing 10 per cent or more of his ice time with Kadri, Raymond, Holland, Clarkson, Kessel, Smith, Kulemin, McClement and Bolland through 34 games. That’s a lot of linemates.
Mason Raymond: B+
Fifty points is fifty points, and he’s on that pace despite coming to camp on a tryout and making just $1-million. He has been something of an everyman, with good results on both the penalty kill and power play, and played far more minutes than expected with a lot of injuries up front. The interesting question is what he’s looking to re-sign for as the Leafs aren’t going to be flush with cap space.
Nazem Kadri: C+
As expected, Kadri has had a very tough time following up last season’s incredible half season, one in which he was among the league’s scoring leaders thanks in large part due to one of the highest on-ice shooting percentages we’ve seen over a sustained stretch. His time with the top line was up and down this season, but at this point in his career, a 48-point pace is probably about right. But the turnovers, especially just inside the offensive blueline, and faceoffs continue to be a real problem.
Jay McClement: D
Randy Carlyle’s crutch. Likely more effective in a specialist role, McClement has been given 17 minutes a night with all the holes at centre due to injury, and his game has dipped noticeably. His penalty kill work hasn’t been nearly as strong, and any offensive production has completely deserted him. With Bozak healthy, his home should be on the fourth line at this point.
David Clarkson: F
It’s not for a lack of effort on his part, but Clarkson very much looks like he’ll end the season in the 20 to 25 point range, and with what he’s being paid, that’s not acceptable. The player will take most of the heat here, but this big-time UFA miss is going to be on management for not seeing how favourable his minutes were in New Jersey when he produced offensively. A brutal start to what’s going to be a brutal contract.
Dave Bolland: A
Leafs fans and staffers alike will be asking themselves “what if” all season when it comes to Bolland. What if he had only stayed healthy? It was a very impressive first 14 games as a Leaf for the long-time Blackhawk; now the question is can he return to that level after a devastating ankle injury that may take the whole season to fully recover from. His first act may be hard to duplicate down the road.
Nikolai Kulemin: C+
Big, talented and smart defensively, Kulemin has to be a huge headache for this coaching staff. While he has been an effective checker and helped the penalty kill, Kulemin’s offence continues to been MIA, even though there are glimpses of a big shot and good positioning from time to time. There’s more here, but it might take a change of scenery for it to come out. A mystery.
Peter Holland: B+
Acquired with the Leafs desperate for a fill-in option, he more than exceeded expectations. Only 22 years old and with impressive production in the minors, Holland had one stretch with eight points in 10 games but has been relegated to a fourth line role ever since. His defensive game remains a project, but there are some enticing elements here.
Trevor Smith: B-
Veteran minor leaguer came in and delivered timely offence and some minutes down the middle when they were badly needed.
Colton Orr: ?
They fight, and fight, they fight and fight and fight. Fight, fight, fight.
Frazer McLaren: ?
Fight, fight, fight. The Orrsy and FML show.
*- Tim Gleason on the scene