The Toronto Maple Leafs season has come to an end, but what a season it was. Back in the fall, where there was some hope, but little certainty, the team was just a year into their full-on rebuild and not a lot was expected from this team. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, 2 of their cornerstone players, had yet to play one game and so there wasn’t a real good idea how they would have fared. Marner for sure wasn’t even guaranteed a roster spot as he was still eligible to be returned to Junior and there was a lot of unknown on how he would adjust to the NHL, due to his size or lack thereof, and limited experience.
Two key cogs, Morgan Reilly and Nazem Kadri, just signed big extensions in the summer, and so whether or not the team was going to get their money’s worth from this investment was a mystery, still since the two didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year.
Nikita Zaitsev was relatively unknown as a 25-year-old who played exclusively in the KHL and their goalie, Fredrik Andersen, was coming into camp already hurt. He too got a large, long-term deal and this was his first season as the exclusive number 1 goalie for a team.
The team definitely had a bit more in the cupboard compared to the bare-bones roster they fielded last year. But with so many rookies and so many players with limited pro-experience and almost zero NHL experience, there was little sense back then that this team was going to be a playoff team.
That turned out to be a huge under-estimation of the skill and talent on the ice, and the savvy and smarts of it is that both turned the franchise into what looks like a perennial playoff contender that should continue to only get better.
All the rookies— there were 8 of them— completely floored everyone with their play, and that kind of skill and energy that they brought were beyond anyone’s wild predictions. Their abilities made the game play put forth by coach Mike Babcock, to play fast and to play right, work for the most part and led to the team finding this kind of success so quickly.
The veterans too stepped up in a big way. Andersen proved to be a top number 1 goalie. Reilly and Kadri lived up to the money they were paid, especially Kadri who passed all his previous career highs. Also Tyler Bozak, JVR, and Uncle Leo, Leo Komarov, provided a boost in their play to support the high flying rookies.
After seeing teams like the Oilers and the Panthers, among others, struggle mightily through a rebuild and getting to the playoffs, Toronto reached in 1 year and while they didn’t do it the easy way, they played well enough to not only get in, but also scare the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals in Round 1.
So after what can be considered a great season, here are the year-end grades for the Leafs.
Auston Matthews: Grade A+
Matthews scored 40 goals to finish in a tie for second in goals behind Sidney Crosby. What a season that was for Matthews, who started with a 4-goal game and a mini slump, and ending as a player who kept getting better at all facets of the game.
Babcock continued to praise Matthews throughout the year for his strong two-way play and 200 foot game. But in the end, offence was his forte and he delivered in spades.
In the playoffs he proved it even more, scoring 4 goals in the 6-game series and continuing a quick ascension to become one of the league’s top players.
The fact of the matter is well, he’s only going to get better.
Fredrik Andersen: Grade A
Andersen was exactly what the Leafs needed. A true No. 1 goalie who can be the backbone of the team and win games on his own.
Outside of a bad October, some difficulties in playing back to back games, and injury concerns towards the end of the year, it was a fabulous season for Andersen and he showed how good he can be in the playoffs.
He upped his game to another level in the 6-game series. While there were moments he could have been better, the series was extended and all the games were winnable for the Leafs and a lot of thanks goes to Andersen.
The 5-year deal he signed is turning into a bargain should Andersen continue to play at this level and beyond.
William Nylander: Grade A
Nylander got better as the season went along. Shadowed by the performances of Marner and Matthews, Nylander showed a tremendous ability to carry the play offensively, create chances, and be a dangerous player every shift.
His possession numbers were solid in the regular season and exceptional in the playoffs. When he had the puck, there was something always happening.
Reaching the 20-goal, 60-point plateau as a 19-year-old while playing out of position (he’s a natural centre), was some kind of season for someone hardly talked about.
Nylander is one of the league’s best young players. Those trade rumours that were rampant during the year will likely dissipate as Nylander should be a fixture in Toronto for years to come.
Mitch Marner: Grade A-
The injury mid-season sort of slowed Marner down, but lets not kid ourselves, the kid had a great season.
Marner had 61 points in his first pro season, without the benefit of a period of getting his feet wet at the AHL level.
Consistency wasn’t all there as he went on streaks of scoring a lot of points to ones where points dried up. But in the end, all in all a great year for the 19-year-old.
There will be room for improvement and that may come when his body continues to grow and he continues to improve conditioning and strength. His speed and skill though were undeniable and it sure seems we’ve only seen a fraction of how good this kid can be.
Nazem Kadri: Grade B+
Right from the beginning, Coach Babcock assigned Kadri to join Komarov to be the team’s checking unit and were to be tasked the role of taking on the other team’s best lines every single night.
The result of that role was a 32-goal campaign by Kadri and he destroyed all his previous personal highs in goals, points, and minutes.
He was a catalyst at both ends of the ice. While he still had some Kadri moments that we became accustomed to in previous years, he was a model of consistency and effectiveness.
Lots of kudos to the coaching staff here for putting faith in Kadri and helping him become the player he turned out to be this year. Going forward, the Leafs will need a lot more of that.
Connor Brown: Grade B
Brown quietly was a 20-goal scorer and was one of the team’s most versatile players.
He moved up and down the lineup, becoming the checking line winger with Kadri/Komarov, being on Matthew’s line providing speed and grit, and playing both on the power play and penalty kill.
He did it all for the Leafs and a lot of it went unnoticed.
He struggled a bit when the pace and intensity got higher in the playoffs, but that will likely come with experience.
Morgan Reilly: Grade B
Once Reilly became healthier at the end of the year, he played much better and was a horse in the playoffs.
He struggled with a few mistakes here and there, and probably caught trying to do too much, but all in all, a fine season for Reilly.
There was some disappointment in the point totals and his plus/minus rating, but the fact of the matter was, the job of facing other teams’ best lines is far from an easy one.
A revolving door of partners did not help. Also, he was never really a regular on the power play so obviously the point totals took a hit.
There is so much potential here for the Leafs to have a real special player in Reilly. If the team can solidify the D and provide Reilly with more help, he may be able to ease into a role that will allow him to play his game, keep things simpler, and raise his game to another level, which he is more than capable of.
Jake Gardiner: Grade B
What you see is what you get with Gardiner. He is a player who will take chances and make what looks like the simplest play into an adventure. But there is no denying the guy can be a big time player.
In the playoffs, he seemed to raise his game. That is what you like to see: what players do when it matters more. He thrived in it.
While in the regular season he fared well, there were still a lot of issues and holes that were visible and made fans and coaches cringe.
At the end of the day though you can’t really teach offence. Gardiner is completely an offensive defenceman who is prone to defensive miscues.
But its extremely hard to find defencemen with the ability to move the puck, create offence, and have that impact at that end, so all in all, there is probably a bit more appetite by the Leafs to accept what Gardiner is. When you lead your D in goals and points and the team in plus/minus, you’ve got to be doing something right.
James van Riemsdyk: Grade B
JVR was dogged with some criticism from not only fans and media but from the coaching staff, yet still came out scoring 29 goals and was second in team scoring with 62 points.
An important cog on the power play, JVR provided that important scoring depth that drives teams to success. He moved from being one of the main players to now a support scorer, and he delivered in that regard.
What his future holds in Toronto remains to be seen. With just 1 year left on his deal, whether or not he is in the team’s future plans is anyone’s guess.
But for at least this year, he was an excellent insulator for Marner and his proven offensive record was a big boost to the team.
Tyler Bozak: Grade B
Bozak was also met with some criticism but battled through it and performed solidly down the stretch and into the playoffs.
He scored the biggest goal of the season arguably with the winner in Game 3 to put the Leafs up 2 games to 1.
His ability to win face offs was big. He was among the league’s best at it and thus that skill became of greater importance to the team when it mattered most.
He, like JVR, is on an expiring contract. Whether he is part of the team’s long-term plans remains to be seen.
But his leadership was underrated and he did a lot of little things down the stretch that really made a big difference. He was finally placed in the right spot in the lineup after years being the Leaf’s top centre and he performed solidly because of it.
Nikita Zaitsev: Grade B
Zaitsev had his ups and downs but at the end of the day, probably at worst, met expectations.
Yes he is a bit older at age 25, but he is a rookie and this was his first full year in the NHL.
He was pressed into service facing the best players, and on most nights he held his own. It was a tall task to ask, yet he seemed to relish taking on the responsibility.
He led the Leafs in minutes and was a workhorse. The late-season injury slowed him down some as he wasn’t quite the same player in the playoffs.
But now signed for 7 more years, he is cemented as a long-term piece for the team and should only get better as he adjusts more and more to the North American game and the rigors of a NHL season plus playoffs.
Leo Komarov: Grade B
Uncle Leo provided exactly what was expected. He was cemented on the checking line with Kadri and did what he does best, check.
He was his usual agitating self, played with an edge and never really went over it. He was, for the most part, strong in his own end and was excellent on the PK. Coach Babcock leaned on him heavily in that role.
Leo is yet another veteran player who will next year be playing on an expiring contract. He has a big fan though in Babcock so he stands a good chance to be around long term.
Zach Hyman: Grade B-
Hyman is another Babcock favorite. As the coach likes to do, he prefers a hard worker to go with a couple of skilled players on every line. Hyman is that guy on the Matthews line.
While often criticized for not being much of a scorer or finisher on that line, he was exactly what the line needed at the end of the day. All the dirty work he did ended up being very important in the long run, and that line eventually became a second unit for Babcock to use for defensive purposes.
Hyman’s value is more than just goals and points. He’s a comfortable fit with Matthews, and Matthews still scored 40 goals with him. If its not broke…..
Brian Boyle: Grade C+
The acquisition of Boyle was a huge boost from management to the players that they really believed in this team and that it could accomplish something good.
Making the playoffs was a big step and Boyle played a brief but important part in it.
The experience and leadership he provided was second to none. The young team totally embraced his presence immediately and he paid significant dividends on and off the ice.
He was Babcock’s key defensive zone face off guy and was right away trusted with important, defensive zone situations.
The assist he made on the overtime winner by Kasperi Kapanen was a thing of beauty. He rose to the occasion and filled in a key role for Toronto down the stretch.
Will he stay? That is the million dollar, or 3-million dollar, question. The Leafs will have to see if that makes dollars and cents.
Matt Martin: Grade C+
Teams all have a group of star players, support players and role players. All share a key role in a team’s success.
Goals, assists, possession stats, plus/minus… all these things are not the full sum of Matt Martin. The value he brings as a player who will protect his teammates and provide physical play in limited playing time as well as add valuable leadership is really immeasurable.
Those who value stats do not value Martin. The Leafs however do and he made the 4-year deal they presented to him very worthwhile. All the young rookies looked up to Martin, who helped them navigate their way through being a pro NHLer and that doesn’t come up on the stat sheet.
Roman Polak: Grade C+
Polak turned out to be a pretty big loss when he got injured in Game 2 of the Leafs 1st round series.
He provided the Leafs with the only D with some physical bite to his game. Once the decision was made by the coaches to pair Polak and Matt Hunwick together, their games and their play improved significantly.
Polak was a huge piece to the penalty kill and his ability to take the body and block shots invaluable to the Leafs.
A free agent this summer, and coming off a serious injury, it will be interesting to see if he is brought back. The Leafs though need to find a replacement who can provide Toronto with the level of toughness he provided as even with Polak, it was still an organizational need.
Matt Hunwick: Grade C+
Hunwick was another valuable veteran role player that upped his game as his role became more defined.
Hunwick killed penalties and was a steady 3rd-pairing defenceman with Polak and the two veterans really solidified things in the second half.
Another free agent this summer, it seems likely he will not return, but his veteran experience will be missed.
Kasperi Kapanen: Grade C
Kapanen found his way into the lineup after Soshnikov was hurt.
He filled in as a 4th line energy player and penalty killer. On the final weekend of the season though he scored one of the biggest goals of the season to tie the game and that set up the opportunity or Brown to tip in the winner.
He then scored one of the Leafs’ biggest goals with his double OT winner in game 2 to tie the series with Washington heading home.
For a player who also scored a Golden Goal at the WJC, this guy has a big game presence to him. He tends to deliver when it matters.
It will be interesting to see where he fits in next year, but it seems he has put himself at the front of the line in terms of being a Leaf regular.
Nikita Soshnikov: Grade C-
Injured through the last quarter of the season almost, Sosh was missed on the PK and the energy he brought on the 4th line. He was an agitator. He got his nose dirty and willingly mixed it up.
Despite being small, he threw his body and used that great speed to get in on the forecheck.
He is a big favorite of Babcock and hopefully he will be back at full strength next year. If some other veteran forwards move out, he could definitely fine himself with a greater role next year.
Fredrik Gauthier: Grade C-
The addition of Boyle led to Gauthier being replaced.
He was an admirable fill in for the most part last year and likely has the inside track on the 4th-line centre job next season if Boyle is not brought back.
Since playing time as a 4th liner is limited, the key for the Goat is to be consistent and make the most of the limited shifts he has.
Plus, if he is tasked with the PK and/or winning face offs, he really has to own it to make certain his NHL stay is permanent.
Curtis McElhinney: Grade C-
The Leafs made the playoffs thanks to all their key star players. But they also benefited from some unlikely contributions and that included some heroics by McElhinney.
While he wasn’t superb by any means, he picked up 12 valuable points for the Leafs, including the important 2 points on the last weekend of the season, with a huge win over the Penguins.
That save he made in dying minutes on Sid Crosby was a season saver for the Leafs.
Josh Leivo: Grade C-
Leivo, in limited playing time, showed off some good offensive skill and produced points no matter what line he was on.
He joined the Kadri line and had a spike in production, and sort of helped that line get out of a bit of a slump.
He worked mostly on the 4th line and provided points there as well.
He couldn’t quite get back into the lineup, even when healthy as coach Babcock leaned more on players who could fill specific roles, but Leivo could be a valuable piece going forward should some veterans be traded.
Ben Smith: Grade D
Smith’s value was simply a depth forward who probably ended up playing a bit too much. But, as it turns out, he played just enough to be awarded a contract for next season and provide the Leafs with a second forward to expose in the upcoming expansion draft that met the minimum exposure requirements as laid out by the league.
Smith is one of those players who, in limited play, can be effective, but, if asked to take on too much, he can easily be exposed and exploited. If not selected in the expansion draft, he will likely return to provide organizational depth to the Leafs.
Connor Carrick: Grade D
Carrick didn’t quite ever gain the trust of the coaching staff and may not be in the team’s plans next season.
That being said, it was not without effort. Despite being a smaller player, he was game physically and defended as well as could be expected. Pretty much at the end, Carrick was only asked to play a simple game and limit mistakes. He did that pretty well. But, he is redundant on this team with lots of puck moving blueliners and little in the way of big, mobile, physical defenders which this team needs.
Martin Marincin: Grade D
As bad as Marincin has been, with horribly soft play and more giveaways and foolish plays to count, he stepped up in a tough situation in the playoffs and wasn’t terrible.
He made his share of mistakes. But, he played admirably, filling in for Polak and didn’t cheat the Leafs with a lack of effort.
He shouldn’t be in the Leafs’ future plans. There are better players to be had out there. But for now, he provides depth and potentially could be scooped up in the expansion draft.
Alexey Marchenko Grade D
Marchenko is your typical depth blueliner who can fill in if need by should the need arise.
It did in some cases, and at times, Marchenko was fairly effective.
But, at the end of the day, he didn’t fully gain the coaches’ trust and as a result was left more as a practice body than a full-time player.
He is signed through next season. In case the team loses a body or two on D, he provides depth, but certainly the Leafs will be looking for an upgrade at some point this summer.
One year after gutting everything and starting fresh, the Leafs made the playoffs. There were definitely some thoughts they would perform well, but nothing to this extent. To take the Caps to 5 OTs and 6 1 goal games and have the series really go either way is a testament to the kids and their ability to rise to the occasion already. There is a lot of excitement in the air now for this team. The potential is high and now there will be heightened expectations. There will be more pressure to perform, but with the way these kids adapted to all the situations put forth to them, there doesn’t seem to be anything that these kids can’t handle.
It’s going to be a pretty busy summer for the organization. Moves will be made, changes will come, additions will be seen. Its really exciting times for the Maple Leafs and we can only hope this exciting ride lasts for a long time.
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