Toronto Maple Leafs - Mid term report card.

So, as we reach the half way of the 2018 NHL season and can now reflect upon what is surely an NHL playoff bound team and where this team is heading in 2019. They have easily reached expectations, especially since two thirds of their top line have missed significant action in 2018 and one, highly skilled winger William Nylander, has yet to find his NHL stride yet. Unlike other years, Goalie Frederick Andersen is not having to bail this team's defense out and is likely saving his best play for later in the year, much as the legendary Patrick Roy often did. If Andersen finds his highest level and they make some modest additions, this is a Stanley cup contender this year and for years to come. At the start of the year the Leaf team had a new and young GM with William Nylander sitting out and perhaps facing a trade. By December, Nylander was signed at $6.9M per year, by no means cheap given his short time in the NHL and the cost of similar players on other teams. This makes it hard to grade Dubas at this time but for me, I can live with the price we paid. We must still wait to see how Kyle Dubas handles the tornado of free agencies he soon faces with mega stars such as Mitch Marner and Auston Mathews yet to come. Nevermind Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. It also remains to see if he makes the right acquisitions for this team by trade deadline but he has hinted a right handed defenseman is on his list of wants. I couldn't agree more. Many fans feel Toronto needs to add some grit to their top 9 forwards before playoff time as well. Dubas, so far, has done Ok but his body of work is still really ahead of him yet. Dubas has said he doesn't buy it (" We need grit") and while Babcock murmured he didn't have enough heavy skaters, star center John Tavares has also said " We need some grit."  Don't look now but once long thought lost center Frederick Gauthier is scoring and may help with the size and grit department even yet.

Management: B.

It is still a bit early to judge Kyle Dubas a mere half season in but he hasn't made any major mistakes. His drafting of  defenseman Rasmus Sandin looks quite shrewd at this point and his decision to go with Sparks against the grain hasn't backfired. Some didn't like how much he paid Nylander but he got him signed within range of what similar players get and will likely get into the future should the cap keep going up. He signed Tyler Ennis who looks like a very good pickup but lost Leivo in the process to Vancouver. His cap management has been excellent as he shed veterans only to pick up star Center John Tavares. Few fans appreciated that there would be a price to pay for that, the loss of some veterans such as Matt Martin, Curtis Mchlhenny, JVR,Bozak etc. Pushing the team into youth overdrive, the kids have responded well.

Coaching : A.

Mike Babcock has adapted well to the loss of his precious veterans such as Martin, Komorov, Polak, Bozak, JVR  and backup McElhenny. He has carefully weaned Reilly off his leash and a Norris defenseman has finally emerged. While every team has blips in the road over an 82 game season, the team always bounced back  and even without stars Auston Mathews and William Nylander this was one of the best teams in the NHL. I'm not sure what more anyone could ask from a coach at this point and he comes exactly as advertised. Babcock's real job now starts in round one of the playoffs.


(RW) Mitch Marner A+ : What can I say ? The kid looks like the second coming of Stevie Yzerman and the Bruin's have every reason to fear this guy and dread facing him. He is scoring critical goals while setting up plays like crazy and is on his way to over a 100 point season. Marner emerged in last year's playoffs versus the Boston Bruins and just hasn't stopped. It is hard to imagine but he hasn't even hit his prime yet. He is already one of the best in the game and few can match his overall skill level. Right now Mitch Marner is the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is a game breaker who now has Tavares to work with and Marner is giving defenses absolute fits right now. He seems unstoppable and is just never truly out of the play.

(C) Auston Mathews  A : Some would argue he is an A+  this season but injuries have muddied that conclusion at this time. Auston Mathews is the most gifted goal scorer the Leafs have had since the beginning of the universe. He is absolutely lethal and makes goalies look like they are playing in their first NHL game ever as they wave pointlessly at his shots that are released so fast they are in the net before the goalie can even blink. That being said, he is slowly improving his physical game while getting nasty attention from opposing teams leading to injury concerns. He just isn't the playmaker that Marner is.

(C) John Tavares A : People will say, how can a season like this not be an A+ ? Because Tavares now has an unbelievable support cast while playing with red hot Mitch Marner setting him up. He is also 27, in his prime, with Mathews drawing other teams top concern and Kadri there to do the dirty and hard duties. Tavares has it made in the shade and is doing everything he was expected to while earning a nice $11M per year.

(D) Morgan Reilly A + : He should win the Norris and the media are going to choke on this one. Last year they asked " Is he a number one? " Reilly responded " I am the number one...... period!" No one could ask more from this kid and many are calling for the "C" to go on him. At $5M/yr  he is easily the best $ per pound defenseman in the entire NHL. If he doesn't win the Norris there should riots at the voting booth.

(G) Frederick Andersen B : Andersen has just been injured and quite frankly he carried the entire team last year. He has more to give but the Leafs haven't needed it. He may be doing a Patrick Roy and saving his best for latter in the season as his team's offense regularly kicks the living crud out of other teams at will. Our defense has also been better this year. I think Andersen is a top 10 goalie and can play better but can we say he is a top 10 goalie this year ? Not yet.

(RW) Kasperi Kapanen A - : While his best bud William Nylander was away Kasperi did play, with Mathews. All of sudden Leaf fans didn't miss Nylander anymore. While Nylander held out, Kapanen was at the top of his game admitting he was no longer confused about what his center was going to do next. But he was playing with Mathews and since Nylander's return his play has tailed off somewhat as he returned to earth. He is also playing for contract and looks to be worth in the $4 to $5 Million range. Kapanen was a very pleasant surprise this year but can he keep it up without Mathews down the  middle ? If the answer is yes, he becomes a $5 Million dollar man. The question is can Toronto afford it ? Kapanen's agent can easily make the argument that Kasperi is a much coveted 30 goal scorer with lethal speed making him an ideal penalty killer. He has also added a more physical dimension to his game making him a hot commodity in the trade rumour farm. If Toronto goes calling for a defenseman, Kapanen's name surely gets fired back.

(C) Nazem Kadri B-  : Had Tavares not be signed this grade would likely be much higher. Kadri has played effectively and gets a lot of tough assignments but he played better last year when he was absolutely an impact player and looked every bit a solid number 2 C any team would love to have. The problem ? He is playing behind Mathews and Tavares, gets to match up against the best in the NHL. I like Kadri and see his game finding another level latter in the season in the bigger games and of course, the playoffs but he won't see 30 goals this year.

(D) Jake Gardiner A - : The long time whipping boy for many Leaf fans who was known for having brain cramps at the wrong time has considerably reformed his game in a contract year. He is plus 17 at this writing and while he still makes the odd blunder he will surely fetch $6 - 7M on the market this summer. he is an offensive defenseman who seems to have found a comfort zone under Babcock's watchful eye. He still has weaknesses in his game often looking like a forward who was converted to a defenseman but his passing and offensive breakout skating won't be ignored by other GM's who will see a guy who can improve their powerplay and offense from the blueline. If paired with the right guy Gardiner could be a top 2 defenseman. The problem is that guy isn't Morgan Reilly as the two just don't quite fit together on the ice as a top pair. Gardiner has become a very good number 3 offensive defenseman you wish could play top 2.

(LW/C) Patrick Marleau B : The things Marleau brings to the Leaf's can't quite be quantified by on ice production but Marleau is one of the greatest scorers in NHL history. He recently tied legendary Rocket Richard with his 544th career goal and is on pace for yet another 20 goal season. He makes $6.5 M/ yr. and has one year left on his contract. He is a quiet leader and example to the younger Leaf players, as such, he will likely finish his NHL career next year in Toronto retiring as a legend who willingly came to Toronto to win a cup. Like or not but Patrick Marleau is playing well for his age and is one of the greatest of all time while doing so quietly and effectively year after year after year...

(LW) Andreas Johnsson C + : Last year's Calder cup hero started slowly and had many Leaf fans asking
 " Why is even on the 4th line ? " But Andreas has slowly come on even having a natural 20 minute hat trick breaking a game against Philly wide open. Andreas is a potential 30 goal player who is 24 years of age and is on ELC. He and his agent will want to be paid soon. It is hard to prove that from the 4th line though and questions remain whether Toronto can afford to keep him and if he will score that 30 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A good player who falls victim to the number's game much as Josh Leivo did. When GM Kyle Dubas goes calling for help on defense, there is a good chance he offers up Andreas Johnsson over Kapseri Kapanen as there is a good chance Andreas will be lost due to the next expansion draft when Seattle enters the league.

(LW) Zach Hyman B : Until he was injured, Hyman was having his best year becoming physically involved more this year while on pace (7 goals in 32 Games) to perhaps score 15-20 goals. A big , hard working winger Mike Babcock hates to live without. He hustles and goes in the corners and once injured Babcock lamented " I don't have enough heavy skaters...(now) ". While many wish Toronto could upgrade Hyman, it is hard to see how they live without him as he comes to work almost every night.

(RW) Connor Brown C : I'm sorry but I think Connor can do more and his game has dropped off since his 20 goal rookie season. He does what he is told and is a soldier but he just doesn't seem as hungry ever since he made contract. It could be coaching or it could be comfort has been reached, nevertheless the Leafs need more from him and if it came down to keeping Andreas Johnsson or Connor Brown, Brown would be on the way to the airport come trade deadline. Brown needs to get hungrier to work his way back into the top 9 forwards again.

(D) Ron Hainsey B + : The guy is 37 years old with tons of mileage and experience, playing an effective role with Norris defenseman Morgan Reilly. While he shouldn't be a top 2 defenseman and never was, he is now and is logging an impressive plus 23 this year. There is nothing more could be asked of this guy and should the Leafs acquire another good veteran defenseman he is the perfect guy to school kid Travis Dermott. At the start of the year some fans wanted him traded, he should be applauded and is all old school heart and soul defenseman.

(LW) Tyler Ennis B : He was a pick up signing no one really noticed who then had a comeback season from the 4th line, reminding many of the Tyler Ennis of old. Then disaster hit and Ennis broke his ankle derailing a very good season. He will miss 6 weeks putting next year a question mark for him as he is signed on the cheap for one year.

(C/W) Par Lindholm C : Lindholm has played ok in a, you don't notice him kind of way. He is 26 and is a player who likely gets replaced by the younger and bigger Frederick Gauthier. I don't have much to say about him as I see him as a stop gap/ experiment that is pretty meh. Honestly, I don't think he is back next year.

(C) Frederick Gauthier  B : I never thought I would say this but I think the former first round pick has a future with Toronto. The massive 6ft 5" center is exactly what Toronto needs on their 4th line and don't look now but he has "gulp" started scoring too. I can now see Gauthier as a staple on our 4th line for years who could pop in a nice 10 to 15 goals a year while adding size and defensive accumen. He is what I call a 4th line anchor, a guy you can build your 4th line around. He is a bit of a surprise as many had him written off, including me.

(D) Travis Dermott C+ : He is a kid learning the game who will be a top 4 or even top 3 defensemen one day. He will be a Leaf favorite for years but he isn't quite there yet and is currently 3rd pairing on most  nights. Like many sophmores he has taken a step back this year most likely learning the finer points under the stern direction of Mike Babcock much as Norris trophy winner Morgan Reilly had to.

(D) Igor Ozhiganov C + : Igor has been "quitely effective" as they say and will likely get better the more he plays. For free who can complain ? Right now he is a 3rd pairing defenseman who could play higher in time but is still learning the North American game. There is definite upside given patience. A big defenseman with a booming shot.

(D) Nikita Zaitsev  D  : For $4.5 Million per year having this guy in our lineup completely sucks. They call him quietly effective whereas I think he is just sucking loudly. He is one of the very few blunders former Lou Lamoriello made and if the Leafs want to keep Jake Gardiner, guess what ? He has to go. The problem ? At $4.5 Million for years to come the Leafs would have eat contract for anyone to even look at him. His offense has dried up and under a cap world the Leafs can't afford a guy playing like a number 7 defenseman while getting paid as a top 4. Zaitsev is not a top 4 defenseman on a cup contender. Hopefully Kyle Dubas can move him this anchor of a contract or any hope of keeping Gardiner is lost. If Zaitsev is worth $4.5 Million then Jake must be over $7 M/ yr.
 " Quietly uneffective . "

(RW/C) William Nylander , the former 20 goal winger got his money.. finally on the last day December first. So far, he has a whopping 2 assists in one game and looks every bit the kid playing catch up. It will take him 20 games just to get into form ,so for that alone he gets an " F ", thus far. Let's face it, right now he looks a bit lost out there due to missing training camp etc. and just hasn't caught up with the rest of the NHL, as of yet.

(LW) Trevor Moore B-  : He is an injury call up who has played 2 games and gotten 2 assists so far playing 4th line. So far, so good.

(G) Garret Sparks  C+ : He is a young goalie, slowly gaining NHL confidence who gets paid peanuts to happily sit and watch number one Andersen take the horses share of the work. He is 6- 1 -1 so far and is about to get royally tested now that number one Andersen is out due to injury. We will very soon know what we have in this guy and I feel that 8 games isn't a fair sample size. That is all about to change as the former Calder Cup winning goalie now gets his metal tested. I find it crazy to analyze a goalie after only 8 games but so far, so good.


Team Grade overall :  A

 The Leafs have played exactly as billed while still having room to improve. If they can add the likes of say defenseman N.Kronwall (Detroit) and say a  gritty winger like Wayne Simmonds(Philly) as rentals by trade deadline they are Stanley cup contenders this year.