Yesterday, we started our discussion with a group of PPP contributors about how the first quarter of the season had gone. We focused on more of the off-ice questions: our expectations and appraisal of the team's play, of the plan to rebuild the team, and of Mike Babcock's job as coach. Today, we examine some of the players whose early-season performances have caught our eye.
Let's start with a question that got a lot of attention earlier this week; should William Nylander play in the NHL this season?
JP Nikota: I’m inclined to say no. His development won’t be stunted by playing against AHL competition, and all the while, he’s going to get more power play time, learn the defensive side of the game even better, and probably also get stronger.
elseldo: He could be but I wouldn’t make it a priority to get him into the NHL. He’s leading the AHL in goals and the Marlies are chugging along into the playoffs.
FiftyMissionCap: This is two separate questions. Does he deserve to be in the NHL? Unequivocally, yes. In 52 GP (as of writing) over two parts of AHL seasons, as a teenager, he's got 52 points. My biggest concern at 2014 training camp was his adjustment to the physical play of North American pro hockey. He hasn't just picked it up, he's thrived.
But should he be on the Maple Leafs? I don't see the value in it. This year's Leafs largely don't fit in the long-term plans of the organization. They won't be contending for a playoff spot. I don't see the value in wasting a year of his Entry Level contract for this.
Scott Wheerer: Burning controlled years of a young star's contract is a plague in the NHL. There's little doubt Nylander is one of the organization's 12 best forwards at this point. He is NHL-ready and could step in and produce with a regular shift. The Marlies are giving Nylander big minutes on the top line and if the Leafs move several of their one-year deals there will be little excuse to keep him out of the NHL.
Charlotte's Webster: On merit he absolutely should be here. The question of the ELC is whether playing in the NHL versus the AHL has developmental advantages for a guy that is clearly a star in the lower league. If it was up to me, I think I'd wait and bring him up to play fewer than the 40-game threshold that protects his UFA years. I also think there's a benefit to showing your prospects that if you force their hand through a high level of play, it will be rewarded.
clrkaitken The other thing is that unless the Leafs are monumentally stubborn, Mitch Marner is going to make this team next season. Depending on what happens with the 2016 draft, maybe an 18-year old is jumping as well (maybe not a guy like Jesse Puljujarvi but if we somehow wind up Jakob Chycrun or Auston Mathews?). I don't know if you want a situation where your three most important pieces are all due at the same time.
A month ago I'd have said no. Now I'm not so sure.
Achariya: I think the Leafs aren't so much waiting for him to develop as they are for the Leafs to grow into a team that can properly give him the growth he needs.
Who has been your standout so far this season?
Scott Wheeler: Nazem Kadri has been a lot better than his production would suggest. If he were at anywhere close to his career shooting percentage, he'd be in the All-Star Game discussion.
elseldo: Agree on Kadri. He's there trying to get the goals and while they're not going for him, his linemate Leo Komarov is having the best year of his career for it. Who would have thought Komarov on the first line wouldn't be a giant mistake?
clrkaitken: James Van Riemsdyk deserves some praise as well on that top line. JVR was always the guy expected to do the heavy lifting in the corners and in front of the net, and that worked well because he's big and strong and he has ridiculous hands in close to the net. I fully expected Babcock to develop him into a next-generation Tomas Holmstrom or Johan Franzen.
Instead, playing with Kadri and Komarov, Leo does all the grindy shit and JVR's become the triggerman. It's a much better utilization of his offensive talents and keeping him higher in the offensive zone puts him in a better position to not get caught defensively. He and Kadri look like a credible threat to go power vs. power against other teams' top guns next season, allowing Nylander and Marner to go bananas on lesser competition.
Charlotte's Webster: Jake Gardiner is continuing to show that he's a high-end defenceman in the NHL, and the fact that he's carrying Dion Phaneuf to respectable possession numbers might be the most impressive feat of his career.
FiftyMissionCap: Morgan Rielly's beginning to establish himself as a top defenceman in this league, and he's just so entertaining to watch. While somebody for the Leafs is going to the All-Star Game because as the "token guy from each team" rule, Rielly's making a case to be there on merit.
JP Nikota: Tyler Bozak has been dramatically better. His last year represents a pretty low bar, but still.
Is there anybody that you expected more out of that hasn't delivered?
JP NIkota: Jake Gardiner is having a good season so far, so I don't want to be too critical, but I don't think he's been any better or worse than last year, which is kind of disappointing given the coaching change.
Scott Wheeler: Despite getting shelled with tough assignments, Nick Spaling's lack of offensive production has been disappointing, not just that he's not getting on the score sheet but that he's generating very little in the way of shots.
Achariya: Poor Nazem Kadri. I expected him to blossom into a league-leading scorer with a sounder structure around him, but the hockey gods are having none of that. So far, anyway.
elseldo: It sucks not to see Kadri not scoring, but I think that is mostly a function of luck. Roman Polak has been truly disappointing but Babcock keeps going to back to him.
FiftyMIssionCap: Polak has taken a huge step back this year. I know it's his last season here and they're trying to move expiring contracts for picks, but I'm not a fan of keeping Martin Marincin, Scott Harrington or Frank Corrado out of the lineup for him.
Charlotte's Webster: I'd group Polak in with Dion Phaneuf, as they basically have the same problem; they're not mobile enough to really thrive in today's NHL. Phaneuf also is taking way too many penalties.
clrkaitken We talked about Dion's issues at length and it's disappointing to see that he looks like he's starting to really decline and not just trying to recover from being completely overworked by Randy Carlyle.
Let's close with the goaltending. Do we need to move one or the other? Are either of these guys the long-term solution in net?
elseldo: Neither are the starter for a contender. One needs to go, and my thoughts are that it's Reimer who gets dealt.
JP Nikota: I think you could win a Cup with James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier. I mean, they're about as good as Corey Crawford. The Leafs, however, won't be good enough for probably a few years and the likelihood of them staying at that level that long is slim. Play them for now, look for something else for later.
Scott Wheeler: At this point the Leafs should have a good idea of what they have in both guys; two decent goalies that aren't clear-cut #1's. If the Leafs don't think the can win with either goalie, they need to move on. I doubt both are back next year, and I wouldn't be shocked if neither are here two years from now.
clrkaitken The upside of "good not great" goaltending like this is when you get it cheaply, you can spend on many other areas. The problem is that they're still about the same but it's getting more and more expensive to keep going with them. Bernier's signed for another year and costs a lot for a goalie who can't stay healthy enough to be a starter and who gives up howlers with a troubling frequency, and Reimer's earned the right to try and prove he can be a dependable starter (whether that's in Toronto or not).
FiftyMissionCap: It's clear as mud right now but if I had to guess, one of them is going to be moved. The wild card for me has been the play of Garret Sparks for the Marlies. After spending last season in the ECHL, Sparks has a .938 Save% through 11 games now. He may be a player worthy of a long look next season.
clrkaitken: It would be kind of fitting that the guy who makes the Leafs move on from James Reimer is a guy essentially following Reimer's path up through the ranks right now.