We’re just about at the quarter point of the season, 19 games in, and the Leafs have a four-day lull between games. It’s a good time to take stock and see how our players have fared. Today, we’ll start with the forwards.
Each player is graded against his role; it doesn’t make sense to hold Auston Matthews and Dominic Moore to the same standard. I have tried to articulate my conception of what each player’s role is. I have included stats (care of Corsica), but ultimately the rating is a subjective judgment from me, so I own the forthcoming terrible opinions. The grading scale is as follows:
A: Exceeded expectations
B: Met expectations
C: Slightly short of expectations
D: Serious disappointment
F: Everything is dark and sad
I also added a + or - to some grades to tweak them, because it’s my evaluation and I can do what I want.
All advanced stats are from Corsica, and are 5v5 and adjusted. I have not included players who did not play at least eight games, which excludes Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, and Eric Fehr.
So let’s roll!
Auston Matthews: A+
Role: Franchise centre, human scoring chance, guy who looks like a weary 28-year-old heir to a corporate empire, thicc
Evaluation: What else was it going to be? Matthews is a bona fide Hart candidate. He lives in the high-danger areas in the offensive zone, and his shot chart looks like the rivers of hell have opened up in front of the net. Notwithstanding Tampa’s monstrous combination of Stamkos and Kucherov, I’m not sure there’s a better individual scoring threat in the NHL. His defensive game has also taken strides; he’s always been a takeaway artist, but now he’s straight up bullying the opposition into handing over the puck like it’s lunch money. His line with Zach Hyman and William Nylander has been among the very best in the NHL by expected goals. Despite missing a few recent games (please get well soon), he’s been the best player the Leafs have had since Mats Sundin was at the height of his powers. Hail Auston, destroyer of worlds.
Best Moment: There were so many to choose from for Matthews, so let’s go with the overtime winner following maybe his best game. This capped off an incredible night of hockey by AM34.
Zach Hyman: A-
Role: “The best forechecker in the NHL”, relentless complementary winger, PK workhorse, personal crusade for bloggers
Evaluation: Yeah, fight me, I gave him an A. Zach Hyman doesn’t score enough for most peoples’ liking, but his job on the first line is to facilitate the play of his linemates, and given the line’s sterling results I don’t think there’s a case he’s not doing that right now. His point production is up a little bit, and he’s displayed encouraging flashes of actual finish this year (note: some of this is normal shooting regression from his very low 5v5 S% last season.) No, he’s not the best LW on the team, and no, he’s not a bona fide first-liner on his own. He doesn’t have to be. When we talk about the Leafs’ incredible forward depth, part of that is being able to have a guy like Zach Hyman operate effectively on your first-line LW. So there.
Oh, and he plays a huge amount on the penalty kill—the most of any Leafs’ F, and more than all but very few forwards in the NHL—and he does it well, as one of the best SH threats the Leafs have had this decade.
Best Moment: Zach Hyman don’t give up.
William Nylander: B+
Role: Playmaking winger, possession wizard, handsomest member of the boy band, hockey Twitter debating topic
Evaluation: That grade is pretty much entirely a reflection of the extremely high expectations we have for Billy Ny. He’s been mired in a personal shooting percentage slump of late that has stifled his goal production, and he’s had a couple of off games here and there. None of that should detract from how spectacular he’s been at his best: there were games where Matthews and Nylander looked utterly unstoppable, and he’s still been, on net, the Leafs’ second-best forward (narrow edge over Kadri.) But Willie is a victim of his own success in that the standard for him is now “elite”, and it takes a lot to beat that standard. He’s as great a puck-carrier and zone entry forward as exists, he’s a very slick passer, and while it hasn’t felt like it, he can shoot. He still dominates in possession terms, and he’s had some underratedly great defensive moments to go with a few gaffes that have sparked complaints. I’m not worried. I think this is going to be a very good year for William Nylander.
Best Moment: SNIPE SHOWWWWWW
Nazem Kadri: A
Role: Tough minutes centre, scoring threat, elite pest, redeemed star prospect
Evaluation: I worry sometimes we don’t appreciate just how lucky we are to have Nazem Kadri. Between Mats Sundin’s last season (2007-2008) and Auston Matthews’ first (2016-17), no Leaf centre produced more than Kadri did last year. And Kadri has done it, and kept doing it, against top lines, and usually as the best offensive threat on his line. You’d think he’d have slowed down this year; instead, he looks like he’s sped up. During the Leafs’ recent slump, time and again I’d find myself saying that the top line and Nazem Kadri were the bright spots. He’s shooting the lights out, so this probably won’t continue, but he’s on pace to set another career high in goals and points, and he’d be a 1C on quite a few teams.
Oh, and we have him signed for five years at $4.5M per. How great is that deal?
Best moment: Naz’s effort on this is downright heroic.
Leo Komarov: C
Role: Defensive winger, belligerent hitter, multilingual dressing room presence, expiring free agent
Evaluation: Leo Komarov’s role on the Kadri line, in some ways, parallels Hyman’s on the Matthews line: we think he’s doing good things aside from production, so what’s the minimum production he needs to earn his keep?
Leo, unfortunately, has been in danger of falling below that particular bar this season. Some of that is because he’s been bumped from his power play spot (he didn’t make a lot of sense there anyway). But his 5v5 P/60 is dead last of anyone on the team who has played five games (this includes Roman Polak.) He isn’t producing anything at all, and this is while his regular centre, Kadri, is producing in spades.
More worryingly: His defensive metrics actually don’t look very good, either (he’s dead last on the team in CA/60, and he’s in the bottom fifth of the league in xGA/60). If his offence is a nullity and his defensive results aren’t especially great, does his line at least look good? Well, some of his combinations do (Marleau-Kadri-Komarov particularly), and they’re in tough competition. But it’s hard to construct a solid argument that he’s been impressive this year.
Maybe your eye test likes Leo better than mine does; he still hits pretty hard (and he threw an absolutely brutal hit on Shayne Gostisbehere that might have been suspendable). He also has been part of a decent penalty kill. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of plays die on his stick this year, too many to be outweighed by his occasional great moments (and he has had several, especially on the PK.) I want to see more from Leo.
Best moment: The great thing about this one is Leo is the only guy in the rink who has figured out Nylander’s shot didn’t go in, and he has the sense to bury it.
Connor Brown: B-
Role: Swiss Army Knife, ginger superstar, star of Lineup Musical Chairs, real gud pro
Evaluation: I don’t think this one is going to be a popular grade, but the fact is, Brown’s numbers are a bit worrisome as soon as you imagine him shooting a more reasonable percentage than 37%. A lot of the other stuff is more discouraging.
Now, Brown has had some weird usage, and his good points are obvious. He’ll slot in on any line and do a competent job at whatever the line is supposed to be doing. Brown has played RW on the Leafs first, second, third, and fourth lines at different points since the start of last year. He works his ass off, and while he doesn’t especially drive play on his own, he’s also not really going to hurt you wherever you slot him in.
At the same time, he’s in the basement of the team in CF%, and that worries me a bit. He’s used in some tough situations, but he’s lagging pretty much everyone he’s played with, which is a little worrisome. For a player that is generally agreed (and I also agree) to be defensively responsible, he doesn’t look very good in shots against and he’s not really generating in shots for. His scoring has helped cover this in the early going; I would be more worried, but I have hope Connor’s shot numbers will recover, and I don’t hold him as responsible for his numbers as I might. Still, I can’t bring myself to weight my eye test, which likes Connor a lot, over the numbers that heavily.
My expectation is he’s going to finish in the same 20-goal/40-point range as last season, and if he does, that will be entirely good with me. If he beats it—and Connor Brown has a long track record of beating the odds—so much the better.
Best moment: Connor Brown stays upright and focused long enough to pot this one despite getting tackled by Alexander Steen. This is a very Connor Brown goal.
Patrick Marleau: A-
3LW/3C/2C/Look he just does a lot of things
Role: Extremely fast old man, veteran two-way forward who can score, potential Hall-of-Famer, guy we are allegedly biased against
Patrick Marleau has done a solid job in multiple trying situations, slotting in as a LW or C on different lines as slumps and injuries warranted, and he’s consistently produced wherever he’s gone without giving the store away in terms of shots against. In fact, he’s on pace for his best goal-scoring season since 2011, and he’s doing it with a shooting percentage only a hair above normal. Whatever you think about the term on his contract, Marleau at age 38 is still performing at a level that many forwards in their 20s would envy.
In fact, the only thing dinging Marleau’s grade is his strangely terrible xGF%. As xGF% tends to move in the direction of CF% over time, and Marleau’s CF% is good, I’m not too worried about this, though it’s so low I can’t help taking it into account. That aside, though, the early returns on the Marleau deal have been excellent.
Plus, let’s be honest, he seems like the nicest guy in the world.
Best Moment: Marleau’s first as a Leaf. The tricky little pass reception with speed and the step-around deke are just perfect.
James van Riemsdyk: B
Role: Scoring winger par excellence, eternal trade bait, defensively questionable, powerplay superhero
Evaluation: James van Riemsdyk has been the source of a lot of chatter in the early going this year about his slumping. Which makes it all the odder that if you look at his numbers for a bit, he’s exactly the same as he’s always been except for PDO oddities—he was on for a save percentage collapse early in the year where he racked up an ugly -6, and then he’s had a shooting percentage bump, so he’s on pace for more goals than usual. Once you strip that out, he’s the same defensively questionable, offensively potent, net positive scoring winger who will probably finish between 27-32 goals.
I know at times he’s looked terrible defensively (and he is bad defensively) but for the most part he’s the same guy he’s always been, by most measurements. His reunited line with Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner seems to have returned to form, and as long as that continues, it’s great news for Toronto.
Best Moment: JVR’s late tying goal against Boston was huge, and as you’ll see later in the clip, it involved both hard work at the beginning and finish at the end. Just a great power forward showing from JVR when the Leafs needed it most.
Tyler Bozak: C-
Role: Offensive facilitator, faceoff specialist, father, longest-serving Leaf
Evaluation: The best thing we can say about Tyler Bozak is that the first part of the season is over and, like his linemates, he seems to be turning a corner. I said JVR is basically the same as he’s ever been, hidden under PDO variations; Bozak has genuinely looked pretty rough at times. His defensive frailties were exposed, he wasn’t generating enough, and the Leafs seemed to generate outside shots only when he was on. The nadir saw Bozak and Mitch Marner being demoted to the fourth line, where they seemed to get some of their mojo back. In defence of Bozie, it also has to be said that he is occasionally used for FOGO (face off - get off) shifts, which can hurt your Corsi stats (because at best you’re off before your team gets shots for and at worst you’re on for shots against.)
Not to be a pessimist, but Bozak is 31, after all, coming off an unusually late career high. Some decline maybe should be expected. At the same time, when Bozak isn’t functioning as the offensive facilitator he can be, the Leafs suddenly get a lot worse and start having to do weird things at centre. So let’s hope he’s back on track.
Best Moment: Bozak with the key faceoff win and then the opportunistic dart into the slot. Bozak has always picked up a lot of garbage goals, but there’s a reason he gets a lot of them.
Mitch Marner: B-
Role: Miniature magician, playmaker and puck-taker, Bon Jovi enthusiast, good trade bait for Darnell Nurse if you’re out of your damn mind
Evaluation: Mitch Marner was caught up in the same PDO collapse of his linemates, and there was also a stretch early in the year where he seemed to be missing his usual spark—that glaringly low 5v5 P1/60 attests to that. At the same time, I don’t think he was ever quite as bad as it felt like, and his shuffling onto the fourth line and up and down has led to the strange circumstance that Mitch has the best CF% and CA/60 on the team. Marner for Selke!
Encouragingly, though, Marner has looked back to his usual self in recent games, and he shredded Boston as maybe the Leafs’ best player in a critical home-and-home series. I can’t quite throw out his early season struggles yet, and expectations are high, but I think Marner is rounding into form.
Best Moment: Marner only got a secondary assist on this one, but he unquestionably makes this play happen. It starts with a possibly game-saving takeaway, and then his fake shot-to-pass over to Jake Gardiner sets the table for the goal. Great play and a big win.
Dominic Moore: C
Role: Penalty killer, faceoff specialist, occasional scratch, the uber-journeyman
Evaluation: The grade you give Moore is going to depend on how much you expect out of a fourth-line centre. Moore hasn’t been so obviously short of the mark that it’s a glaring issue, as it was with Ben Smith. He gets outshot, though like Bozak, this may reflect some FOGO shifts. He keeps his expected goals number within shouting distance of even, and he wins 51% of his faceoffs. If you squint, you can argue he’s done about all we need him to do, notwithstanding an ugly number of goals against and an unsustainable rate of individual goals for. He’s doing his thing, basically.
At the same time, none of those results stand out as all that great except his P1/60, which is pretty certain not to continue. He has been mediocre, is how I’d put it, which is fine.
Best Moment: Dominic Moore scores with a tip on one of his 36 former teams.
Matt Martin: B+
Role: Team dad, don’t get scored on, throw hits, throw fists
Evaluation: Matt Martin, say what you will about his contract, is doing his job perfectly well. He had a very neat three-assist game, partly because he had the best offensive linemates of his life, but you can’t fault him for what he’s done with what he’s been given. His numbers are mostly good enough, he’s not getting brutally outshot, he’s doing his thing. Martin has been a flashpoint because he’s allegedly blocking the kids, but I can’t honestly say anyone behind him thus far has definitively deserved to bump him out of a job. So really, keep rolling, Matty.
Best Moment: Matt Martin not only had a three-assist game, but the passes were actually really nice. Look at this!
The Leafs are second in the league in goals-for, and in the end, that’s gotta be worth something. While many of the team’s infamous defensive problems are on the forwards, and the Leafs have been generating less after that early burst to start the year, this is a deep and deadly forward lineup. Or put another way: I think you can contend with these forwards, flaws and all. The defence...well, that’s the second part of the report card.