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Grading the Maple Leafs

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I hand out letters to everyone. Someone gets a Z.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Normally, I would resist talking about the season after 10 games played, but normal built a rocket and flew to the moon. The schedule also gives us this break of four days off, and what did they expect us to do with our time?

I am going to go even further into depravity here and use a report card format even though It’s been a long time since I was in school, and I hated it a lot. One thing I really hated was how grades were so infested with biases. So to be able to live with myself, I’m going to try to bake that in. I want to talk about the members of the team and how they’ve measured up to my preconceived ideas. My expectations.

Before I get to that, I want to talk about this phenomenon I’ve noticed. If the Leafs are poor or underperforming in some way, discussion can start out being about that, but then it’s like everyone’s eyes slide right off the core of the team and the conversation turns to the fourth line or Zach Bogosian or a backup goalie who plays for the Devils now. It’s like the central seven or eight players on the team are all Medusas and we’re afraid to look at them head on. And we need to stop that.

This is all Maple Leafs players by their percentage of the total player-minutes that have been played in 10 games:

It does not matter if Pierre Engvall or Alex Barabanov play in a game. The third pair of the defence and who is on it does not matter either. We need to start at the top.

Morgan Rielly

Morgan Rielly plays more time than most other players because he is on the first power-play unit and he plays some PK. As Rielly goes, so goes the team. And every person who has watched a Leafs game for ten minutes knows what Rielly’s strengths and weaknesses are. But unlike most slightly skewed players who are better at offence than defence (and this is how a skew usually tilts), Rielly is elite at offence and really stanky at defence. His career balance when you blend them is overwhelmingly positive, however. If you look at him relative to players who have a similar overall impact by GAR over five years, he’s got the biggest negatives, and most of it is even-strength defence. He’s also got massive even-strength offence and very good power-play offence.

That’s what I expect. Rielly is at peak age, he should be able to just lay down his career average with some variance baked in to account for how volatile hockey is in all sorts of ways. So has he done that?

Nope. Nope. Nope. And you don’t need anyone to tell you this, you can see it.

That doesn’t mean he’s been bad offensively. He hasn’t been. But he’s not adding enough to the Leafs tepid even-strength offence to make up for his weakness defensively. He’s fine on the power play, but the big glaring problem is his defence.

So his grade for 10 games needs to be split just like his usual impacts are. He’s a B at offence, and an F or maybe a J, K or Z at defence. That does not balance out to a positive like usual.

Will this continue? Is this the problem? I doubt it. I think the less than usually elite offence is a team problem right now. All the Leafs are suffering from some sort of blight offensively. Rielly’s defending being much worse than expected could be a factor of a new partner in TJ Brodie. It might be a bad fit there or it might be a case of them needing to figure each other out.

This can’t continue, though, so if the results don’t change, something has to change. I’m not expecting Rielly to be good defensively. I’m hoping he gets to merely bad, not abysmal, and the positive overall balance of his impact will be restored. I’m not sure there is anything he can do personally about whatever is wrong with the offence, but so far, he’s been on the ice a lot when it is bad.

Small sample sizes cause big impacts on results from variance: the teams you play, the players you play with, chance, one bad game, one good game, etc. And with Rielly, he’s got really horrible on-ice results with the Kerfoot line and really great results with the Matthews line. Rielly, and by default, Brodie, play against the top lines more than any other defenders, and during the opening games where there was an attempt to shut down the top lines with Kerfoot, their failure became Rielly’s failure.

I think that situation improving and whatever will fix the general even-strength issues will help Rielly trend back to his norms.

Mitch Marner

My expectation for Marner is that he add value on the top line at a level more than anyone but Matthews and Tavares. He should be at least equal to Nylander and his special teams value can push him ahead in terms of impact.

He’s not doing that. Now, I want you to yell about points for a minute by yourselves, and then I’ll tell you what I mean, so get it out of your systems. Pointz pointz pointz.

I’ve got Marner at a B grade so far.

Zach Hyman is adding more at even-strength than Marner so far. Marner, by virtue of a huge amount of ice time and playing with Auston Matthews, has a lot of points, and that’s his value-added, not his value. That’s his extra-special skill showing, not his base game. As a base game, he’s been okay, but not spectacular. He plays Sheldon Keefe’s system really well, and yet he looks like he’s missing his mojo a lot of the time. He’s never going to not get one or two special moments in a game, but so far, he’s not making them happen, he’s capitalizing on opportunities he’s given.

If a player like Marner isn’t making Matthews better than he already is, what’s he for?

The stock answer to that is he’s a power-play savant, and he is, and that’s been great, so it’s hard to complain about that side of things. Marner’s effect on the PK is hard to quantify, but he’s fun, and I say we deserve fun.

Much like Rielly, he’s showing the offensive blight, and for him it’s not as bad as the Tavares line has it, but it’s still holding him back. Making it worse, his on-ice defensive results are grotesque (Matthews’ are not). I never expect a winger to matter much in that area, so whatever, but it’s been ugly. And you know, if you step back and think about Mitch Marner and what he can do, having him play from the neutral zone towards the opposing net is what you want. And that’s where he needs to shine every minute of every game, not just when he’s feeling it.

Justin Holl

Holl is very good on the PK, and he just has fantastic even-strength numbers so far. I expect him to do the first thing, but not the second. And I’m not sure how much of his results are him, but they really are sparkly so far. So Holl gets and A+ from me. You can’t ask for more from him, but don’t get on his case if the reality of playing the Habs a few times erodes those numbers.

TJ Brodie

Our newest defender is a guy I expected to be boring, but I’m not surprised he’s not making fans out of most people. He doesn’t shoot the puck, pretty much ever, and his impacts offensively should trend to zero. Guys like this make mistakes that you see, and that’s all you see. He’s judged guilty on a goal against, and rarely makes a neat pass. He gets turnstyled but never threads a shot through ten legs for a goal.

Considering who his defence partner is, his even-strength defence is fine right now. He’s also a nice dull guy to helm the second power play unit until someone decides to play Rasmus Sandin in the NHL.

I give Brodie a B because he’s a bit of negative offensively, and it would be weird if he wasn’t so far given the blight, but otherwise he’s fine. Stop counting his mistakes, don’t expect him to be Jake Muzzin, and you’ll learn to forget he’s there.

Jake Muzzin

Jake Muzzin is the best defensive player on the Leafs, and it’s not close. My expectation of him is that he has the best results defensively, and beyond that, frankly, I don’t care. I don’t want him shooting the puck, but otherwise, his job is to be calm, tough, reliable and good. He’s not elite, but he lives next door to elite players.

I give him an B+. I expect more of him than Holl, and he’s not quite there yet, so in that sense it seems like Holl is better by my grade, but he’s really not. Muzzin is out there touched by the offence blight a little, and until we all figure out the cause of that, I’m knocking some points off and saying as Jake Muzzins go, this year’s is a bit meh so far, but still the best defender on the team.

Auston Matthews

I expect Auston Matthews to be the best player on the ice in every minute in every game he plays this season, except for some percentage of the Edmonton games.

I had an unpopular opinion about him last year while he scored goals and wowed people. I said it was the worst year of his career. Not by a lot, mind you, because he is consistently excellent, but all his gains were an illusion wrought by more ice time. This season, with less of an emphasis on goofing around with a one-timer, he’s playing the best offensive hockey I’ve seen, maybe ever.

His grade is A++ and the team would be lost without him.

Zach Hyman

I’m going to tell you something about Zach Hyman most people don’t realize. His defensive impacts are not all that great. His career GAR is a negative for even-strength defence, albeit not a massive one. His value is offensive. So my expectation for Hyman is that he’s the best complimentary winger on a top six you can get for the money. He brings unique skills, and using him on a shutdown line was almost as incomprehensible as Ilya Mikheyev joining him there.

Given that misusage, his results are impressively good. His PK is a little less than excellent, and I find his use on a power play unit baffling, but not a big detriment. Overall, his results are a B to B+, and should revert to his normal better results if he stays on a top line.

John Tavares

Too young to be showing decline, I expect Tavares to be nipping at Matthews’ heels for the top C job and to be as good or better on the power play.

He’s been one of those things!

Unfortunately, the thing he’s been terrible at, yes terrible, is even-strength play. He’s bad both offensively and defensively everywhere but the power play, and you can’t blame all of that on Jimmy Vesey.

The situation with the offensive blight is centred on his line. If he hadn’t been the difference between winning or losing some nights with his power-play excellence, I’d give him an F. As it stands, he gets a D. You drive this line, John, it’s on you to fix it.

William Nylander

I don’t expect quite as much from Nylander as Tavares, but then if you aren’t asked to do as much and you are as bad... D- for you, buddy. I don’t know what the hell is wrong, but he looks like he tuned out this season on day one. Yes, fine, he’s good on the power play. So what? So are about a six other guys. And yes also, the bad man on TV said mean things about him. Also, so what? He’s not been good this season, and he is capable of being a force at even-strength. I have charts and graphs to prove it.

Ilya Mikheyev

I expect him to be good and fun on the PK and to otherwise doodle around taking shots from dumb places when he likely should pass.

He’s done all that while playing hopelessly miscast. His offence is worse than it should be, so he gets a B. If I thought he was capable of true value added on the top six, I’d give him a C, but he’s just a guy who is there, and he does okay at that. There he is! Over there.

Alex Kerfoot

Likely better than most of the forwards on the PK, Kerfoot was tasked with trying to play top lines to a standstill with two wingers who weren’t suited to the task. If he plays with Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton or Pierre Engvall the rest of the year, we’ll like him.

So far on this season, he’s not quite managed to be a good 3C of any type consistently, so he gets a C with an expectation that he’ll improve just by virtue of obvious lineup changes.

Zach Bogosian

Be a net zero influence at even-strength and play the PK well is my expectation for ‘veteran presents’ Bogo. He’s taken too many penalties, or I’d give him a A. He gets a B.

Jimmy Vesey

I expected Jimmy Vesey to be so much like Josh Leivo, I’d accidentally call him that. Turns out that’s mostly true. He’s neither the problem nor the solution, and he looks better with Kerfoot than Tavares. He’s earning his pay. B+

Wayne Simmonds

I called Simmonds Dubas’s big gamble, and I think it’s half paid out. By paying Simmonds twice what Joe Thornton makes, he needed to be some form of value-added player to be worth it. I was and still am willing to wait on him growing into the team and into a role he never got a chance to settle into since leaving the Flyers.

His power play stuff is fine, not earthshaking in skill, but useful, and his third line play is energetic in a way that is missing from most of the lineup. For the gamble to have been a big winner, he’d need to be challenging for the top six, but as it is, he’s fine for what he’s paid thus far. Another B grade. But he’s got room to get better yet, given his circumstances coming off a long string of injuries.

Travis Dermott

I like Dermott. I like his game, and he’s on the classic show-me contract, and I was hoping he would. He has not. I don’t think he’s out of a job because ... well I’m getting ahead of myself, but I think he needs to look at what he can learn from Bogosian about finding a way to be useful to a team. The Oilers usage of Slater Koekkoek is another good lesson. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Dermott, but what he’s done so far is a C grade, even on a scale of my expectations for him.

Jason Spezza

Great at faceoffs, snappy dresser, good pro, power play stuff, nothing else. Exactly as expected, he gets an A just for being here.

Joe Thornton

I expected an exciting third liner, what I got was a guy doing a credible fake of a top-line winger. B grade on time served so far.

Pierre Engvall

He’s fine in the lineup. His overpay will keep him out some of the time. He could leave and it wouldn’t matter, he can stay and he’ll be fine. His grade is B for banal.

Mikko Lehtonen

What did you think a KHL power play shooter would look like? I never understood the hype around this signing, and I can’t see him ever fitting in on his early performance. His grade is C for Calle Rosen or B for Andreas Borgman or even A for Miro Aaltonen.

Barabanov, Brooks, Boyd, Anderson

I’d pick Boyd out of the bunch, but I don’t actually care. None of them are relevant to game outcomes. Grade U for unimportant at this time.

Nick Robertson

I don’t know, man. I think he needs a real AHL season, though, and he ain’t getting it. Grade ?.

Goalies

Frederik Andersen gets an A for above and beyond what I expected. Jack Campbell gets an I for it was nice while it lasted. Michael Hutchinson gets a G for good luck, you’re going to need it.

And that’s the grades so far. I think we can all see which three guys need to buckle down and do some extra work to make this team work as an elite team, not a B-grade team. And if that’s a familiar trio of players that just don’t seem to shine some of the time, well, I noticed that too.

Feel free to yell about points in the comments. And can someone tell me their win/loss record?