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Maple Leafs final grades are in

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The Leafs are about to finish a great regular season, so how do they rate individually?

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images

Way back in February, when we and the season were young, I did a very early grading on the Leafs. A lot has changed since then, and there are several significant members on the team who weren’t even part of our imaginations at that time.

When I did this exercise then, I used two methods to decide how to grade performance. My expectations, and the share of total minutes a player is on the ice. In other words, I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of worrying over fourth liners. With some players appearing in every game, and some in less than 10, that’s harder to do now, but I think we all know who matters at this point and who doesn’t. Onto the grading!

Morgan Rielly

After a slow start, Rielly has rebounded to a better overall goals and assists rate than last season. He’s not going to best 2018-2019 because that was one of those rare occurrences where his own shooting and John Tavares’s were both unsustainably high. It set the bar for massive points from Mitch Marner, and while Marner has had the key ingredient to continue piling up assists, Rielly has been enjoying a lot of Tavares’s five-on-five slump this year, particularly early.

Rielly’s personal shooting is not the point for him. He doesn’t actually shoot much, and this season had the lowest rate of Individual Corsi For per 60 minutes since 2014. He’s done all that passing and not shooting on the highest Corsi For % he’s ever had at 55. His on-ice Corsi Against per 60 minutes is 10 per 60 lower than his former, painfully consistent 60 or so of years past. This is a significant improvement in his play.

Or is it? Is it him or the Leafs, with a great Corsi percentage and dominance of the ice most nights? Rielly can’t be just riding the wave, not with the minutes he plays, but it should be obvious to anyone that a lot of his good results are down to TJ Brodie. Even more than that, it’s down to Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl being good enough to take a lot of minutes at five-on-five, and be the backbone defensive pair for actual defending. It’s also just down to how well all the forwards maintain play in the offensive zone.

Sheldon Keefe has done a good job of recognizing the various skills of his defenders and using them in the right positions to put their abilities to use. Yelling about Rielly’s obvious defensive flaws is for fans, while the coach has to put him in the offensive zone most of the time to get value out of him. Keefe has done that, the points have come, and it’s all good.

Rielly has been Rielly most of the season. And I give him an A- for being his average self.

Mitch Marner

Unlike on most teams, the number two man for time on ice is not another defender. Not exactly. Marner has started to play a role on the power play that looks alarmingly like a second defender most of the time, and at five-on-five, he’s not that dissimilar to Rielly. Consider it in this way: Are Rielly and Marner more alike than each of them resembles the average player at their position? Maybe. It makes Marner hard to judge, or it should because assists should never be used to tell the full story.

The general opinion has been that because Matthews is scoring so well, he must have unique chemistry with Marner, and Marner makes him better. My take is that Marner sure doesn’t make anyone worse. He was good with James van Riemsdyk in his early seasons, and he has been great with Tavares and Matthews. It’s genuinely not possible to unwind who is responsible for what between Matthews and Marner this year, however, and anyone who tries should know their opinion is so far from certain that the disclaimer should come first. It’s obvious Marner is a big part of their joint success.

The eye-test says Marner has moved beyond a phase of his play where he seemed to fade out of the game from time to time, and into a role where he could play top line wing on any hockey team in the world and be amazing all the time. Hard to complain about that.

He’s an A+.

Auston Matthews

What’s A+ times 40? That’s Matthews’ grade. If McDavid wasn’t adding points every night like he’s on a good team, Matthews would be unanimous for the MVP of the league. The thing about Matthews, though, is that you can take away the goals and you have a very effective forward all over the ice. He could, if necessary, be Nick Foligno, only he’d be better at it. Lucky for us, if you only slightly injure his wrist, he wins the Richard, so he can save the Foligno impersonation for his old age.

Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie

They play identical minutes, aren’t on the power play unless there’s no other choice, have partners who can’t exactly defend with much grace, and they are the reason, I think, the Leafs are better than they were two years ago. Not a lot has changed in the impact of the Leafs offence over the years. They can play the old run-and-gun rush style or they can cycle it to death like now, and they can use whatever power play format is on the menu that day. Do any of that, and the Leafs will score more than they need to most of the time. The difference has been in the structure that Muzzin and now Brodie provide that make it possible to win with league-average goaltending. They both get A grades for doing the most thankless job very well.

Justin Holl

When did it become fashionable to claim Holl is bad and should be “rested” — which seems to be code for made to disappear?

Early in the season he was on such a run, people were calling him the best defender in the division — which was patently absurd — but maybe that’s why opinions have cooled off more than his play has.

He’s not really a top four defenseman and if Rasmus Sandin is gunning for his minutes, that’s excellent, but Holl has managed a good fake all season. The offence dips in effectiveness around him, and he’s never been all that great defensively, and yes indeed, he makes mistakes. But he’s fine. B for basically adequate.

Zach Hyman

Zach Hyman started the season very good, and just progressed to excellence. Even though he’s been on the third line a lot, his TOI is very high. That third line/second line is essentially a 2A/2B setup, anyway.

Hyman has the highest rate of points per 60 minutes at five-on-five of his career, although that is mostly assists. He’s scored some memorable goals, and his shooting percentage is high, but nothing like last year’s run. But lest you assume he’s just riding the Matthews/Marner coattails, he has four assists on Mikheyev goals, which is not an easy thing to do. Most of his scoring has come on the Matthews line, however.

This is the various forms of the Matthews/Marner line using Moneypucks’ All-Situations Line Tool:

  • Foligno version - 53 min - 70% xGF
  • Hyman version - 292 min - 66% xGF
  • Thornton version - 212 min - 65% xGF
  • Galchenyuk version - 79 min - 62% xGF

That proves to my satisfaction that you can play Matthews and Marner with just about anyone who adds some complimentary skills, so trying to get a better player there is unlikely to gain you a lot. There’s not much room on the better end of the spectrum for them to achieve. However, the Hyman version of that line has much higher Expected Goals For per 60 minutes, and a bit higher Expected Goals Against. The xGF is a bigger jump, so what that means is that the quality of the offensive play with Hyman is better than the defensive value added by Foligno in particular. That doesn’t mean the Leafs should play Hyman on that line over Foligno — both work excellently, just differently — but it tells you why you decide one over the other.

Zach Hyman: A+ on the year

John Tavares

Oh, John. It’s not been fun this year, has it? After a really, really terrible start where even people who should know better were speculating he’d aged rapidly over the short offseason, Tavares has worked through his revolving door of wingers, his own shooting woes, a lot of dramatic coaching on the bench when things don’t go well, and he’s come out the other side exactly who he always was. Odd how that works out.

His power play run early on disguised some five-on-five trouble, but now he’s got a total points rate exactly like his recent career average, just weighted to assists more than goals. That said, his goal-scoring rate is on the low end of his normal pace, but it’s not out of line with what chance can serve up to a player.

If the power play hadn’t cooled down to arctic temperatures, I might give Tavares an A, but since he’s likely due a share of the blame for that mess, I’ll give him a B+.

Early on, I gave him a D and said it was his job to fix that second line and make it work. Work it has, even with the less than salubrious wingers at times.

William Nylander

If anything, Nylander looked worse than Tavares at five-on-five in the opening 10 games. He sure doesn’t now. All the talk about how he’s not very good defensively dried up when he started scoring and scoring and scoring, as these news cycles always go. Also, as these things go, when the goals came, his ice time went up.

Nylander’s points are at a career-high rate, and his five-on-five points match both last year and 2017-2018, which puts him in the same boat as Marner: good with any very good centre, and a key part of a top six line.

As the second line has gotten solidified with either Galchenyuk or Kerfoot on it, Nylander has just relaxed into his best self on the ice, and the only thing about the power play that still works are his zone entries. A+.

Ben Hutton

I’m sneaking Hutton in because in his three games played, he’s had so many minutes he makes it to just outside the core defencemen in time on ice. He looked fine, and his second game was better than his first, as he got a feel for how the Leafs play. He’s precisely the sort of extra guy you want the team to get at the deadline, and maybe end up playing all playoffs. He’s a B for basic surplus equipment.

Nick Foligno

He’s only played in five games, but as shown above with the line-based stats, he’s been exactly as advertised. He improves a top line’s defence without harming the offence too much. Or maybe not at all, there’s not really enough minutes to tell. I won’t be surprised if he stays on a top line in the playoffs. He plays less than Matthews and Marner, just like Thornton does, and trading for him has turned out to be Kyle Dubas getting the Joe Thornton he wished he could have gotten if he’d had a time machine. B+ for best fit for the team.

The Field

Everyone else on the team plays less than 15 minutes per game in all-situations. No one is terrible, everyone can fit in on the bottom six or the third pair somewhere, and Kerfoot and Galchenyuk as well as Wayne Simmonds can play some creditable minutes with John Tavares.

The weird thing is that the Leafs’ field is now so big, arguing about Engvall over Mikheyev over Brooks over Noesen is even more of a waste of time.

The gang of forwards add up to well above average with a decent if not spectacular range of skills. If you’re forming up a video game party and you end up with a group like the Leafs’ depth, you might worry you need a tank or two to really grind out the boss fights. You can substitute nimble range attackers for the big sword-swinging fighter, but it takes more effort and skill.

The extra defenders are an interesting crowd. Zach Bogosian will be back mid-playoffs, Rasmus Sandin is trying hard to steal his job, and Travis Dermott is settling into a player whose flaws you have to accept, or you replace him. They’re less inspiring than the forward group, simply because there are so many more forwards.

I give the depth defence a C+ so far with hopes for more and the depth forwards a B for better than they likely need to be considering how little they’ll play in tight games.

And that’s it right? Nothing else to talk about...

Fine. Okay.

Goalies

We all should understand the Frederik Andersen story. He played when he shouldn’t have, and was unsurprisingly bad. What we don’t know is if he can come back from this at his age.

Jack Campbell is harder to pin down. I firmly believe that all goalie discussion on TV, radio and casual fan talk is win/loss record rendered in sentence form. But we know very well that win/loss is irrelevant to any real discussion of goalie value. So what is Campbell’s true contribution?

Depends who you ask. I went through all the expected goals models: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockeviz and Moneypuck and they have him saving a range of goals over expected of two to nine, in the order listed above. So he’s been above league average overall, by a little to a lot, depending on who you use. In context, this is a season of relatively poor goaltending overall, so compared to other goalies, many of whom have played a lot more, he’s been very good to excellent.

All that’s very good, and yet my eye-test, as notoriously unreliable as it is, is stuck on league average with him. He banked a lot of hot numbers in his early games, and he hasn’t played enough to really know what he can do. He has flaws, significant ones, but he also has excellent skills in key areas like movement and positioning.

Playing Jack Campbell in the playoffs counts as dancing with who brung you, and that’s how Keefe sets his goalies. My grade? BG for better be good enough.

And that’s the Leafs as we head for the playoffs. Now they just have to live up to their regular season performances.