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Maple Leafs Mid-Season Rankings 2021/2022

Before we talk about the Mid-Season Rankings, a heartfelt congratulations and round of applause to Wayne "Train" Simmonds on 1000 NHL Games!

Welcome to another edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs rankings! If you are unfamiliar with what I do in this format, I basically take the top 5 Leafs forwards and Top 3 Leafs defensemen, give each one a grade, and tell you what I think they've done well, or if they are still good, but just not as good as they could be. If you needed a refresher on the options, have a look here.
Now, as for the Leaf's play overall, my quick word is: Don't care. The regular season matters, and you have to make the Playoffs! But at this point, halfway through the season, for me its about results, trade aquisitions, and what the Leafs do in the first round and wether they can finally exercise their demons there.


So let's jump right into it and start off these rankings with:

Top 5 Forwards

Auston Matthews Grade: A+

By no stretch of the imagination can we say that our number one center, Auston Matthews, has blown everyone out of the water this season. After an admittedly slow start by his standards, Matthews has heated up in the last couple of weeks. He sits around the league lead in goals with, as of this writing, 39 goals in 52 games played, only really challenged by Leon Draisaitl's 38 goals in 56 games. Overall, he sits comfortably as the Leafs best forward analytically with close to 60% in all the important play control and shooting metrics, while his PDO is actually "only" at a 1.014, which is mainly down to him getting sub-.900 goaltending when he is on the ice in all situations and 5v5. (have a look for yourself on NaturalStatTrick) As for the eye test, he also looks like an absolute menace when playing in all three zones this season, like he did last year as well, but on top of that, what I've noticed more than anything compared to last season especially, is his play around the boards having gotten much stronger. After Zach Hyman's departure to the Oilers last offseason, which was something all of Leafs Nation wanted to see, and Auston has, for my money, delivered.

Mitchell Marner Grade: A+

Yes, its finally time. Finally, time to put Mitch Marner in the deserving number 2 spot I have wanted to put him in for every single one of these rankings I've done so far. The theme of this Leafs season, at least for me, has been to watch a game and be mesmerized by how good the first line, and in particular the chemistry between Marner and Matthews, has been. Marner has always been more of the set-up man in that duo. But this season Marner and Matthews seem to have struck a balance between them with goalscoring and assisting that I haven't seen before. Marner has 21 goals this season already in 46 games played, and his previous best goalscoring season was 2018/19 with 26. He is well on his way to blow that number out of the water, while still having 37 assists and 1.26 PpG, putting him 10th in the league. He is also among the Leafs top forwards in advanced metrics as per naturalstatrick again, and especially impressive to me is that he is not just doing this while playing 5v5 minutes, but Sheldon Keefe uses him as a primary penalty killer and powerplay playmaker as well.

Michael Bunting Grade: A

There seems to be a theme of this first line being pretty good! Bunting, an offseason get from this year, and signed to a two year contract, has been the perfect fit on the first line with Marner and Matthews. He has 43 points this season, and even without taking his contract into the equation, which is an excellent season for someone playing on such a line. At 5v5, he is right up there with the best metrics on the Leafs this year, and he passes my eye test as a hard-working player with a touch to score, as evidenced by a shooting percentage of 12% in all situations.

William Nylander Grade: B-

As we all know, the second line is struggling this season. And as we also know, William Nylander can be a little bit of a streaky player, and his 5v5 numbers aren't always what we would call elite. This season he sits at 50 points, 21 of those goals. From what the numbers tell us he still controlling play at a rate expect with most things, but his shooting numbers and xG% are a little lower than I would expect. That might have many reasons, but it might have to do with rotating linemates. Centered by Tavares, early in the season with Kerfoot as a winger the line was playing better than it is at this point in time. From what I can tell, He's been as good as ever on the PP, and is just taking a downswing with his line at 5v5 and is just as good a scorer as ever. I think he is doing his job, given it might not be his absolute best season.

John Tavares Grade: B-

Captain Toronto! John Tavares is having a down year for his standards. Now, we have to keep in mind that playing with Nylander and a rotating cast of guys on hi left wing due to lineup changes and injuries has not made his job any easier this season. When the second line as a whole was going earlier in the season, together with Nylander, Tavares was rolling. The "little thing king" has struggled more as the season has progressed, but he's still tallied 48 points in 51 games. His metrics are definitely not what they used to be, but Tavares is also 31 years old and is still doing an excellent job as the Leafs second line center. I expect the second line to even out their results and end up closer to what previous season's metrics show, with Tavares' GF% being well below his xGF%, which I mainly attribute to the recent slump the line has been facing because of many factors already mentioned. JT, as well as Nylander, have been part of a stellar Powerplay for the Leafs this season, so that also makes me less worried about Tavares' next few seasons, and makes me hopeful for this season and the playoffs.

Honorable mentions have to go out to Alexander Kerfoot, who, had he kept up his pace of play from earlier in the season, would have to consider himself among this list, but has sadly not been able to do quite that, and Ondrej Kase, who with his childhood friend David Kämpf has made the Leafs 3rd line a scoring threat, and they have been controlling play decently at 5v5, while both have brought elements to the Penalty Kill that the Leafs needed after their exodus of role players last offseason.
Other than that, I have liked all the Leafs bottom six forwards and most line combinations seem to be rolling no matter who plays where. I think the chemistry, scoring prowess, defensive acumen and feistiness the bottom six has shown this season is refreshing, even if the only regular to really, well, punch someone in the face, if necessary, is Wayne Simmonds. I'm excited to see what Nick Robertson can do with second line minutes, and we will see what else happens at the deadline. In my humble opinion, this forward group is good enough to go very far in the Playoffs. Goaltending and defense seem to be the bigger issues, and I will gladly let Kyle Dubas figure out how to fix all that.

Top 3 Defensemen

Next up, lets have a look at what I think are the three best performing D-Men the Leafs have had this season. It's a good thing I'm only picking three in this scenario, because in my opinion, other than the three I'm about to list, none of the other Leafs defensemen have had a standout season, excluding Ilya Lyubushkin, who has simply not played enough to be judged fairly. As you'd expect, and as its always been, the options here are quite sparse. So, number one is fairly obvious

Morgan Rielly Grade: A-

Even tough the Leafs have been as defensively unstable as ever this season, Morgan Rielly is hardly to blame for that. He has been used in a somewhat different role at times this season, as more of a shutdown defenseman with TJ Brodie, or more recently Timothy Liljegren, as his partners. That is mainly due to many injuries on the backend, as is the occasional shakiness of the team as a whole. Another big factor obviously being that the designated shutdown defender, Jake Muzzin, has suffered through injuries this season. Rielly has also played the most minutes at 5v5 and in all Situations for the Leafs, and his advanced stats are still decent with all of them being close to TJ Brodie's at around 52% xG% and 54% CF%. He is also part of the great first Powerplay Unit that has propelled the Leafs to many wins this year, so I'm personally pleased with his play. He sits on 45 points in 55 games played, 8th among all NHL defensemen as of this writing. Ultimately, that's what we want from Rielly.

TJ Brodie Grade: B

In light of this most recent Leafs game, a 6-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, this looks a little weird. But if we accept the fact that the Leafs defense, as a whole, cannot defend the front of the net, we can see how valuable Brodie has been this season. He has been virtually the only defenseman capable of moving people in that spot after Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have vanished from being effective lineup players, for very different reasons; breaking up odd-man rushes as expertly as ever, and having good puck possession numbers, as mentioned before, with most of his partners. He has recorded 14 points this season while playing 21 minutes a night, a solid season for Brodie again, he has really become a beacon of consistency in an otherwise streaky Top 6. He's also taught the younger guys like Sandin and Liljegren his wizardry with breaking up odd man rushes, which is much appreciated and adds to his value overall.

Rasmus Sandin Grade: A-

Sandin has made the most of the minutes he has played. He had a few opportunities higher in the lineup with Rielly or Muzzin, but the vast majority of his numbers were played on the third pairing with Timothy Liljegren, occasionally Travis Dermott or more recently, Ilya Lyubushkin. Sandin has always been a more offensively minded defenseman, and that has shown in his numbers and production this season. 15 points in 47 games played out of those minutes, and all around good control numbers including 59% xGF% and 55% CF%. He's also done well as per the eye test, breaking out well, being a Powerplay quarterback on the second unit, and filling in on the Penalty kill if needed. The bigger issue with the Leafs defense is something else to talk about, but Sandin has made the most of the limited minutes given to him, especially before the Muzzin injury saga and the Lineup shuffles that followed.

As I said in the introduction to this defensemen segment, there where really no other contenders for the top 3 spots. I thought that at times, Justin Holl has gotten a bad rep within Leafs fandom because of his Jake Gardiner like screw-ups, but he's actually been decent when not screwing up, even in the absence of his steady partner Jake Muzzin.
Muzzin, even before and while trying to come back from his injuries, has not had a great season, and I wish him nothing but health so he can return to his best form.
Other than that, even tough I love Travis Dermott to my core and his fancy stats have always been decent when playing sheltered 3rd pairing numbers, I just think at this point we have seen that he cannot play in a top 4 role, at least not with the Leafs, they simply have many similar players that are either better, fit a role better, or are younger than Dermott. So, it might finally be time to move on from Travis, as much as that pains me to say.
Timothy Liljegren has been decent defensively and controlling play wherever in the lineup he's played this season, but if he can't find a way to be more effective in front of the net, which is indeed a theme with this defense, he will at most be a number 4 defenseman on the Leafs. I have confidence in him being able to make those improvements in the future, he is only 22 years old, but this season has not been a standout in any way.

And thats it! I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and opinions, let me know in the comments or on twitter @theForester26 if you have any hot takes about the half season that has been!

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