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Grading the Leafs forwards at the halfway point of the season

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Photo credit:Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
Yesterday we started our assessment of how the Leafs players have been doing. I think generally we can say things have been going pretty darn good too. Today we’ll continue the grading, but if you want to take a look back at what’s been done so far, here you go:
As I mentioned yesterday, there was a bit of grading of a curve:
A bit about our grading. These grades are not just mine. The entire TLN crew had a chance to weigh in and the most response reflects the feelings of the group, while any comments are my own unless otherwise attributed.
We absolutely graded on a curve here, as we are grading each player against our expectations for that player. So if you think Muzzin has still been a better player than Liljegren, remember the expectations for Muzzin were likely that he is the strongest part of the Leafs shutdown pairing, while the expectations for Liljegren were that he proved he belongs in the NHL.
Now that we’ve covered that off, here are the TLN grades of the Leafs forwards:

The A’s

Auston Matthews is the first of three players that received A’s across the board from our rankers. It’s probably not surprising that Auston is up there, as he is one of the best players in the game today and is very much in the Rocket Richard race once again. Combining the fact that Auston has added a lot more a physical element to his game, has upped his defensive responsibility once again, and has more frequently put the team on his back and carried them to success is how Auston is exceeding expectations that are incredibly high.
Michael Bunting is another player who received straight As for from our group. It would have been nice if Bunting came in as a bottom line muckraker who could chip in the occasional point, it would have been nice to see him on third line as a strong forechecker, but instead we’ve got a clear replacement for Zach Hyman who comes in at about 1/6th the price.
From Nick DeSouza: 
Michael Bunting deserves an A+ if it was possible. He hasn’t looked out of place on the top line against top competition. He’s drawing penalties at an elite rate, winning battles and producing points. Replacing Hyman was always going to be a tough ask for a player with only 26 NHL games under his belt, but Bunting has done exactly that at even strength. He’s also doing this for a fraction of the price Zach Hyman was.
William Nylander much like Auston Matthews has shown a hell of a lot of determination this season, and even when times were dark for the Leafs at the beginning of the year, there was no question that Willie cares. While defense may still not be his strong suit, the improvements in that capacity are noticeable, and the fact that he was the team’s leading scorer until recently is showing that Nylander was a bargain after all. He’s our final straight A student.
From Nick DeSouza:
At the beginning of the season, William Nylander said he wanted to dominate and that’s what he has done. He’s one of the Leafs best players on a nightly basis and is on pace to post career highs in a number of offensive categories.
Ondrej Kase is another free agent it’s safe to say we’ve fallen in love with. Although he did receive a C from one of our voters (I assume someone who grades on a health curve). Kase is a bit of a Grabovski throwback (credit to Mark Norman for pointing me to that comparison) and his willingness to do anything to make the play while being dominant from a possession stand point as well as offensively capable makes him an absolute treat. Having let Hyman walk and then being able to replace him with Bunting and Kase who both seem capable of addressing Hyman’s absence in their own right is incredible. Of course we’ll burst my happiness bubble when we assess Ritchie.
John Tavares was much more of a split between the voters, but there was a slight edge to As on his report card than Bs. Tavares might have been slow out of the gate, but he has proven himself to be as consistent than ever, and is showing publicly the leader his instead of us strictly taking the word of Leafs players that he’s strong in that regard. Tavares is on track for another 30 goal year with 80+ points, and there is not much reason to doubt that he’ll get there.

The B’s 

Alex Kerfoot was very close to being an A. If one more ranker fell into the PDO trap we’d be singing his praises in the top group instead, we’re just acknowledging that he’s been excellent, but unsustainably so. Kerfoot and Nylander really stepped up in the Montreal series after Tavares was injured, and like Nylander, Kerfoot has kept going at a strong pace. The biggest thing that Kerfoot seems to bring to the table for the Leafs is that he’s become the swiss army knife, and can be used for anything the Leafs need him to do.
Ilya Mikheyev is another player who is making you say “where exactly does Marner fit into these grades?” Mikheyev had a great preseason that had fans optimistic about him, but his injury postponed his season until recently. The fact that he’s been one of the teams top goal scorers since he’s been back and is as fast as ever is why there were a couple of A votes for him. It will be interesting to see what the larger sample looks for the Cobra.
Mitch Marner is a reminder that we are grading on a curve to expectations, and while Mitch has been solid, it’s really only been the past couple of games that he is reminding us what he can be like at the top of his game. The usual questions still linger about Marner, can he drive his own line, does he need to be with Matthews, will he venture into the tougher parts of the rink, but if you are content with an elite playmaker (most people should be) he’s doing just fine.
From Stephen Brown (written before Marner’s PP breakout games):
I would have loved to have given Mitch Marner an A or B for just meeting expectations, but it just wasn’t there. He has a lot of responsibilities on this team including PP, PK and playing tough matchups at 5V5. But the consistency has not been there offensively and February 1st will mark two calendar years since he’s scored on the PP.
David Kampf is in a way somewhat like TJ Brodie, if you aren’t noticing him he’s probably doing what he’s supposed to. He’s been doing that, and I think that’s how he wound up as a B. That being said, his linemates throughout the season have shown that they are capable of better offensive outputs when playing with other centers, and Kampf’s lack of offense might be holding the Leafs back a little.
Pierre Engvall definitely was one of the more divisive players on the list. He was split pretty evenly between As, Bs, and Cs, and even received a D from someone. While I can appreciate that Engvall at his worst can be hard to watch, that hockey has been rare this season and instead we’re seeing improved skating and offense to go with responsible defensive zone coverage. It might have just taken making Engvall exclusively a winger to make people feel better about him.
From Nick DeSouza:
Pierre Engvall has quietly done exactly what the Leafs have asked of him. He has been strong on the defensive checking line and on the fourth line regardless of whether he’s playing center or wing. When he’s on the ice the Leafs are out chancing their opponents 198-137 (59% SCF%) at even strength. Engvall’s speed and puck transportation skill is valued in a Leafs bottom-six that desperately needs it
Wayne Simmonds closes out the Bs. He was a big part of the Leafs turning around their season early on, and while things have been quieter on the production front as of late, Simmonds still fills his fourth line role in one of the best possible ways while also being a fan favourite.

C

Jason Spezza as a winger would probably be a B, but unfortunately keeping him in the middle takes some of the shine off of him. As a sheltered fourth liner, do you really need anything more than a C? Probably not. Does it hurt that we can’t score Spezza higher because of how he’s being used? Absolutely.
Kyle Clifford might actually be more divisive than Engvall when it comes to scoring. He received an A (through reasoning I don’t fully comprehend) and a F (which also begs the question, “what were you expecting from Kyle Clifford?”) For the most part Clifford received Cs as he is the classic fourth liner who will come out for seven minutes a night, throw a few hits, drop the gloves if needed, and generally not leave your team worse for wear after lining up against the other team’s bottom six players. His shockingly bad PDO gives some hope for a better second half too.
Seney, Anderson, and Steeves all find their way into the C category as players who’ve made guest appearances, but didn’t wow us enough to have us making a case for them to grab NHL jobs.

D

Nick Ritchie six of his 12 grades come in at F, which is pretty damning. He ends up with a D though on the strength of some C grades. The expectations for Ritchie are the hardest part of his season to reconcile. Putting him in a situation where he was gifted the first line LW spot with Matthews and Marner, and just absolutely tanking it was terrible. Failing to hold a spot in the middle six was unfortunate, and not making the most of the second powerplay time that he never earned is why the winger was waived. If you are scoring him as a C, no matter what you’ve been a little generous, but if you looked at Ritchie for what he was, a player who needed sheltering and could maybe put up some points in pillow soft minutes, while crashing through as many opposition players as possible, he was closer to hitting the mark. Perhaps the best thing for Ritchie at this point is send him down to get some reps with the Marlies and perhaps get a little pissed off that he’s there. Let him come back to the Leafs angry and trying to prove something.
I feel like closing this series out with Ritchie is an absolute downer. In hindsight this article should have worked up to the A players. It’s hard to not feel great about the Leafs forward situation, and with Clifford, Seney, Anderson, Steeves, and Ritchie not required to be in a healthy Leafs forward lineup, Toronto unquestionably has one of the better top 12 forward groups in the league.
In case you don’t want to scroll back up to the top, here’s the link to yesterday’s grades.
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