Grading the Maple Leafs pass/fail on the first quarter of the season

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
The quarter mark brings the desire to grade the Maple Leafs. You’ve probably seen grades at just about every single site that covers the team. I guess this isn’t any different but rather than leaving you to decipher exactly what I mean when I say, “David Kampf is a C-“, it seems greater clarity will come from a simple pass/fail approach. It also seems important to note that I’ll absolutely be grading on a curve, and it is going to be about how each subject measures up to the expectations around them, their capabilities, and their utilization, in case you were wondering how William Lagesson can be a pass, but Mitch Marner isn’t. Without spoiler any further grades, let’s dive into the assessments.

Pass: William Nylander

I guess if we were sticking with the old letter grade format, he’s the one A+ on the Maple Leafs. A 17-game point streak and even highly visible effort in the following 3-game pointless streak show that William Nylander is a true star in the NHL and the Leafs are going to have to pay him.

Fail: Ryan Reaves

This goes without saying. It took him until game 17 before getting a goal. He hasn’t been fighting. His line has been hemorrhaging goals against. His skating isn’t up to par and at best he’s been a sideshow. It’s hard to see a path back for Reaves being a fit in Toronto and the Leafs cutting their losses here seems like the best approach.

Pass: Nick Robertson

Since his recall from the Marlies, Robertson has not only gotten himself going but he’s sparked Max Domi as well. He’s been the ideal shoot first option for a pure playmaker and their feisty play has made the third line more difficult play against even if it isn’t the most defensively responsible unit.

Fail: Ilya Samsonov

It’s too early to write off Samsonov and although a shaky game against Chicago is our most recent memory of him, it is important to note he’s been trending in a more positive direction. The concern with Samsonov is around reliability and trust and those are important things to have in a goaltender and for that reason it seems like this will be Ilya’s last year in Toronto. He could still be the hot hand at the right time throughout the year or playoffs, but he seems to be more streaky than consistently good.

Pass: Morgan Rielly

Like Nylander, Morgan hasn’t forgotten what worked well for him in the playoffs and he’s been a true number one defenceman for the Leafs this season. He’s reclaimed his spot on the top power play unit while being tougher to play against in his own zone and remains one of the best at moving the puck up ice when he has possession.

Fail: John Klingberg

Not to kick a guy when he’s down, but what else can you call the Klingberg situation in Toronto?

Pass: Noah Gregor

The Leafs have moved a lot of speed out of their bottom six in the past few years, Sam Lafferty being the most recent. The insertion of Gregor into the lineup has been a step back in the positive direction and he has brought a lot of energy and some clutch scoring to the Maple Leafs. It might be interesting to see what Gregor can do if played up in the lineup from time to time and seeing what he can do with more icetime as other players head in and out of the doghouse.

Fail: Mitch Marner

I spoiled this one a bit in the intro but when you look at what Mitch Marner is capable at his best and you look at what the Leafs are getting from him this year and it is clearly not his best. There was a desire for him to make a statement after a lot of underwhelming hockey in the playoffs and it hasn’t come (yet). He’s now been split up from Auston Matthews and consistency is becoming an issue even when the point totals still look pretty good.

Pass: Joseph Woll

Woll has come down to Earth and maybe he isn’t a Calder or Vezina candidate after all, but he’s been a steady goaltender who is figuring it out pretty darn well at the NHL level and is receiving high praise from his teammates regarding his composure and their confidence with him when he’s in net. At the end of the day that is what the Leafs need most of all as this is a team that can outscore a lot of their problems. Having a goaltender that doesn’t create trouble might be enough to have improved playoff results.

Fail: David Kampf

With great contract comes great responsibility. Last season was already a step back for Kampf, but you wouldn’t know it based on his raise. He’s now an expensive fourth line centre option who hasn’t been able to offset having Ryan Reaves as a linemate. While carrying Reaves is a lot to ask, Kampf’s salary puts the expectation on him that he should keep that line afloat.

Pass: Auston Matthews

This was a surprisingly difficult one to decide if he’s a pass or fail. Two hat tricks to start the year probably means that overlooking recency bias is probably the way to go but there are certain frustrations that people have with Mitch Marner that could very well apply to Auston Matthews as well. I always hate when people say that players look like they don’t care out there but the issue with both Matthews and Marner might be that they haven’t taken over games as often as we’ve seen them do in the past. Rocket Richard Matthews looks to be back this year, we’re just waiting on Hart Trophy Matthews.

Fail: Brad Treliving

It’s about time to take a break from dumping on players and dump on management instead. The summer contracts for Kampf, Klingberg, and Reaves are straight up busts. Bertuzzi and Domi are steadily coming around and have shown they have something to add, it’s just a matter of whether it is what the Leafs needed the most. Trading Sam Lafferty to justify Reaves is another decision that is looking pretty questionable.

Pass: Timothy Liljegren

He might have been the Leafs best defenceman at the time he was injured. When he comes back the Leafs will have a great internal upgrade to a blueline that needs help.

Fail: Jake McCabe

I don’t like putting McCabe in this spot because he’s only a fail because of how he’s been miscast. McCabe is a good 4th defenceman if he a strong partner to carry him. McCabe is a solid 5th defenceman in most situations. McCabe has had a number of partners and has had to deal with a train wreck version of John Klingberg and an ever-slowing version of Mark Giordano for the most part. He’s a bit of a cautionary tale about acquiring Zadorov and slotting him in higher in the roster than he’s ready to handle but McCabe is also someone who stands to benefit most from the Leafs bringing in a blueliner as it likely means a stronger partner or moving Jake to the right part of the roster for him.

Pass: Matthew Knies

He’s definitely still figuring a lot out but finding a spot on the top line and blending his aggressive forecheck with his offensive talents is what the Leafs needed from Knies and he’s delivering. The Leafs needed young players like Knies, Robertson, and Woll to come in and be impactful to help keep the Maple Leafs at the top of the league and he’s done that.

Fail: Tyler Bertuzzi

Bertuzzi is trending in the right direction in recent games even if Sheldon Keefe recently chewed him out on the bench. Bertuzzi with Tavares and Nylander has worked because he could not be more different from the other two players and as Toronto still tries to figure out their left wings, Bertuzzi is now a fit somewhere in the top six.
Now that Bertuzzi is back to playing on a line with Marner it will be interesting to see what happens as a lot of what Bertuzzi does seems to rely on him having other teammates in close proximity to the net as well. That wasn’t what he had with Matthews or Marner for the most part and that’s probably why he struggled in the role that he was brought in for. I don’t think we’ll be talking about Bertuzzi as a fail at the halfway point of the season.

Pass: William Lagesson/Simon Benoit/Conor Timmins

I’m going to lump the defensive depth into one spot now that I recognize this post is going to be fairly long.
Lagesson has been the most successful of this trio and even with a completely healthy Maple Leafs blueline I think a case could be made for him being in the bottom pairing.
Timmins has recently returned and is figuring things out but has been more than capable as a Klingberg replacement, it’s just a matter of how much more the Leafs can get from him and whether he can stay healthy.
Benoit is a player that had pretty low expectations coming into this season and while the Leafs have been forced to overuse him at times, he might be capable with limited 7D usage when called upon.

Fail: Sheldon Keefe

Fans of Sheldon Keefe will herald his regular season record with the Maple Leafs, so using just that criteria, 11-6-3 with only 5 of those wins coming in regulation is a decline. There was always going to be a learning curve with this roster and a couple of new assistant coaches behind the bench, so even as someone who wasn’t thrilled to see Keefe brought back this year, I’m not sure we are at the fireable offences level of fail just yet. Like a lot of people around the Leafs, Keefe hasn’t redeemed himself from the playoffs and there was an expectation that he would want to do that and show he can thrive away from Kyle Dubas.

Pass: TJ Brodie

TJ Brodie isn’t what he used to be and when you talk about the Leafs bringing in defensive help, I’d argue the Leafs need to be looking at someone who can bump Brodie’s icetime down not just settle for a middle pairing option.
Still as a defenceman in his mid-thirties playing on the top pairing, Brodie hasn’t disappointed, he just hasn’t warranted the heavy praise he garnered in previous seasons. That still seems like a pass to me.

Fail: The MapleLeafs.com webmaster

There still hasn’t been an update to the site since the Gregor signing and Lafferty trade. Can someone tell them that the Leafs have been to Sweden since then?

Pass: John Tavares

The drop off for John Tavares doesn’t look like it will come. Instead, it looks like Tavares will hit 1000 points for his career at some point in December and along with William Nylander he’s been a big part of why the Leafs record isn’t worse.

Fail: Bobby McMann/Pontus Holmberg

I’m grasping at straws for fails at this point. The Leafs still balance out to being a more positive than negative team, but both McMann and Holmberg haven’t grabbed NHL jobs while being given a great opportunity from a struggling Ryan Reaves and hopefully in the next few weeks one of them will make a case as a cost effective fourth liner.

Pass: Calle Jarnkrok

There is something to be said for a player that can be dropped into any situation and look like they belong. Jarnkrok has been serviceable in the top six and might have now found his best fit as the defensively responsible one on the third line with Domi and Robertson. The fact that he is picking up points there as well is a nice bonus.

Fail: Mark Giordano

This is one that like a number of other defensive fails is more about utilization than the player itself. Giordano is at the age when he should be 100% locked into that 3rd pairing role and potentially get the odd night off as well. Instead, Giordano is back on the second pairing and having to bite off more than he can chew at this stage in his career. Giordano is smart and skilled enough that it the issue isn’t as glaring as it could be, but footspeed is a big issue here.

Pass: Max Domi

Here’s another borderline call but I’m going to give Domi a pass because being a third line centre seems to agree with him and things are trending positively as a result. Sure, you can point to 20 games without a goal as an issue but when you look at the Leafs needing a third line centre and needing someone to get Nick Robertson a fair shake in the NHL, Domi’s delivered as well as his feistiness is something that has benefited the Leafs as well.

Overall: Slight Fail

An 11-6-3 record looks pretty good on its own. Factoring in that there was absolutely an expectation that the Leafs would struggle in the first quarter of the year, this is far from the worst outcome. For the worst outcome see Oilers, Edmonton. The Leafs only having 5 regulation wins has to be the biggest reason for why I’d lean towards a slight fail and the fact that Toronto will very much be in a dogfight for a playoff spot is not a situation many would have planned on as Boston, Florida, Detroit, and Tampa are all legitimate threats in the Atlantic, and teams like the Devils and Penguins could still come on strong in the Metropolitan Division and turn the Wildcard spots into an interesting fight.
The story also remains the same about consistency and identity, in that the Leafs lack both and while there are drastic actions that could be taken to resolve those the Leafs still seem content to tinker and hope that the team is just one small change away from making things work. That might not be the case.
As easy as it is to always conclude the sky is falling in Toronto, it isn’t. This team could buy-in on a team defence approach. The Leafs might start their games with more aggressive attacks and set the pace. This team might realize that when they take the foot off the gas and try to run out the clock they get in trouble. With 62 games left in regular season there is plenty of time to get things right and the first 20 games could have been about just learning what the baseline is for this group.

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