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Toronto Maple Leafs player power rankings heading into the playoffs

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Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
You’ve come a long way baby. Some would say too long. I mean this season was really wrapped up around game 40 or so and we’ve been going through the motions for at least three months. Honestly, we’ve been going through the motions for about 12 months because really it’s been a “just win a round” kind of season. No one should be blamed for thinking that way either. People born after the Leafs last playoff round are now in university. An entire generation of Leafs fans has been born into believing that an appearance in the second round of the playoffs should land this entire roster on Legends Row. But I digress. This is about looking at the Leafs roster of the past year and celebrating the top 20 participants in it and shaking our heads at those who failed to make the list. I’d like to promise you this will be the last power rankings I will force upon the site’s readers, but we still have the postseason wrap-up to go as well. Without further adieu, the rankin’s.

#1. Mitch Marner (up from #2)

After having Nylander go pretty much October to March as the most consistent number one, a rough month has led to a change in the top spot and it is Mitch Marner’s time to shine.
Marner has had a career year offensively and his defensive game has continued to evolve to the point that even if he isn’t a Selke finalist, you’d hope to see him amongst the top vote getters for the award this season.
The two biggest things I’ve come to appreciate this season more than ever with Marner is his ability to take away east/west passing on breakouts and that he has evolved from the player who makes Matthews and to some degree Tavares better, to a player that makes all of his linemates better. With more in his tool kit and the fact that Marner has improved on the elite skill he already has it seems likely he will be a greater impact player this post season.

#2. William Nylander (down from #1)

Am I crazy to put Nylander ahead of Auston? Yes. Is it overly crazy? I’d argue no. Up until early March, William Nylander was the most consistent Leaf, he was playing in tougher areas of the ice, he was picking up Auston’s slack when it comes to goal scoring, and he seemed to thrive regardless of his deployment, and has often been the case with the core four, Willy gets the most unusual deployment.
While Nylander had a rough final quarter of the year, he has returned to being a scoring chance machine of late and is returning to the form that had him looking like the best of the Leafs core in the 2022 postseason.

#3. Auston Matthews (up from #4)

Since we’re now at the point where we’re looking at the whole body of work over the regular season and not just the past month, it’s time to nudge Matthews back up in the standings a little. Last season Matthews hit the 60 goal mark, rather than taking that for what it was, an incredible season, the expectations that he repeats it or improve on it created a bit of an unfair measuring stick for Auston, who throughout the year has been rounding out his physical game and often has looked like more of a playmaker and he played no small part in Nylander’s career best goal production and helped get Jarnkrok to 20 goals as well.
A more complete Auston Matthews in the playoffs will be an interesting development and it will be interesting to see what Sheldon Keefe can do when Auston Matthews is looking to see if he can win in Toronto.

#4. John Tavares (down from #3)

There was an awful lot of “John Tavares is cooked” takes last summer. He was being treated as a regrettable signing and some were panicking about how the final three years of his contract would play out for the Leafs. A point-per-game season later and we are probably back to realizing a bit of an overpayment is required for a top line center in unrestricted free agency and that John Tavares is as good as he has ever been as a Leaf and/or an Islander.
Like the other members of the core four, Tavares has tried to do more when he isn’t scoring as well. His hit totals are up this season and while he’s not putting anyone through the glass, he’s finishing he is more engaged in slowing down his opponents and is a more aggressive net presence as well.

#5. Ilya Samsonov (up from #10)

Okay, so I get that Samsonov could be higher on this list and after what the Leafs have gone through in net the past couple of years, Samsonov is a breath of fresh air. It’s nice having a goaltender who can steal games and pull off the occasional circus save. He’s unquestionably the Game #1 starter and barring any kind of disaster he’s the goaltender the Leafs will be going to back to as their starter throughout the playoffs.
The knock on Samsonov isn’t so much about if he can stay healthy. I think he’s truthful when he says he’ll play through what’s ailing him, but the bigger question with Samsonov is fatigue. The Russian Machine might not break, but it does slow down from time to time, and that has been the one criticism I have of him. Samsonov might have played in 42 games, but he only started in 40 of them. Some of that is due to a back and forth rotation when Murray was healthy and that cut into work that Sammy could have put in, but now we have to assume that Murray is out of the picture and Woll might be an option, but not one the Leafs might be too eager to go to.

#6. TJ Brodie (steady at #6)

When healthy there is little question about who has been the Leafs’ top defenseman this year. The fact that Brodie seems to make everyone who plays with him better is also an incredible feat considering that sometimes he plays with Justin Holl.
The criticism we’ll hear about Brodie in the coming weeks is the lack of physical play from him and that’s the reason why we’re seeing him with Jake McCabe instead of Morgan Rielly going forward. He does everything but punishes his opponents and that is hard for some people to accept. He might not send Kucherov flying through the air but there still isn’t anyone else on the Leafs’ blue line that I’d want to see lined up against him.

#7. Mark Giordano (up from #8)

Has anyone mentioned that this guy only costs $800k a year?
Throw salary out of the equation, throw age out of the equation, and just look at what Giordano has done this year. He’s slid seamlessly into Jake Muzzin’s role as the Holl whisperer and made that pairing a viable second group for the Leafs this season and at times they were able to handle the top pairing responsibilities.
Giordano has helped Liljegren become a viable top four defender as well and will make it so the Leafs can comfortably roll three pairings throughout the playoffs.

#8. Jake McCabe (up from #13)

We’ve had a month to get to know Jake McCabe and it seems we should like what we see and be very excited for the next couple of seasons as well.
McCabe is far from perfect, but he is unquestionably a top four defenseman and one who plays the style of hockey the Leafs need. By the numbers, McCabe has fit in as well. Despite learning a new defensive system and working with numerous partners, McCabe’s differentials are overwhelmingly favourable while playing against the opposition’s top lines.

#9. Calle Jarnkrok (up from #16)

I didn’t have “Jarnkrok scores 20” on my 2023-24 Leafs Bingo card and while his signing always made sense to me and seemed to be a good value deal, I’m happy to be proven right and see others proven wrong.
Jarnkrok not only being serviceable in the top six but thriving is another one of those nice surprises. He softened the blow of the Leafs not adding another top six forward on the final day of the NHL trade deadline, and if the Leafs are able to pull off a Bunting-Matthews-Jarnkrok top line, there should be a lot of excitement about Tavares, Marner, Nylander, and O’Reilly being able to find air against lesser competition.
Jarnkrok also adds a lot of two-way responsibility to any line he’s on and between him, Marner, Matthews, and O’Reilly the path to keeping offensive threats on the ice for the Leafs most of the game is very achievable.

#10. Ryan O’Reilly (down from #7)

Injuries have unfortunately cut into the amount of ROR we’ve been able to take in. When you pay a ransom you hope to get a big return. That return is hopefully coming in the playoffs, but the 10 points in 12 games are pretty encouraging. If you want to be a bit of a Debbie Downer about it you could say that O’Reilly has only scored in one game besides his hat trick game, but that’s just being a dick about things needlessly. Most important is the fact that O’Reilly is not only capable of providing that level of offense, but his Selke/Conn Smythe pedigree is likely to come in pretty handy as well.

#11. Michael Bunting (steady at #11)

I’m sure what Michael Bunting wanted to close out his season with was the assertion that NHL officials have some kind of vendetta against him. It certainly seems hard to argue at times but saying that Bunting is completely innocent in the matter is also a bit of a stretch. I’m not sure if drawing attention to it is going to help or hurt the Leafs (historically the answer is hurt) but the good news is that on the ice Bunting seems unphased by what is going on and is still doing his thing.
He’s matched his goal production which is nice but his assists are down this season, coincidentally so are Matthews’s goals.
This week Bunting demonstrated that he can get under the skin of the Lightning players and while that can be a double-edged sword, the Leafs need some players with a bit more edge come playoff time and Bunting provides that while being a reliable top nine player who is most likely to find himself on the Matthews line.

#12. Morgan Rielly (up from #15)

The biggest challenge I have with a list like this is finding the spot where it makes sense to slot in Morgan Rielly. Whether you think that people have been too harsh on Rielly or not this year, there is no question that he took a step back this year at a time when he is about to become very expensive for the remainder of his time in the NHL.
Rielly’s offense dropped and seeing someone like Gustafsson recently thrive on the top powerplay unit hurts some of Rielly’s claim to that spot. Rielly has never been a sound defensive player and when the opposition has the puck when he’s on the ice, hearts will always briefly stop until the puck is back in the Leafs’ possession. This year through his contract and drop off in offensive production, it has become more noticeable. There really needs to be some hope that Rielly can elevate his game in the playoffs and that may be a sheltered role with Luke Schenn as his partner can be the answer.
Now that said, I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated what Rielly is meant to be and still is. He’s an excellent transporter of the puck out of the Leafs zone and he’s essentially a fourth forward on the ice when the puck is in the opposition’s end. Both of these things work very much to the Leafs advantages and skills that can’t readily be found elsewhere in the Leafs lineup, but there is always going to be that lingering frustration with an offensive defenseman who lacks the traditional cannon from the point.

#13. Timothy Liljegren (down from #12)

Remember that this is supposed to look at the entirety of the season and not the “what have you done for me lately?” format of past power rankings, it’s very easy to say that it’s been a good year for Liljegren and he’s just run into the unfortunate circumstance of going cold at the wrong time.
Liljegren very much seemed on the path to being a top four defenseman for the Leafs and as soon as this season, but the trade deadline hit and he found himself fighting for a spot in the lineup against Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn, and Eric Gustafsson at the same time he was dealing with his frequent defensive partner being dealt to Washington.
It was guaranteed to be an uphill battle and Liljegren could be doing better in it as Holl has been giving him ample opportunities to take his spot in the lineup away.
Liljegren has shown capable of being an all-round two-way defenseman and maybe it’s the jack of all trades, master of none classification that makes him hard to place in the Leafs lineup.
Hopefully Liljegren gets his shot at playing on home ice when sheltering is a little easier to pull off and the Leafs can be reminded that Liljegren has been very capable against the Lightning in the past.

#14. David Kampf (down from #5)

The back half of the season has come with a noticeable improvement in Kampf’s game and while it looked like there was some potential that he could fall out of the Leafs lineup or at least be rotated through on a regular basis, Kampf has shown that he is capable at either 3C or 4C depending on how O’Reilly is deployed and that when opportunities present themselves he can show flashes of offense and not rely solely on being a sour pain in the ass defensively.

#15. Joseph Woll (up from #17)

No one on this list has played less time with the Leafs than Woll, but I’m considering his body of work with the Marlies as well here.
Heading into this season, Woll was on the LTIR. He had a decent season last year with the Leafs and Marlies when he was healthy enough, but with Hildeby and Akhtyamov showing such promise overseas it didn’t seem like Woll was even regarded as the organization’s goaltending future. His track record in the AHL as well as his brief look in the NHL has now potentially situated him as the Plan B to Ilya Samsonov and depending on who you ask that is regardless of Matt Murray’s health.
Woll also has some work to do in order to show that he can handle a regular workload, but this has been an encouraging year and the Leafs can always use some hope in the goaltending department.

#16. Noel Acciari (down from #9)

One of my favourite types of hockey players is sub-6’0 players who hit like they are 6’4, 230 lbs. Noel is completely unaware of his size, what the score is, and the concept of pain while he’s on the ice. The guy is pure energy and I don’t think he has an off switch. He’s an incredibly easy player to love and with the exception of his size, he’s built for playoff hockey.
That said, he’s already missed a few games for being hurt and that is the worry. Until we have to cross that bridge, I remain excited for what Noel will bring against the Lightning.

#17. Luke Schenn (new)

Big hits go brrrrrrrr.
I’d like to add more than that to Luke Schenn, but the reality is he is 100% here to make the Leafs more difficult to play against. I mean he’s easy to play against when you have enough room to skate around him, but in those moments when Schenn has someone lined up or is going to remind someone after a whistle that he can make their lives difficult, Schenn will serve a purpose that many people believe needed to be a priority for the Leafs come playoff time.
In a sheltered role, Schenn will add value and if the playoff Lightning resembles Game #81 Lightning in any shape or form, Schenn can keep them in check.

#18. Alex Kerfoot (steady at #18)

I am unapologetic in my belief that Alex Kerfoot is okay. Within the Leafs lineup card there always seems to be a space that makes sense for Alex Kerfoot and that reason is that at the end of the day someone in the Leafs bottom six forward group needs to be able to carry the puck. Kerfoot is that guy and while he has an astonishing ability to turn scoring chances into nothing, he also has an uncanny ability to take away those chances at the Leafs end of the ice as well (save for a very memorable game six.)

#19. Zach Aston-Reese (up from #20)

With a completely unexpected increase in scoring of late, Aston-Reese gets a bit of a nod over some of the remaining Leafs. Having a ten goal scorer on the fourth line isn’t a bad thing and Aston-Reese did what he was expected to this year and that’s lead the Leafs in hits. (Sure if Schenn or Acciari had a handful more games that would change, but ZAR did his thing.)

#20. Conor Timmins (not previously ranked)

I could go with Sam Lafferty because he’s actually going to be in the lineup. I could go with Matthew Knies because he’s shiny and new and we all want to believe he’s on the cusp of doing great things. I could go with Erik Gustafsson because his three assist night recently made a strong case for him getting more work than initially planned come playoff time.
No. I’m going with the fact that this is a year long power rankings and Timmins arriving in Toronto and making his case as a bottom pairing offensive defenseman after an incredibly rough start to his career in Colorado and Arizona is a great story. In fact, it’s probably safe to say he’d make a good runner-up candidate to Mark Giordano for the Masterton nomination.
The reality is we’ve probably seen the last of Timmins for the year aside from the black aces skating around after practice, but he’ll be a fun player to look forward to next season and when he was in the lineup he was solid.
Other Notables:
Justin Holl: There needs to be some consistency from him as well as recognition from Keefe about Holl’s limitations. He’ll get to start the playoffs because of his size, but I don’t know if he’ll be playing regularly throughout.
Sam Lafferty: Lafferty is getting close to being the player the Leafs want him to be. To some extent, I think that is just a matter of letting him be that on the fourth line rather than trying to expect more from him. He thrived on the Hawks because they could give him better chances, but they need to right size his responsibilities on the Leafs, and scratching him shouldn’t be out of the question either. He’s still a sound depth option for the playoffs and next season.
Matthew Knies: I’m doing my best to pump the brakes on how excited I am to see him play for the Leafs and I don’t think it’s the worst thing for him to watch the playoffs at the start. It’s good having Knies around to remind the 4th line and other bubble players that the Leafs have an option for their lineup that they are very excited to test out.
Erik Gustafsson: At the first sign of trouble with the Leafs defense I think we’ll see him and that could be a positive thing.
Pontus Holmberg: I’d love for him to find his way into the playoffs and remind the Leafs that he could have been a Leaf all year.
Wayne Simmonds: As much fun as it’s been and no matter how much I’d love to see him fight Pat Maroon, it seems like this is the end of the road.
Matt Murray: I’m on Team Woll. The drop off for Murray after his second injury of the season was too much and now throw a head injury into the mix and it’s just a matter of him getting healthy enough to be bought out.
We’ll do this one more time after the playoffs. If you want to compare these rankings with the previous ones they can be found here.

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