A man of questionable wiseness once said:
Woah, we’re half way there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Those words feel very relevant today as we start to fondly (in most cases) look back at the performances of the Leafs so far this year, and anticipate what’s to come for the rest of the year. Given there are a lot of players to work with, we’ll take a look at the forwards in a later post, but for now, we’ll dive into the defense, goaltenders, and of course, Keefe and Dubas.
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.
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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.
And now the rankings

The Leafs blueline

Overall I feel we’ve been very optimistic about the Leafs blueline as a group. It doesn’t seem that far removed from when we’d just want to lean into D’s and F’s when discussing this position, and now we’re focusing on the top part of the alphabet.
That said, we’re grading on our expectations for them as individuals, and when you look at the blueline in comparison to the rest of the league, it’s much more clear that there is still room for improvement.
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A

Morgan Rielly was our clear cut A of the group. He’s been a true leader on this team, he’s producing offensively and has found his place on the top powerplay unit despite not having the booming shot you typically look for in a defenseman. Rielly has also been playing some of the best hockey of his career in his own zone, and while having a partner like Brodie certainly allows him to look better in that aspect, Rielly has been more physical, and more positionally sound as well.

B’s

TJ Brodie is TJ Brodie. A lot of the time you forget he’s there, but he consistently gets the job done. His three game goal streak that came out of nowhere was an enjoyable stretch for the first half and is probably something we’ll never see again.
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Rasmus Sandin is still very much learning, but as a bottom pairing defender and second unit powerplay quarterback, Sandin is certainly getting the job done. He hasn’t been bad when Toronto has had to move him up in the lineup, and plays with enough of a physical edge that forwards need to keep their heads up around him.
Timothy Liljegren carried similar, but marginally reduced expectations to those of Sandin. And like Sandin he’s shown that he can be a NHL regular on the bottom pairing. The fact that Liljegren has done a solid job in his spot duty with Muzzin is a positive sign as well.

C’s

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Travis Dermott had two of our rankers score him as a B, so he finds his way to the top of the C list. For me, a B from Dermott would mean that he would be making a strong case for a second pairing job, and “A” would mean he was undisputed in that role. So let’s look at what a “C” Dermott has done. He has had the challenge of never knowing what side of the ice he’ll play on in a given week. He’s had to work with a greater variety of defensive partners compared to everyone else, and the Leafs haven’t put him in a situation to be successful like they have for almost every other defenseman. Dermott’s had it hard, but that doesn’t change that he’s played some unfortunate hockey. He also needs to drop the no look spin pass from his arsenal.
Jake Muzzin as a C should worry Leafs fans. He’s a C now, and he still has a lot of contract left. Muzzin hasn’t been the reliable shutdown defender that the Leafs have enjoyed in previous years. He’s still very much a solid defenseman, but he’s past the point of being able to do the heavy lifting for his partner, and when Holl struggled, Muzzin looked worse. If Liljegren’s inexperience gets exploited on a shift, Muzzin can’t make up for it like he used to. Now with a concussion to start off the second half of the season for Muzzin, it’s not looking like things will get a whole lot better, but hopefully the Leafs help him out by bringing in some help on the blueline.
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Justin Holl closes out our list, and I think the recent improvements in his game swung him back up to a C in the eyes of our tribunal. Holl had a terrible start, and with the best long term outcome for the Leafs being Timothy Liljegren in the top four, it will be interesting to see if Holl starts taking his more rightful place on the third pairing more frequently.

Goaltending

For the majority of the year this team has been carried by the play of Jack Campbell, and while January hasn’t been ideal, his outputs for the year still are. Beyond that, the Leafs have had Mrazek’s injury to contend with, and Joseph Woll’s attempt to make a case for a NHL workload.

A

Jack Campbell is clearly the A here, but I’ll do my best to ignore the similarities between Freddie Andersen’s November to remember, All-Star selection, and steep decline. The Leafs are in a much better place to stop Campbell’s drop off because they have a solid tandem that can support the workload, and Campbell’s drop off doesn’t appear to be either injury related and definitely not connected to a sudden change in coaching styles. He’s just needing a bit of rest because he’s already played more this year than any of his previous professional seasons.
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B

Joseph Woll was someone that I wasn’t planning on seeing with the Leafs this year, but here we are and kudos to him for coming and reminding us not to forget that he is a legitimate goaltending prospect. Woll is not ready to be a backup, but I didn’t think we’d see him make a case for third string spot duty yet, and it appears he has leaped past Hutchinson in that regard.

C’s

Petr Mrazek had a tough break. Injuries, postponed games, and generally hostile Toronto fans reacting to his contract and underwhelming play that comes with playing behind a team you aren’t familiar with and getting limited usage. Thankfully his recent outings provide a lot of optimism that Petr will be a solid B goaltender and give the Leafs some flexibility to play hardball with Campbell’s contract rather than pay through their noses. Mrazek’s career shows that he needs time to find his place, and February will be that time for him.
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Michael Hutchinson‘s grades were all over the map, but at the end of the day more people gave him a C than anything else. He is what he is. He is here to wear a ballcap on the bench for either the Leafs or Marlies, or to enjoy press box popcorn. If there are injuries, he slides onto the bench, otherwise he lives in taxi squad limbo. In the event he does play, he does about as well as you can expect for a guy who is going in cold most of the time and can’t establish himself as anything more than a Plan C.

The Bosses (both graded as B’s)

Sheldon Keefe didn’t find himself on the hot seat in October, but the Leafs slow start definitely saw it a bit more heated than room temperature. And while I still think the biggest selling point on Sheldon Keefe is that he and Kyle Dubas share the same vision, and he knows how to use the players that Dubas brings in, I have to admit, I’ve probably understated his abilities to get more out of his players and in his first proper full year he’s well on his way to better results.
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Kyle Dubas can be above criticism for a lot of people, and is responsible for everything wrong with the Leafs to another group. Admittedly, I feel like I’m closer to the former than the latter, but don’t think he’s above criticism and think that one of his biggest selling points is that he is good at learning from his mistakes and tries to make up for them. I don’t think we’ll see the Leafs in a Nick Foligno situation this trade deadline, and the Rielly contract certainly speaks to him understanding that he can’t take chances with important UFAs. As critical as I was early on about Dubas not signing Campbell, I feel like now the decision to wait and see Campbell’s ability to handle a starter’s workload was important and at least partially justifies the present situation. At the end of the day, we might not like all the contracts Dubas has signed, but he has built a very good team.
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From Jori Negin-Shecter:
Grading Kyle Dubas to this point in the season is a bit of a difficult task given that his biggest assignment is likely still to come in the trade deadline. Thus far, he’s 3/4 with his quartet of offseason depth signings (though to various degrees), with an incomplete rating as of yet for the Mrazek signing, who has somehow still only played five games. It would be ideal if he could find a way to make some more cap space for a defenceman at the deadline, though it’s a little unclear how he does that without removing a contributor like Kerfoot or Mikheyev. I guess that’s why it’s his job to figure that type of stuff out.
We’ll be back tomorrow with the forward grades, but in the meantime, let us know your thoughts on the grades so far.
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