The Toronto Maple Leafs headed into the holiday break as the second-best team in the Atlantic Division, just two points behind the defending, back-to-back Stanley Cup champion-Tampa-Bay-Lightning. In many ways, the Leafs hit on all cylinders through 30 games, riding a potent offense that absorbed the injury to star winger Mitch Marner and kept on running well, until the COVID-19 virus hit them recently.
Any grades we assign below to the Leafs as individuals are based solely on their results this year. With a handful of exceptions, you’d have to say most of them have met expectations any reasonable Toronto fan had for them coming into the season. (And for brevity’s sake, we’re not grading players who’ve appeared only in a handful of games for them.)
Auston Matthews, C. Grade: A+. Matthews missed the first three games of the Leafs’ season, yet he’s their top point producer thus far this year, with 20 goals and 33 points in 27 games. There’s a new level he’s approaching as the league’s best young sniper. $11.6 million a season is extremely well spent on the 24-year-old.
John Tavares, C. Grade: A+. The Leafs’ captain got fully healthy again for the start of this season, and it shows in his game, which is as consistently excellent as it has been since he broke into the league with the New York Islanders in 2009. And it’s the little areas of the game that reflect what an impact he has on it: for instance, Tavares’ 60.08 faceoff win percentage this year is far and away the best of his career, where he’s averaged 52.3 percent in that category. And he’s as low-maintenance as elite players get. Can’t ask much more of him than what he’s given.
Jack Campbell, G. Grade: A. Campbell came into the year in the final year of his very team-friendly contract, and he has only increased his asking price for an extension by clearly asserting himself as Toronto’s main man in goal. He’s got three shutouts, a 15-5-2 record, a 1.94 goals-against average, and a .937 save percentage – and he’s been a workhorse. He’s going to get a major raise on the $1.65 million salary he’s being paid this year. The Leafs cannot let him walk away as an unrestricted free agent.
William Nylander, F. Grade: A. Although he’s one of Toronto’s most often-criticized players – unfairly, for the most part – Nylander has no serious critics over his play this year. He’s got 18 assists and 31 points in 30 GP, and four of his 13 goals are game-winners. He was never lacking for confidence, but Nylander looks as comfortable, if not more so, as he’s ever been at this level.
Morgan Rielly, D. Grade: A. Not only did Rielly sign a new contract extension (at a great rate of $7.5 million per season), but he also grew his game in many regards, including a team-best 22 assists and 26 points in 30 GP. And he’s averaging 23:58 of ice time, guarding against the best players on every opponent. With his future in Toronto now secure, Rielly looks set on proving his best days are still ahead.
Jason Spezza, F. Grade: A. The greybeard of the group at age 38, Spezza has flourished this season, posting seven goals and 11 points despite averaging only 11:58 of ice time. Whether or not you agreed with him going after Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk after Pionk collided with Leafs blueliner Rasmus Sandin, you know his teammates support him. He’s earned their respect with his professionalism, good nature, and willingness to accept what he has to in order to finish out his career in his hometown.
Ondrej Kase, F. Grade: A. Brought in by Leafs GM Kyle Dubas on a one-year, $1.25-milion contract, Kase has been arguably Toronto’s best off-season acquisition, generating eight goals and 15 points in 27 GP, and giving the Buds a fast, smart forechecker alongside center David Kampf. Kase will be a restricted free agent this summer, but he may be pricing himself out of a return to the Leafs. Still, that’s a problem Dubas should want to have, as it will mean he’s succeeded beyond fan and media expectation.
Michael Bunting, F. Grade: A. Few Torontonians other than his friends and family knew who Bunting was when Dubas signed him to a two-year, $1.9-million contract this summer. Now? He’s become a fan favorite, and provided the type of physically-robust edge former Leafs winger Zach Hyman and center Nazem Kadri once did. Bunting is averaging only 14:44 of ice time, but he’s always a threat to draw a retaliation penalty with his greasy play. For the money they’re paying him, he’s delivering excellent value.
T.J. Brodie, D. Grade: B+. Earning $5 million per season as he does, Brodie has a higher bar set for him than most other Leafs D-men. He has been a stalwart in his own zone, and so long as you’re not expecting him to pile up points – he has six assists and seven points in 30 GP, about the same average as he had last season, when he posted 13 assists and 14 points in 56 GP – you should be pleased with his performance.
Mitch Marner, F. Grade: B+. He was knocked out of the lineup after a practice-time collision with D-man Jake Muzzin, but prior to that unfortunate event, Marner was productive enough on offense – with 15 assists and 21 points in 24 GP, he remains in the top-five of Leafs point-producers – and was typically smart away from the puck. Toronto likely will welcome him back sometime in January, and the good news is the Leafs don’t need to put any pressure on him to carry them on offense. He can find his way back at his own pace.
David Kampf, C. Grade: B+. Like his fellow Czech Republic countryman Kase, Kampf chose to play in Toronto this past summer, and did so knowing he was not going to earn a boatload of money, with a two-year, $3 million contract. But he has been a solid soldier for Keefe as the Leafs’ third-line center. Few NHLers are swifter afoot, and he has worked well with Kase and a variety of linemates in just 14:35 of average ice time. With five assists and nine points in 30 GP, the 26-year-old is on pace to beat his current career-best of 19 points in 63 GP, set with Chicago in 2018-19. But he’s not in Toronto to challenge Matthews and Marner for the team lead in points. He’s there for responsible defensive play first and foremost, and he’s delivered.
Pierre Engvall, F. Grade: B. He’s not central to Toronto’s winning game plan, but the 25-year-old has speed and normally doesn’t hurt the Leafs on the defensive end, so Keefe makes regular use of him in his bottom-six group of forwards. Engvall averages only 13:02 of ice time, so his points total of 10 in 30 GP is understandable. But he’s played 120 career regular-season NHL games, and he’s basically been the same offensive contributor, with seven or eight goals and 12-15 points in half of an 82-game campaign in each of his first two NHL seasons. Has he reached his ceiling? Maybe not as an NHLer, but there are always going to have to be cheap support talent needs for this Leafs team, and as long as his asking price remains low – he’s in the final year of a two-year contract extension paying him an average of $1.25 million – Dubas can justify keeping him around.
Timothy Lilegren, D. Grade: B. Prior to this season, Lilegren had only 13 games of NHL experience to his credit, but in many senses, this was going to be a make-or-break type of year for him. It’s a little bit crazy to say that of a 22-year-old, but Lilegren was drafted in 2017, and there was little more for him to do at the AHL level. He has only four assists and is still in search of his first NHL goal, but the Swedish native has played a simple game, and Keefe has protected his minutes, limiting him to an average of 15:59 of ice time. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract, but as a soon-to-be restricted free agent, he’s under team control in an important way that likely will give him more landing strip to round out his NHL game.
Rasmus Sandin, D. Grade: B. Before he was injured by Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk, Sandin was a solid puck-moving blueliner for the Leafs, amassing eight points in 25 games – enough points to tie his career-best, set in 28 GP in 2019-20. He’s logged 16:04 in average ice time on Toronto’s third defensive pair, and likely will stay there for the time being. The 21-year-old is still a key (read: cheap) part of their immediate plans.
Jake Muzzin, D. Grade: B-. Muzzin has been a valuable member of Toronto’s defense corps since Dubas traded for him in 2019. He’s a physical force who can occasionally chip in with some offense – he had 23 assists and 27 points in 53 GP for the Leafs last season, his best total since he had a career-best 34 assists and 42 points in 74 GP with Los Angeles in 2017-18 – but Muzzin is looked to more for his defence with the Buds. In that respect, he’s struggled somewhat, especially as a pair with Holl. But he’s improved in recent weeks and still averages 21:23 on Toronto’s second pairing. If the Leafs are going to enjoy a playoff run, they’ll need Muzzin to be healthy and forceful in his own zone.
Wayne Simmonds, F. Grade: B-. Simmonds was a healthy scratch recently for Toronto, the first time in his 14-year NHL career. But he re-signed for two more years as a Leaf, at a cheap rate of $900k, in part because he’s a dressing room leader and a physical menace when he has to be. With six assists and 10 points in 29 GP, he’s already got more points than he had last year, when he had two assists and nine points in 38 GP. Simmonds remains a net-front presence, but his days on a team’s top line are over. He seems OK with that, which is why Toronto brought him back.
Alexander Kerfoot, F. Grade: B-. Kerfoot was protected by Toronto in the summer’s expansion draft, and the 27-year-old has been his usual pesky self. With 12 assists and 16 points in 30 GP, he’s on course to get close to the 40-point plateau he last reached with Colorado in 2018-19. But at $3.5 million per season, he’s probably a luxury Toronto can’t afford to have around for much longer. If Dubas makes any major move, it may be to get out from under another (and the last of) year at that price.
Travis Dermott, D. Grade: C+. The affable Dermott has been a healthy scratch at points in the year and averages only 14:43 of ice time, so it’s understandable why he has only one goal and 2 points in 19 GP. He expects more of himself, and at age 25, he should. However, if he earned more than the $1.5 million he’ll make this season, it likely wouldn’t have been in Toronto. Depending on the status of Holl, he could be moved to make a trade work for the cap-strapped Buds.
Nick Ritchie, F. Grade: C-. Like Bunting, Ritchie also signed a two-year contract to join the Leafs this summer – but unlike Bunting, Ritchie has frustrated fans and the coaching staff with his occasionally-indifferent play. Buds head coach Sheldon Keefe has tried Ritchie up and down the lineup, but he’s got only a single goal and eight points in 29 GP. (By comparison, he had 15 goals in 56 GP with Boston last season.) Some of that is because he’s averaged only 12:23 of ice time, but he’s earned that low amount of time. At $2.5 million per season, Ritchie can only blame bad puck luck for so long. Sooner or later, he could be a healthy scratch.
Justin Holl, D. Grade: D. Of all Leafs players, Holl has had the most drastic drop-off at both ends of the ice. The 29-year-old finally earned top-four minutes at the NHL level last year and set new career highs in assists (18) and points (20) in 55 GP. This year, he has looked absolutely lost far too many times, and consequently, he’s been a healthy scratch for six games. He’s also got only a single assist in 24 GP. He no longer feels like a bargain at $2 million per season; indeed, with one year left on his deal after this season, Holl feels like he’ll be trade fodder or buried at the American League level.
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