Maple Leafs News: Grading Playoff Production, Who Showed Up?

First, the caveat is that – if you’ve read past posts I’ve created – you know that I support the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organizational plan going forward. I believe the Shanaplan is a logical and workable process for creating a solid good organizational structure and a winning on-ice product.

Related: All Signs Point to Andersen Not Being a Maple Leaf Next Season

I also am a Kyle Dubas supporter. I believe he’s an intelligent, active, and caring (which matters to me) NHL general manager. I also am a fan of head coach Sheldon Keefe, and I believe he has the potential to be a solid NHL coach.

That Said, the Maple Leafs Lost Another First-Round Series

However, as an organization, the Maple Leafs simply didn’t get it done during the 2020-21 playoffs. There are a number of reasons for that; but, as a fan and someone who covers the Maple Leafs, my default position is that building a winner is a process. And, because I believe the Maple Leafs are on the right process, the right course of action is to “Trust the Process.”

Brendan Shanahan
Toronto Maple Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

In short, although I trust the process, that doesn’t mean that a little formative assessment is a bad thing. Although I haven’t written a post like this in two seasons, here’s my first set of grades given to players during these playoffs.

Three Key Maple Leafs’ Players Who Showed Up

William Nylander: Playoff Grade A

William Nylander was the best Maple Leafs’ player on the ice during these playoffs. There might still be an element of the media, hockey pundits, or fans who believe he ought to be traded, or that he’s a floater, or that he’s soft. However, I trust he’s gone a good way towards dispelling those feelings. If he’s not a fan favorite after this playoff series, he never will be.

Nylander showed up, and he cared. Even his reaction after his last goal showed his level of disgust with what had happened during the series his team had played. He was in no mood for celebrating. His team had been beaten, and beaten badly, and he felt it. He carried a second line consisting of Kerfoot, Galchenyuk to considerable offensive success. He scored the only goal in Game 7 and, over the series, he finished with five goals and eight points in seven games.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I don’t think Nylander has hit his ceiling. There are now many fans who were fuming at Nylander the season he was a contract holdout, especially after his poor season after that. I can’t think many of those people remain. If there are, what world are they living in?

I have been a Nylander fan mostly because I have taught youngsters like him, but now I am a bigger Nylander fan. I think he’s turned the corner. Nylander drove his own line all series, without John Tavares present. It’s no longer fair to consider him overpaid, not-hungry-enough, or too self-focused. To my mind, he showed his heart during this series after losing his center.

He played fewer minutes than the top line, but made a bigger impact. In short, he was one of the team’s most important players in the series, and that was consistent game after game. Even when Nylander was double-shifted, he always seemed to generate offense – against any line match-ups.

What happens next season will be interesting. I’m hoping Keefe the Maple Leafs sign Zach Hyman and then put him with Nylander and Tavares. I’m sure a group of fans will want to see Nylander with Matthews similar to what had happened prior to this season. However, I believe the team should leave Marner and Matthews together and let them work out their lack of playoff scoring. Although I’m critical of Marner’s playoff series, I think they’re skilled enough and smart enough to do so.

Jason Spezza: Playoff Grade A

Jason Spezza had an assist in the Game 7 loss to Montreal. He finished the playoffs with three goals and five points in seven games – playing fourth-line minutes. And that’s the key: he played fourth-line minutes, added value to the special teams, and took incredibly important defensive zone face-offs. In no way can any of the blame that will certainly be passed out for the Maple Leafs’ latest first-round failure be pointed at Spezza. Dollar for dollar, he was the best bang for the buck for the team. (Although a case could also be made for goalie Jack Campbell.)

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Spezza more than fulfilled his contract. Of the three veteran players on the team – including Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds – he out-played them. When I think he had to basically beg to be on the team. He deserves better than this exit, and I trust Kyle Dubas will give him another contract for next season as well.

From day one, Spezza has shown his commitment to being on this team and wearing the Maple Leafs crest with pride. All season, including the playoffs, he’s been a class act and a leader. One lasting memory will be that, when his captain Tavares was injured on the ice, Spezza took charge to keep talking to Tavares for several minutes helping him stay alert and comfortable with an obvious concussion threatened him medically. That’s quick thinking, intelligent, and classy.

Related: Top 5 Greatest Stanley Cup Playoff Upsets

Spezza has worked hard trying to win since he signed with the team. He’s done this on two one-year, league-minimum contracts, and even fought during last season’s playoff round with the Columbus Blue Jackets. That he’ll retire a Maple Leafs player is perfect, although I hope it isn’t this season. He was the team’s second-highest scorer in this season’s playoffs. He deserves a grade of A clearly.

Jack Campbell: Playoff Grade B+

Jack Campbell did more than enough to help his Maple Leafs’ teammates win this series. Campbell turned aside 20 of 22 shots during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7. Admittedly, the wrist shot he let through his five-hole to Brendan Gallagher was not well-played. Still he finished the playoffs with a goals-against-average of 1.81 and a save percentage of .934. That should have been enough.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

It wasn’t. However, despite the personal blame Campbell accepted after the game, he was far from the reason the Maple Leafs blew their 3-1 series lead. During his emotional postgame interview, every question he was asked about what happened to the team became a chance to protect his teammates by throwing himself under the bus by carrying the blame as the reason his Maple Leafs were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s a keeper and the Maple Leafs should – and probably have little chance to do otherwise – make him the starter next season.

The 29-year-old emerged from being a career backup goalie to assuming the Maple Leafs’ starting job at a time when his team was at its lowest stretch of the regular season (they had lost six of seven games, and Andersen was injured). It was literally a record-setting season for Campbell and he was obviously disappointed by the loss.

 Looking Ahead to Next Season

When the team looks at the season in the rear-view mirror during the off-season, the playoff work of these three players will shine. There will be a lot of discussion moving forward. Then, the 2021-22 season will be the next step in the organization’s plan to build a winning team.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Jack Campbell Is a Teammate You Want on the Roster

I trust these three players will factor in key roles in that quest.