With just over two-thirds of the 2018-19 NHL season now behind them, there’s been plenty of drama with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense and goaltending. Frederik Andersen missed several games at the same time that Garret Sparks was smacked with a couple of pucks to the head in practice and he, too, missed games.
In stepped new to the team, and the organization, Michael Hutchinson, who grew up a Maple Leaf fan and was traded from the Florida Panthers basically as Toronto Marlies’ goalie insurance. Hutchinson slid into the goal and had a 3-4-2 record while the top two goalies were out. Although Hutchinson caused a bit of a stir during his time with the team, he was demoted to the Marlies as soon as Andersen was fit to play again.
The defense has had its own drama. Jake Gardiner was booed relentlessly at home after losing a puck battle that resulted in a goal. Jake Muzzin was traded to his hometown Maple Leafs from the Los Angeles Kings, and whispers of defensemen moving to and from the team are in the air as the trade deadline approaches. Although Muzzin has played well, many believe the blue line isn’t strong enough yet for a long playoff run.
With the backdrop of all this, I offer my second set of grades for the defense and the goalies. Let’s look at each of these two groups’ body of work – position by position – starting with the defensemen.
In my first set of grades, I noted that, unlike the adulation given to the Maple Leaf forwards, the defense hasn’t received much love. Although feelings towards them have improved with Muzzin around, life isn’t perfect yet.
Jake Gardiner, Grade B+
Gardiner is a flashpoint for fans: you love him or you don’t. Towards the end of January, Gardiner experienced back spasms that kept him out and he’s struggled to get back to his regular playing time and skill. He’s there now.
This week, it was reported that he skated on the third defensive pairing with Travis Dermott at practice. His recent play has been both good and bad, so it’s unclear where Gardiner will end up as the season rolls on. Gardiner’s output has slowed, with only six assists in his last 20 games and no goals since Dec. 4.
For his grade, we expect more offensive production. However, his plus/minus has improved to a nice plus-16. He should want to play well as the postseason approaches because he’s a free agent this summer. Logic suggests, and many hockey pundits agree, that Gardiner will likely sign with a new team this summer because of the Maple Leafs’ salary cap issues.
I have already written about why Gardiner will leave the team after this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if general manager Kyle Dubas traded him before the deadline.
Morgan Rielly, Grade A
Rielly has been consistent all year. In the Maple Leafs’ win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Valentines Day, he had a goal and an assist and was a plus-1. It was his 15th goal of the season, following a rare two-game pointless streak. Rielly has 57 points in 57 games, in a breakout season for the 24-year-old. He isn’t getting as many nods as a Norris Trophy favorite, but he will surely be nominated.
His A grade is a slight downgrade. But he’s still a star and a team leader.
Nikita Zaitsev, Grade C-
Something’s up with this 27-year-old. It’s interesting that Mike Babcock has juggled pairings and shifted Muzzin to play with Zaitsev. Zaitsev only has seven points in 56 games this season and he’s been weak defensively, so I wonder if this isn’t a move to showcase him for a trade.
As far as his grade goes, he hasn’t shown improvement since his previous grade. He’s an interesting player, but I haven’t seen the strength of his play that landed him a seven-year, $31.5 million contract from former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello. I’m guessing he might be traded.
Igor Ozhiganov, Grade C
Ozhiganov isn’t a scorer, with only seven points (three goals, four assists) in 42 games. However, he had a rare strong stretch in mid-January, with three points in five games. Since Muzzin arrived, Ozhiganov has spent time in the press box. He’ll likely stay there.
Since I gave him the first set of grades, I know more about him than I did. But, he’s the odd man out. He’s becoming more familiar with the NHL game, but it’s still a C. Too bad he’s sitting. Let’s see what happens before or at the trade deadline.
Ron Hainsey, Grade A-
I like Hainsey. I think he’s one of the most unsung heroes on the Maple Leafs’ roster. Babcock trusts him and casts him in the role of fixing on-ice issues. He logs big minutes, which he’s a bit elderly for, but he’s a veteran’s veteran. His plus-27 rating and 19:05 average ice time is nothing to sneeze at.
He’s probably never been graded with an A- anywhere he’s played, but I see no slippage in his play. I think everyone is better when Hainsey is on the ice.
Travis Dermott, Grade B+
When Gardiner was injured, Dermott gave fans a glimpse of what a future without Gardiner might look like. Dermott will become a top-four defender in the future. This season, his game continues to develop. I look forward to watching him grow as an NHL defenseman. My guess is that he’ll likely move around in the defensive pairings, up and down from the third pairing. He’s getting better, game after game.
Frederik Andersen, Grade A+
Andersen is a star on the Maple Leafs and would be on any NHL team. He faces tons of shots and stops most of them. His win against the Golden Knights was his fifth straight. Although he made some amazing stops (including two breakaway chances in the first and third periods), it wasn’t his best game of the season. I’m wondering if he isn’t more relaxed because the team’s offensive firepower is beginning to show.
Andersen’s record is now 27-11-2 (with a 2.57 GAA and a .923 save percentage). Where would the Leafs be without this guy?
Garret Sparks, Grade B
The 25-year-old goaltender has played sparingly in 2019, and his record fell to 7-4-1 with a 2.86 GAA and .906 save percentage. This grade is a downgrade. He has a funny goaltending style where he seems to bend at the hips when he’s on his knees, leaving the top corners open. He might become more irrelevant as the season progresses, unless Andersen is injured. If that were to happen, where would the team be?
The team is tied for the second highest number of points in the NHL. I’m seeing an offense that’s starting to catch fire. Since its Feb. 2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team has a record of 6-1. The only loss was the amazing 4-1 game to the New York Rangers on Feb. 10, when Bulgarian-born Alexandar Georgiev (on his birthday no less) set a franchise record with an astounding 55 saves to lead his team to victory.
Ironically, it was perhaps the Maple Leafs’ best game of the season. That’s hockey.
Decisions remain regarding the Maple Leafs’ backend, and there’s a chance the defense will change at the trading deadline. It will be interesting to see what Babcock and Dubas conspire to do as the team moves towards the playoffs.