On Dec. 5, with the season one-third completed, I offered my first set of grades for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players. Now, with the regular season officially two-thirds completed (after 56 games), I offer my second set of grades. In this post, I will grade the team’s forwards.
Between the first set of grades and this second set, there have been a number of changes for the Maple Leafs. Chief among them is the return of William Nylander, who is starting to assume a regular role on the team, although not in last season’s usual place as Auston Matthews’ wingman. The Maple Leafs also traded for top-flight defenseman Jake Muzzin, a hometown guy who, until the trade, had played his entire career with the Los Angeles Kings.
In other big news, Matthews signed a five-year contract extension. Mitch Marner is next on general manager’s Kyle Dubas’ to-do list, with all these activities happening in the shadow of next year’s salary cap. That makes it interesting.
The Forwards as a Unit
As I had noted in December, the Maple Leafs are led by a set of young, elite forwards and strong goaltending (I will grade the goaltenders and the defensemen in my next post).
With John Tavares, and uber-talented Marner and Matthews, it would be tough to find three better forwards currently playing on the same team. And, although Nylander hasn’t regained last season’s form, if he does the team’s forward corps would become even stronger. Certainly, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen have proven they can play are starting to score regularly.
Let’s look at the Maple Leafs’ forwards and grade their season’s body of work – position by position.
Auston Matthews, Grade A-
Matthews was great before his shoulder injury; he came back with a vengeance since, but he’s slowed some. Still, he’s an elite forward and this grade is a downgrade. Let’s hope his goal and two assists in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche re-energizes his game. Some games, he just seems less present to me. This said, it’s also true that, if Matthews hadn’t lost 14 games to injury this season, he’d be in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. He has 50 points (25 goals and 25 assists) and his play has shown versatility, but he’s also had scoring slumps and I’m thinking he could be even better.
Frederik Gauthier, Grade C+
Gauthier is learning to use size and strength on defense. In our last grades, we noted his faceoff win percentage needed to improve. It has, and this grade is two bumps up from the previous C-. Sure he’s contributing this season, but he’s also preparing for next season when I think he’ll assume a larger role with the team. I think he’s learning from watching others, and he’s getting better.
John Tavares, Grade A+
Tavares is more than meeting expectations; he’s exceeding them. I really like this guy’s play. He’s Johnny Hustle and he simply doesn’t lose puck battles. Passes are finding him, and he’s scoring. I am constantly amazed at his great hand-eye coordination. He seems to fit in better every game.
Nazem Kadri, Grade C+
Kadri potted two goals in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over Colorado. He’s one of those guys who plays hard, and, every once in a while, has a multi-point game and then misses the score sheet for a few games before repeating the cycle. For example, his points against the Avalanche were his first points since his hat trick (and four points) seven games ago. I like his desire. This grade is a slight upgrade, but I’m thinking he has to be a smarter, tough guy. He could be the sharp edge of the Maple Leafs’ knife.
Par Lindholm, Grade B
Lindholm is a 27-year-old rookie, works hard, but has only one goal. This grade is a slight downgrade. He’s shown he can play both on the wing and at centre, and that bodes well. I’m left wondering if he will stay with the team after this season.
Andreas Johnsson, Grade B+
Johnsson is moving up the Maple Leafs’ depth chart, as he should. He played on the third line Tuesday night and recorded an assist. With his 13 points in 15 games, he’s third after only Tavares and Matthews in team scoring since Jan. 5. He’s tenacious and consistent, and he has the “touch.” Why anyone would think to trade him, I don’t know. I have the feeling he’s only starting to reach his potential. The more he’s asked to do, the more he seems to do. Next season, ask the world.
Patrick Marleau, Grade C
Marleau is playing well enough, but his grade since last time has been downgraded because of the downward change in his plus/minus. The team needs more veteran positives during the final stretch.
Tyler Ennis, No Grade
Come back soon.
Zach Hyman, Grade C+
Hyman’s been better since he’s returned from injury, and I’m starting to see why he’s one of Mike Babcock’s favorites. He could be an important cog in the playoffs because of his grit and toughness. A nasty streak would help the Maple Leafs. I upgraded him slightly from the last grading period.
Connor Brown, Grade C
Although I like his determination and self-motivation, I’m seeing little change that would help me grade him higher.
Kasperi Kapanen, Grade A-
Kapanen’s gaining confidence wherever he plays in the lineup. It’s hard to fault him for much, and he scored two goals in a 5-2 win over Colorado on Tuesday. He now has 18 goals this season. Could he score 30? I’m thinking there’s a chance. As a first-round pick in 2014, he was expected to produce and he’s starting to. Put him on the top-six and he’ll become more reliable every game. He also plays tough and doesn’t mind dishing out a hit. Playing with an edge is something few Maple Leafs do, and I really like that part of his game.
Mitch Marner, Grade A
Marner, in my mind, is the team’s leader. If he isn’t, he will be soon. If he were signed, he would be my only A+ on the team after Tavares and goalie Frederik Andersen (see my next post). That said, am I imagining it or have other teams started to figure him out a bit? If so, how will he react? Is it also my imagination that he’s losing puck battles a bit more? Time will tell by how much, but he will soon be much richer.
William Nylander, Grade C-
It’s good Nylander is back. But I want the Nylander that fans loved last year, not the one fans seem to loathe this year. In fact, it’s hard to grade him even at a C- when he signed that contract and hasn’t yet started to earn it. But, during recent games, have I seen inklings he might be getting his mojo back? A confident Nylander would be good for the team’s playoff run.
After I last graded the Maple Leafs, they fell lower in the standings. The stars on this team are still twinkling, and the team is shaping up. The players must be doing something right to be where they are, but not enough right to be higher. It’s hard to know whether to be pumped or anxious about this season’s team. I choose pumped.
Next up, I will be grading the Maple Leafs’ defense and goaltending for the second third of the season.