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Grading the Maple Leafs on their abbreviated seasons

What’s happened over the last week and change with the global COVID-19 pandemic has proved once again that all this stuff is largely unimportant, but the escape from reality that it offers is why we watch sports in the first place. So in the spirit of that, and pursuing that escape from constant (albeit incredibly important) updates on the spread of the infection from the national news, let’s take a look back on the maybe-ongoing, maybe-completed 2019-20 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and produce some individual grades for all the major roster players.

Now, this isn’t just a curve of the top players and so on down to the depth contributors; that would be too easy. Instead all players are judged on their performance within their capabilities, and against expectations, past performances and, to be frank, the money they are earning.

Just saying, don’t be alarmed when Martin Marincin rates higher than Tyson Barrie. You’ve been warned.

Let’s get this going.

A+

Zach Hyman: His easy-to-quantify contributions now on par with all those things he does that will never show up on the stat sheet, Hyman matched his career-high in goals and sits just four points off his personal best total in only 51 games. What’s more, his offensive breakout has come on the heels of major offseason knee reconstruction. There might have been a wonder in the early days of the Sheldon Keefe era about Hyman’s skillset suiting the new preferred playing style, but Hyman always adjusts, maintaining indispensable status for the Leafs regardless of the situation or his surroundings. He brings out the best in the players he’s with, and in the process delivered a career-best season from an individual perspective.

Mike Stephens’ grade: A+

A

Auston Matthews: It another season unfortunately interrupted for Matthews, this time thankfully not by injury. Healthy for the first time since his rookie season, we were in the process of finally determining what this version of Matthews was capable of accomplishing in a full campaign. The team leader with 47 goals and 80 points in 70 games, Matthews was issuing a legitimate challenge for the Rocket Richard trophy (sitting just one goal behind Alexander Ovechkin and David Pastrnak), while lending more credence to the argument that he’s the top even-strength goal scorer in the NHL. He was consistently a force from an offensive perspective, yet also selective, in a way, when pairing it with defensive dominance.

Stephens’ grade: A++

A-

William Nylander: He vowed to be dominant, and has been. With a career-high 31 goals while riding the wave toward a personal-best point total with 59 through 68 games, Nylander has silenced most of his critics after his abbreviated (and lost) season in 2018-19. The most notable development in his game seems to have been the sudden scoring proficiency from the net front, where he’s picked up a large percentage of his goals.

Stephens’ grade: A+

Jake Muzzin: He wasn’t immune from the misfortune on the back end this season for the Leafs, but when Muzzin was in the lineup he was always the one pulling hardest in the right direction. His leadership and the importance of it is undeniable, and on multiple occasions he seemed to take it upon himself to change the course of a game. The underlying data is unspectacular, but he makes it work against difficult competition with whoever he’s paired with. Toronto won just eight of the 17 games Muzzin was absent for.

Stephens’ grade: A

B+

Jason Spezza: It’s remarkable that Spezza lasted, given that he seemed to be hanging by a thread throughout the entire time Mike Babcock remained the Maple Leafs’ coach. With nine goals and 25 points in 58 games, and still skating well enough to continue to keep up, he’s exceeded all reasonable expectations from a scoring perspective and delivered definite value on the league-minimum contract he signed in the offseason. He also took on the veteran leadership role largely vacated with the departures of Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri.

Stephens’ grade: B

Ilya Mikheyev: That the Leafs truly did miss this largely unknown import commodity certainly says something about his value. A different player for sure, but Mikheyev proved to have a Hyman quality about him before exiting with his major wrist injury. However instead of concerns over how Mikheyev might adapt under Sheldon Keefe, he seemed to lead that transition in many respects. He has as many points as Kaapo Kakko in 27 fewer games, by the way.

Stephens’ grade: B

Justin Holl: From the press box to the de facto leader, at times, on the back end, there was not a player that improved their standing quite like Holl. Comfortable in a Keefe world after several seasons with the Toronto Marlies, Holl was maybe the key piece in helping lead the transition, helping hold it all together through tough times.

Stephens’ grade: B

Jack Campbell: Only three wins in his six starts following his acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings, but Campbell always delivered on the promise of giving his team the chance (or chances) to win. A plus human providing plus contributions from the position, the Leafs won’t have to worry about backup goaltending moving forward.

Stephens’ grade: B+

B

Pierre Engvall: Not expected to be a contributor at all this season, Engvall took his opportunity to carve out a permanent position on the roster moving forward. His influence waned over the last month as the Leafs fought to find solutions in their bottom six, but he remains a key piece on the penalty kill.

Stephens’ grade: C+

Kyle Clifford: He’s done his job. However, the play-driving ability that was supposed to separate Clifford from most other players with the ability and willingness to throw hands — and which convinced Kyle Dubas he was worth having — hasn’t necessarily shown up.

Stephens’ grade: B-

B-

Kasperi Kapanen: It’s possible that there’s some recency bias at play here and therefore a slightly generous grade, but what Kapanen was able to show in the last month, or so, before the NHL hit pause, was quite encouraging. After failing in a top-six role to start the year, Kapanen seems to have recognized what it will take to have a consistent impact from the third-line slot on right wing.

Stephens’ grade: C+

Rasmus Sandin: He was lights out to start both his tenures, but without question Sandin faded down the stretch while taking on an increased workload. He’s going to be a key piece in the years to come, so one positive on this paused season is that the Leafs will preserve one year of service despite burning an entry-level year.

Stephens’ grade: B-

Calle Rosen: He stepped in immediately and under unfavourable circumstances and did a job. That’s it.

Stephens’ grade: B-

C+

Mitch Marner: Simply put, it hasn’t been the same Mitch. There are likely plenty of factors contributing to this, and likely some that have nothing to do with hockey, but the adjustment from an entry-level salary to one with eight figures hasn’t been without its challenges. Marner still managed to put up points and would be right up there among the game’s top producers if it weren’t for the ankle injury he suffered, but he’s being judged differently now. The scoring rate has dropped and he hasn’t been a key cog on a dominant line that can match up against the opposition’s best as he was last season. Ideally the Leafs would receive an enhanced product after making the investment they did, and they simply haven’t.

Stephens’ grade: B

Martin Marincin: Whatever the expectation is for an eighth defenseman, it’s hard to argue that Marincin didn’t meet it.

Stephens’ grade: C

C

John Tavares: (See: Mitch Marner). The scoring rate has dropped at a faster rate for the Leafs captain, and after eating up top competition from even strength perspective last season, the on-ice goal share rate has reduced by almost 10 percentage points. Tavares was not dealing with expectations tied to a contract like Marner, but instead maybe realities associated with being named captain.

Stephens’ grade: B+

Alexander Kerfoot: It’s apparent that Kerfoot has a really tough time putting his stamp on a game. If he turned out to be exactly what the Leafs expected him to be, that’s an unsavoury return for a player like Nazem Kadri.

Stephens’ grade: C+

Morgan Rielly: Beset with disadvantages — be it injury or an unwieldy partnership with Cody Ceci — Rielly was unable to have the same sort of Norris Trophy-level impact this season. And yet, one game into his return was a reminder of how vital he is to the success of the team. It’s a shame he might not have the chance to rescue his season while healthy down the stretch drive.

Stephens’ grade: B

Frederik Gauthier: Alas, the Road to 50 has been diverted.

Stephens’ grade: C

C-

Tyson Barrie: He was supposed to be a luxury, and instead Barrie seemed to muddle up the situation on the Leafs’ back end. Though he ranks fifth in team scoring, in many ways he’s disappointed in his ability to produce points. Barrie has not pulled the strings on the Leafs power play to great effect, nor been a threat in the transition offence. He scored goals at a career-low rate (with an unsustainably poor shooting percentage) with the Leafs, while the warts in his defensive game have remained. The fact he was being shopped at the deadline with any degree of seriousness is telling.

Stephens’ grade: B-

Frederik Andersen: Perhaps a harsh grade, but it’s hard to deny the fact that he fell short of expectations in what could easily be considered the worst statistical season of his career. That his career trajectory reached a low point isn’t surprising for a goalie that sees a natural ebb and flow with his performance. But what did seem curious was that his adjustment from Babcock to Keefe seemed to take on one of the longer curves.

Stephens’ grade: C+

D+

Andreas Johnsson: Just no growth, right? No longer found money, there were expectations, certainly, of Johnsson after signing a significant contract extension over the summer. Injuries were a significant factor in Johnsson failing to deliver, but he missed the mark regardless.

Stephens’ grade: D+

Travis Dermott: Not able to transition from the training table to the ice with quite the same effectiveness as Hyman, Dermott struggled to find traction in the final season of his entry-level contract. There were some real positive signs when he was thrown into an enhanced role at times over the last month, but that doesn’t make a successful season in one that required growth.

Stephens’ grade: C

D

Denis Malgin: He was a non-factor when he wasn’t moonlighting in the top six, and when the Leafs reach a reasonable level of health, there will be no opportunities for Malgin there.

Stephens’ grade: D+

D-

Cody Ceci: Miscast by the Maple Leafs and precisely the player most believed he was, there is no excusing the fact that they carved out $4.5 million to slot Ceci into the lineup.

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