By: Paul Andreacchi
Halfway through the Maple Leafs season I have an uneasy feeling. Success is not something sports fans in Toronto are used to (the Argos do not count). Just this Saturday I was sitting in the Rogers Centre watching Toronto FC go up 2-0 in the first 20 minutes and a feeling of unease overtook my quick sense of happiness [Ed. Note: TFC held on to win 2-1].
We are used to disappointment in this city but the Toronto Maple Leafs this year have been anything but. With 15 wins and 31 points, the Leafs currently have more wins than Detroit, Philadelphia, and the NY Rangers. If you told any hockey analyst these numbers, they would laugh harder than Tim Connolly making 4.5 million dollars playing for the Marlies.
Since I am the resident High School teacher of the Same Page Team, I’ve decided to give my mid-term grades to some of the key members of the most storied franchise in the NHL. Here we go:
Nazem Kadri: A+
With 25 points, he leads the team and has really been the brightest spot of the season so far. The last overall pick in my Fantasy Hockey Draft brought laughs by all. Even I only took him out of my irrational devotion to the blue and white.
No one is happier for Kadri than me, and, well, maybe Brain Burke’s ego. The fact remains he is the Leafs’ most dangerous offensive weapon and the only real threat skating east to west on the ice. Amazing hands and a killer release has only emboldened the notoriously confident youngster. Kadri’s tremendous skill wins the Leafs at least one power play per game, a power play he should be given more time on in the second half.
Lost in all this offensive production (and Leafs media labeling him the next Gilmour. As the kid’s text: SMH), is his vastly improved defensive performance. Once considered a defensive liability, Kadri is 2nd on the team with a +14.
The offense is bound to slow down but Kadri’s performance will be crucial to the Leafs making the playoffs. Ya, I said it. PLAYOFFS!
Michael Kostka & Mark Fraser: A-
These two defensemen have come out of nowhere. Literally. Kostka is a 27 year old rookie. Along with Holzer, these two have become the reasons why over 12 million dollars worth of players (Liles and Komisarek) are watching games from the press boxes.
It is really remarkable. Kostka is logging heavy minutes often paired with Dion Phaneuf against the opponents’ best lines. Fraser has emerged as the plus/minus leader with +16. No matter how much the hockey talking heads try, they cannot explain the performances of these two.
However, I am going to attempt to add a dose of reality. While Fraser and Kostka have played extremely well for the Leafs, there is NO denying their lack of skill and experience. Even in a condensed season, this lack of sheer quality in the defensive pairings will become apparent. I fully expect Liles to crack the lineup once again and Jake Gardiner should be back within the next few weeks.
Nevertheless, these two pleasant surprises get an A (or A minus) for effort.
James Van Riemsdyk: A-
Best. Trade. Ever.
Another player that makes Brain Burke’s ego grow more than anyone thought possible. Leads the team in goals (14) and is 7th in the league. All of that for… Luke Schenn (!), a player who may end up on waivers this season.
JVR is a big body who is not afraid of the crease, playing with a line that does not seem to lack in chemistry. A stellar performer for this team who has shown with his play that he does not belong at the centre position.
James Reimer & Ben Scrivens: A-
These 2 goalies deserve a lot of credit. They began this season as collectively insufficient for this franchise. Now, they have emerged has a stable 1-2 goalie punch. No one expected stability in the goalie position but Reimer and Scrivens have emerged from the trade rumours to produce more wins than Luongo and Schneider.
Tyler Bozak: B+
The former Luongo trade bait has proven himself as a reliable and hardworking centre. Is he a first line player? No. Again, this is the fault of the front office not Bozak himself. His much improved face-off ability makes David Steckel even more useless and Bozak is among the best penalty killers in the league.
Clarke MacArthur: B+
Still providing steady production even as his past line mates (Kulemin & Grabo) have decided to stop scoring. The only sad thing is his impressive performance virtually guarantees the Leafs overpaying him once his contract expires at the end of this year. This prophecy is only strengthened by Grabovski’s ridiculous contract extension paying him 5.5 million a year for similar, if not worse, production.
Dion Phaneuf: B
Everyone’s favourite whipping boy. People can cry about his inflated salary and questionable skating ability but Dion is playing quite well this season. Yes, he has off nights where he looks downright horrible. However, he leads the team in minutes, sometimes playing more than double the minutes of most defensemen. It says something about the quality of a player when Randy Carlyle, a defensively minded coach, puts that much trust in one player.
Anyone who says he gets the respect and playing time because of the legendary ‘C’ on his jersey and that bloated salary have obviously not looked to the press box or the Marlies to see big money players wearing designer suits and AHL jerseys.
He may be the worst interview in professional sports and the most hated Maple Leaf but he also happens to have more points than Mikael Grabovski.
Phil Kessel: B-
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to see a Maple Leaf succeed more than Phil the Thrill.
His production for the last few years on a terrible team really is remarkable. He his quick, skilled, and has a killer release. This year he has added to his repertoire by fine tuning his play-making skills, leading the team with 16 assists, many of those to JVR. Sure, the goal total is down as he adjusts to a far more responsible and defensive system but his 23 points are respectable.
Herein lies the problem. Respectable is not good enough. The cornerstone of Burke’s greatest gamble lost this franchise Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, two hometown heroes and probable superstars. With this shadow over him, if Kessel is not scoring, he is not worth it. Every game the Leafs play against Boston certainly does not help his cause.
After years with the Leafs it becomes more and more apparent that Phil Kessel is not the game changer Burke hoped he would be. He often gets frustrated and hides on the periphery of a game. This year more than ever, a whole period can go by without Kessel making a meaningful appearance.
Bottom line is, Phil Kessel’s best will never be good enough because of the circumstances of his arrival. When the Corey Perry sweepstakes begin around the trade deadline, do not be surprised if Kessel is used as bait to pick up a true superstar.
Mikael Grabovski: C
After his multi-year extension signed last year, expectations were high for Grabo this year. However, he has become a tremendously expensive second line checking centre. Partly lethargic play, partly the fault of the new coaching system, Grabo’s offense has dwindled.
Nevertheless, Grabo has to improve simply because the team NEEDS him to succeed. We still do not have a No. 1 centre, we at least need a No. 2.
GM Dave Nonis: A
I realize Nonis is not a player but he deserves credit for the Leafs’ success.
As Burke proved in the past, the legacy of a GM can be determined more by their inaction than action. Burke chose to act, often hastily (see Kessel). Nonis has preferred to lay low and give his coach the confidence and autonomy in implementing this system he sees fit with whatever players he prefers.
In truth, this grade for Nonis is largely to do with the recent rumour from this past Draft Day. Apparently with Burke anxious to make a Luongo deal, he put Kadri, Bozak, and draft pick on the block. Vancouver politely refused (idiots) and the Kadri show began with his first goal of the year.
You have to believe that closer to the beginning of the season that deal was still there to be made. For Nonis, a GM taking over the most scrutinized team in the NHL under dubious circumstances, landing Luongo would have appeased the Toronto media and made Nonis as famous as Burke. Very importantly, Nonis has proven he does not want to be famous. While Burke’s fingerprints are all over the impressive Leafs this season, I feel confident in the Leafs GM position for the first time since before the JFJ era.
Toronto Maple Leafs: B+
The Buds are a very different team than last year. Hard working, well-organized, and even exciting to watch. No team pushes them around and Carlyle seems to be a coach that is actually respected.
No matter the progress made this year, Maple Leaf success this year will be determined by a playoff appearance only. For the first time in many years, I can say with happiness (and anxiety) that the Leafs will finally make it to the promised land.
Yes, the promised land is the playoffs. The Stanley Cup is still a dream. But I would not be a Leaf fan if I were not a dreamer at heart.
Leafs finish 7th in the East.
Class dismissed. Go Leafs Go.