Fret not Leafs fans you are finally getting some kind of recognition here at Hot Sauce Sports.
For about as long as I have been alive (25 years, or 46 if you ask my friends) the Leafs have not been a good team. They have no playoff series wins in the salary cap era, have a history of blowing large leads and even lost to “A ZAMBONI DRIVER WHO WORKS FOR THE TEAM.”
Steve Dangle was the voice for Leafs fans last season (he still is now and has been for a while). We all knew deep down how much the team needed to improve despite having some superb talent. Since the Matthews draft it has been harder and harder to see them waste precious years of the talent they’ve gathered. Last year’s exit in the bubble after a miserable performance against the Blue Jackets was the final straw. Many Leafs fans were ready to give up again like we did in 2014.
This offseason brought hope again as not only did the Leafs acquire some interesting players, but they were placed in a Canadian division. A division where, on paper, they should be able to do more damage than ever before. The advantage of not having to see Boston or Tampa several times a year, and more specifically, in the first round. What a difference.
After 18 games the Leafs are first in the division and first in the league. Given the weird season we are having because of *gestures at the world being fire* the more important part is they lead their division in points percentage and are second in the NHL in this same category.
Somehow we are still saying the Leafs are underperforming. I wonder if it has anything to do with blowing a 5-1 lead to Ottawa?
The Maple Leafs are far from a perfect product right now, but there are a lot of positives. Most of them being player performances, some from the new guys, some from players we’ve seen before.
My goal here is to give you an overview of each player’s performance through the first quarter of the scheduled season (I find it hard to believe we will see teams hit 56 games this season).
Alexander Barabanov (8 GP – 0G 0A): D
Though he has not been a burden when playing, he just does not seem to really add anything either. I assume he will play very few games for the remainder of the season.
Pierre Engvall (9 GP – 1G 1A) : D+
Not making the roster on opening not was a brutal start to the season. His first few games after his call-up really seemed to spark him. He has taken 5 penalties already this season. For a guy fighting to stay in the lineup, not good enough. He does not offer the offensive threat to counteract the penalties taken. At his price ($1.2M) he needs to do more. He has all the tools to do well, I just don’t think it will be with the Leafs. He is not a regular in the lineup when everyone is healthy. Plus he scored in the 5-1 loss to the Senators after having last scored against David Ayres. Not great and also cursed. Pass.
Nic Petan (5 GP – 0G 1A) : B
Who even remembered the Leafs had this guy under contract? If you said yes you’re a liar. He waited for his turn, spending most of the season on the taxi squad. He took his chance and has really stolen that spot on the fourth line. This might be the most successful he’s looked in a Leafs jersey (probably the most games he’s played in a two weeks span also). He is a great puck handler, has great vision and skates well. He should keep his spot.
Jimmy Vesey (18 GP – 2G 1A) : ………..
Are we sure he plays for the Leafs? I would grade him if I ever saw him on the ice. Invisible. Out of the lineup when Robertson and Simmonds are back.
Nick Robertson (3 minutes played): C
Having skipped the World Juniors to try and make the opening night roster it was sad to see him fight for a spot. When he finally got his chance he was electrifying for 3 minutes before hurting his knee. He’s the best prospect this team has. Already having scored in the AHL in his first game I will assume he’ll be back up shortly with the big boys. He will be a starter before season’s end. The potential is beyond exciting.
Travis Boyd (10 GP – 2G 3A) : A
This guy is the perfect 4th line centre for the Leafs. He’s a waterbug, never stops skating. Sheldon Keefe seems to love him as well. It will be impossible to take him out of the lineup especially now that he has found chemistry with Spezza.
Jason Spezza (17 GP – 4G 6A) : B
It’s hard to find anything wrong with a player making $700,000 already having 10 pts while playing on the fourth line. Spezza is loved by his teammates but more so by his fans. How can we not? That goofy laugh, the passion for the game (fighting in the playoffs at 36 years old!!!) and the fact that once a game a glimpse of his talent flashes through. The future Hall of Famer is a great depth player for this team.
Ilya Mikheyev (18 GP – 2G 3A) : C-
Souperman is not having a great season so far. He is by far the fastest player on this roster and he uses that throughout the game, but there is no potency to his attacks. The opposing team must never fear his breakaways because, well, the finishing touch doesn’t exist. Offensive plays seem to die on his stick. He’s fighting it right now, but he has the talent to turn it around and make me look like a fool. He gets a C- because his PK is so good. I can’t imagine how annoying it is to deal with him when you have the man advantage.
Wayne Simmonds (12 GP – 5G 0A) : B+
The Wayne Train is in Toronto and it is magnificent. Since his injury the Leafs seem far more deflated than they did this year (they remind me of last year’s Leafs… see that 5-1 game). I am by no means an “intangibles” loving guy. I want my players to have good on ice value as well as that other stuff. So far, Simmonds has done it and done it well. He’s kept up with the pace of the game and done really well as a net-front man on the first unit of the power play. I doubt he continues to pot goals in at the pace he was on, but there is a lot of value to his game.
Alexander Kerfoot (18 GP – 3G 7A) : C
Alex Kerfoot is in a tough spot this year. That third line has been such a rotation you could get nauseous. He is the only guy that can play third line centre for this team. There are some nights I wish he wouldn’t even pass the puck because that means Vesey gets it or Soup throws a bad shot on net from 30 feet away. He has some penalty issues, but the effectiveness he has on that third line make him hard to critique. I enjoyed his play a LW on the Tavares – Nylander line as well but it will not be long term. There is more to give from Kerfoot. I think he’s on his way there.
Joe Thornton (8 GP – 3G 5A) : A
How weird is it seeing Jumbo in a Leafs jersey? Almost as weird as a 41 year old playing top line and scoring at a point a game pace. We haven’t seen that since Jaromir Jagr played with Barkov and Huberdeau. 8 games into the Thornton-Matthews-Marner experiment and it is working perfectly. Despite his loss in foot speed he is able to control the game and use his size to win battles along the boards that allow Mitch and Matthews more time and space to do Mitch and Matthews things. He came back from injury as if he had missed no time at all. That line is clicking and I am glad to be wrong about its effectiveness when I first saw it in training camp.
Zach Hyman (17 GP – 4G 6A) : A
There is no coincidence that every line Hyman gets put on immediately becomes a strong line. When he started the season with Soup and Kerfoot they were the best third line in hockey. When Jumbo got hurt and Hyman moved to the top line, well they somehow didn’t miss a beat without Thornton. Most recently he provided a spark for Willy and Tavares during their toughest stretch. He just makes it work. He wins every puck battle, he completes every defensive assignment, he skates until his heart explodes, he takes hits, he blocks shots. There is nothing he cannot do. That energy is contagious and its been proven time and time again with Hyman. He cannot be allowed to leave at the end of the year.
William Nylander (18 GP – 5G 9A) : B
Unlike Steve Simmons I know the value held in a player like Nylander. Willy is a polarizing player in Toronto. On one hand you have fans that understand he is a good player who is not immune to mistakes and on the other you have old guys who think hockey is the same as when it was played in 1974. He started the season off strong in a 2G and 1A performance against the Habs only for Brian Burke to say that aside from scoring two goals he provided nothing. Forgive my ignorance but is the objective of hockey not to outscore the other team? It is an objective fact that Nylander is on the ice for many more goals for his team than against, sporting a solid 56.25 GF% (meaning for all the goals scored with Willy on the ice the Leafs get more than half). More than that the baseless claim that he is a perimeter player also has no merit. The vast majority of his shots come from the pentagon of death.
William Nylander is an excellent player, there are times when you think he can do a little more, but to say he is anything but a first line talent is to lie blatantly (and to catch these hands). He has been an asset this season and will continue to do so.
John Tavares (18 GP – 6G 10A) : B
The first ten games of the season were the best version of John Tavares we have ever seen in a Leafs jersey. The next 8 were a struggle. His turnovers over that stretch were a little worrying, but at the level of talent Tavares has we can assume it will not last. JT will be back to his usual self in time. Incredible that a man with 16 points in 18 games is the second line centre and receiving large amounts of criticism. He is currently shooting around 3% at 5on5, his career average is close to 12%, he will score at his usual clip over the duration of the season stop freaking out. No worries to be had here.
Mitch Marner (18 GP – 8G 19A) : A+
Remember when Babcock told us he couldn’t play Marner and Matthews because it would not help the team win? Mitch is third in the league in points and has destroyed not only every player on the Ottawa Senators last night, but also my tweets saying isn’t worth $11M/year. This man is electric, he’s fun, he’s a superstar.
“Mitchell… is HOCKEY… is LIFE even hard for you????” – Steve “Dangle” Glynn. No quote sums up this season as well as that.
Auston Matthews (17 GP – 16G 7A) : A+++
When the Leafs drafted Auston Matthews in 2016 we knew he would be good. Not this good (4th in league scoring this season, first in goals). Auston Matthews is the current frontrunner for the Hart Trophy. In the games the Leafs are struggling he finds a way to score and revive the team or steal them the two points they need. He has added himself to the top tier of untouchable players. The conversation is no longer McDavid and MacKinnon exclusively. Not only has his defensive impact (12 takeaways already this year) greatly improved, but his passing is improving as well. To give the player with the best shot in the NHL more weapons to hurt you is just ridiculous.
I would write more about him but he’s probably scored 12 more goals since you started reading this.
You laugh but he’s scored 5 goals since this video was posted a week ago.
Mikko Lehtonen (7 GP – 0G 3A) : C
Coming over from the KHL as the highest scoring player (while being a defenseman) is cause for a lot of hype. Sheldon Keefe has expressed some concern for his adaptation to the smaller ice size. I like his skating and vision. He’s particularly good at getting the team moving in transition at top speed, and he can work some magic on the powerplay. He’s fighting his way into the lineup but he has by no means stolen that gig… yet…
Travis Dermott (14 GP – 1G 0A) : B
The reason Lehtonen is having trouble grabbing a lineup spot is because of how good Dermott has been. This is a guy who always had the tools to excel but always seemed to make costly mistakes. This season he’s been a gem. That snipe on Carey Price was extra nice.
Zach Bogosian (17 GP – 0G 1A) : B
Watching the first game he played with the Leafs almost gave me a heart attack. I couldn’t believe a team with such strong emphasis on puck possession, movement and talent was going to have Bogo in the lineup every night. He stole my heart from game 2 onwards. He actually knows how to defend. I have been unable to say that about any Leafs defender not named Jake Muzzin for about 10 years. He keeps the danger to a minimum and doesn’t ice the puck at every opportunity. Its like if Cody Ceci was actually good. I fully understand why Keefe is hesitant to take him out of the lineup. Keep on trucking Bogo.
Morgan Rielly (18 GP – 2G 12A) : C+
C+ seems harsh for a D-man with 14pts in 18 games. Though I have liked Rielly’s return to quarterbacking the main powerplay, his defensive game is still questionable. For years the excuse was his lack a truly reliable partner. TJ Brodie is the best one Rielly has ever gotten. The turnovers are haunting, the bad pinches are tough but he’s still a positive value player because he brings so much to the rush game. I want more from a supposed number 1 defenseman. I believe in Rielly, but so far he has been average.
TJ Brodie (18 GP – 0G 5A) : B+
TJ Brodie is the best Leafs defender at stopping 2 on 1s. I know this because he has to stop so many a game. I am really fond of his breakout passes. Teams can’t just gang up on Rielly and assume the puck will be handled like a grenade anymore. Brodie makes clean passes and covers when Morgan goes to have some fun. Not much more you can ask for. He is the perfect fit and I can see why Dubas wanted him so much before Kadri denied the trade.
Jake Muzzin (18 GP – 1G 11A) : A
Remember when Dubas acquired Jake Muzzin for basically nothing and since then he has been the best defenseman on this team? I remember. He does everything right. Every single thing. He is perfect. He can even get the analytics and eye test people to agree on someone. Jake Muzzin is the best. We love Jake Muzzin.
Justin Holl (18 GP – 1G 6A) : A+
When he sat for 71 games in 2018-2019 I was sure that would be the end of Justin Holl. Having come through the ECHL, AHL and then the press box to being the obvious choice for the Norris Trophy is quite the story. From shutting down McDavid to uncorking a slap shot on Carey Price, he will hurt you on both ends of the ice. I kid about the Norris, but he has been quite the revelation this season. He and Muzzin are the first pair for the Leafs now and they are handling it as well as one could hope for. His development makes him the obvious candidate for a new trophy: The MIP of the NHL. One he would win without question.
Michael Hutchinson (1 GP – 1W – .919SV%) : B
Last time he played for the Leafs Kyle Dubas traded for Jack Campbell two hours after the game. He and the Leafs survived this one. Third goalie for the rest of the season is not as great as Aaron Dell would’ve been (what a crime we never got to see those pads in action).
Jack Campbell (2 GP – 2W – .923SV%) : A
The most wholesome man on Earth played only two games but was superb in those games. Down the stretch it will be great to have him backing up Freddy so he can rest.
It has been tough not to see him on the bench where he seems to brighten everyone’s spirit. He’ll be back soon and he’ll continue to contend for the starters net next season.
Frederik Andersen (15 GP – 10W – .905SV%) : B-
For years Freddy stole every game the Leafs won. Now that they are less of a complete disaster in their own end he is beyond his peak. He has kept his team in most games this year, but there are a few games where you’d like him to make a few more saves. Naturally playing 15/18 games won’t help him so hopefully he continues this better streak he’s been on after the first 5 games. Sheldon Keefe let slip that he’s slightly hurt as well, so there’s room for hope. He’s playing for his next contract, let’s see him earn a big one.
As we we see the Leafs continue onwards this season they will continue to rely on their superstars and hopefully acquire some version of a top 6 winger to really solidify their depth scoring. Oddly defending is no longer an anchor and that should bring them beyond the first round. This might be the best Leafs team of our generation. Here’s to ending the curse.
Be sure to check up on the Quarter Season Report Cards from the rest of the Canadian Division coming soon on Hot Sauce Sports. Stay Healthy folks.