This isn’t exactly a linear exercise, as we’re grading players based on their preseason expectations and how they’ve performed relative to those standards. And before anyone gets too upset, it’s still early in the year, so there’s plenty of time to turn it around.
William Nylander: A+, Team MVP
Nylander is not only Toronto’s first-quarter MVP, he’s a legitimate candidate for the Hart Trophy after recording a point in the team’s first 17 games. He’s improved defensively, he’s a walking scoring chance, he’s augmented the Tyler Bertuzzi-John Tavares pairing, he was the top storyline of the NHL Global Series and he’s putting any concerns about his ongoing contract negotiations to the side. It’s impossible to get a higher grade than this.
Matthews opened the season on fire, becoming the first Maple Leafs player since Wendel Clark in 1993-94 to record hat tricks in consecutive games. He remains among the NHL’s best goal-scorers and though his offensive impact has waned in recent weeks, he remains an all-around threat, constantly forcing turnovers with his massive reach and frame. Don’t be surprised if Matthews takes over as the team MVP by midseason.
Rielly has been putting in Herculean work in an injury-depleted Maple Leafs’ defensive corps. He’s formed one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL alongside T.J. Brodie and since November he’s taken on a larger role in generating secondary scoring for a team that’s often overreliant on the Core Four. Rielly could be a down-ballot Norris Trophy candidate and his two-way play has been outstanding.
John Tavares: A-
Tavares has improved his skating and his offensive profile continues to evolve as he inches closer to the 1,000-point milestone for his career. His two-man game with Nylander has confounded opponents, he’s one of the premier faceoff winners in the NHL and the Maple Leafs control 59% of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, the best share of his career to date.
T.J. Brodie: A-
You rarely notice Brodie and that’s generally a good thing. He's a metronomic presence and partner for Rielly. The Rielly-Brodie duo has been on the ice for 18 goals for, nine against and has been asked to carry a defense corps that has missed Timothy Liljegren, Jake McCabe and now Mark Giordano for extended stretches.
Calle Jarnkrok: B+, Mr. Consistency
You can place Jarnkrok on the first line or you can place him on the third line and you know exactly what you’re getting: a tenacious winger with an underrated shot who brings out the best in his linemates. On a team with fluctuating highs and lows, Jarnkrok will be there to settle things down and create offense wherever he plays.
Joseph Woll: B+, Most Improved Player
Woll is not only an NHL-caliber starter, he began the year as one of the league’s best goalies. He's cooled off a bit but has supplanted Ilya Samsonov as the clear-cut starter for the Maple Leafs. The 25-year-old is always cool, calm and collected, providing the team with some stability through 20 games.
Matthew Knies: B+
Knies will gain some down-ballot Calder votes and his size, speed and tenacity can’t be taught. He’s played top-six minutes for the majority of the year and has often been counted upon to score goals when the Core Four has an off night. He’s shooting the lights out and it’s been a promising start for the 21-year-old, with occasional flashes of brilliance.
Nick Robertson: B+
Robertson has been the mainstay of a revamped third line featuring Jarnkrok and Max Domi since being inserted into the lineup on Nov. 6 and he hasn’t looked back. He plays at one speed: all-out aggression. It paid off and brought out the best results of the year from Domi, who was struggling prior to Robertson’s call-up. He’s not going back to the Marlies again.
Mitch Marner: B, Most likely to improve in 2nd quarter
Marner is still among the NHL’s 30 best players or so but that’s not good enough for last year’s team MVP, coming off a Selke nomination. He’s still pacing towards an 85-point season but his defensive impact has dropped off significantly. This is where the bell curve hurts Marner: he’s an incredible talent that has simply underperformed for large stretches.
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Bertuzzi already. He struggled miserably out of the gate, grew frustrated with the notion that he was hampering the Matthews-Marner pairing, then responded as one of the Maple Leafs’ best players through the month of November.
Max Domi: B
This is a conditional B-grade: Domi is significantly better at center than he is on the wing, where he seemed glued to the boards during zone exits. His playmaking and hockey sense improved immediately after being moved to third-line center and he often generates offense in waves. Domi has improved after a rocky start to October and he could be one of the most improved players during the second quarter.
Noah Gregor: B-, Most Polarizing Player
Gregor’s speed and opportunism stands out and he’s easily been the best player on Toronto’s underperforming fourth line with three goals. He essentially stole Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers. He drives opponents nuts on the penalty kill but he’s also susceptible to late reads in his defensive third.
Noah Gregor has his 3rd as a Maple Leaf! 👏 pic.twitter.com/hz7TK78g5e
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 29, 2023
NOAH GREGOR GETS IT DONE FOR THE LEAFS! pic.twitter.com/uq9Q093HD0
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) November 29, 2023
Simon Benoit: B-, Positive surprise of the quarter
Benoit has only played seven games, he doesn’t really make any splashy plays but he’s been the positive surprise of the quarter. In a limited sample through seven games, the Maple Leafs control 66% of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. Not bad for a player who was cast off from the 2022-23 Ducks. He may have to play a larger role with Giordano expected to miss time.
Jake McCabe: C+
McCabe struggled during the early portion of the season and was expected to operate as a safety valve for Giordano and Liljegren. He then suffered a groin injury on Oct. 26, which kept him out of the lineup until Nov. 10. McCabe has steadily improved since returning to the team and his underlying numbers alongside Giordano and Liljegren were much better than the eye test and splash results suggested.
Timothy Liljegren: C+
Liljegren had a rough start to the year during the team’s opening three-game homestand, then was stellar during a prolonged road trip before getting injured on a can-opener from Bruins captain Brad Marchand in a Nov. 2 road game.
Here's the Brad Marchand play on Timothy Liljegren pic.twitter.com/8Kuu1QL3Ck
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) November 3, 2023
William Lagesson: C+
Lagesson has been thrust into a larger role due to injuries and while his toughness has stood out, he’s also been on the ice for eight goals against at 5-on-5 in just 12 games. There’s ample room for improvement.
Mark Giordano: C
Giordano is arguably the most well-liked player on the team. He’s congenial, he sticks up for his teammates physically and blocks shots, but he definitely looks the part of the oldest player in the league. He’s going to miss significant time with an injury suffered during Tuesday’s game against the Panthers.
Ilya Samsonov: D
Samsonov knows he’s playing poorly and he’s essentially forfeited the No. 1 role over to Woll. He’s been pulled twice for poor play and hasn’t made critical stops when the Maple Leafs have needed him. Samsonov’s best performance of the year was during a shootout loss to the Bruins on Nov. 2. Aside from that, the positives have been few and far between for a player who is on a one-year deal.
David Kampf: D-, Most Disappointing Player
Kampf hasn’t provided anything close to the defensive impact expected of him. He’s provided nothing offensively and he’s often been culpable for the goals that Toronto’s fourth line has hemorrhaged during the first 21 games. He’s currently ranked 442nd out of 447 eligible players (200 minutes or greater) in expected goals against per 60, per Natural Stat Trick. Yikes.
Klingberg was among the worst players in the NHL prior to being placed on long-term injured reserve with a hip injury. He didn’t really function well as a power-play quarterback and was egregious defensively. We don’t want to belabour the point until he can return to action.
Ryan Reaves: F
Reaves did what was asked of him during a thrilling season-opening win against the Canadiens and scored his first goal of the year against the Blackhawks on Nov. 24. Those are the only two bright spots during the opening quarter and he may end up getting permanently replaced on the fourth line by Bobby McMann.