Recently I broke my own vow not to start doing the player-grading thing, but desperate (read: no news, at least nothing of genuine substance to bat around in these ultra-quiet Leaf times, other than Luongo reminding us he'd rather be in Florida) times call for, if not necessarily legitimate innovation, then at least personal compromise on occasion.
So after sharing my thoughts (and yes, “grades”) with you on our goalies and back end yesterday, let’s do the same for the forward group.
Here goes (nothing?):
Clarke MacArthur C+
It’s funny, two years into his time here, I’m not quite sure I “get” MacArthur. I mean, he’s a perfectly nice player and all. He can score goals at times and seems to contribute in different ways. Yet he’s just not a player that excites me. I may be missing something here, I don't know. We all remember that Burke was trying desperately to figure out (before he signed Clarke to that new contract) which player MacArthur was—the first-year Leaf surprise, or the replaceable winger that had earlier bounced from team to team. I’m still not sure. Since I don’t project him as much more than what we have already seen here, I’ll stick with my decision. (And will gladly be wrong, given any reason to be proven so this coming season…)
Tyler Bozak C+
I like Bozak, and for some reason I want to like Bozak. He seems like a decent young man (how would I know though, eh?), has good skating ability and can win a lot of face-offs. He has been the supposed defensive conscience of various lines that he has centered in his still very young NHL career. To me, his “potential” is much higher than the grade I’ve given him today as we head into the 2012-’13 NHL season. I sense he can become a bit of a point producer and play on any number of lines reasonably well. But despite this versatility, I’m reluctant to give him more until, frankly, he actually shows more—and on a consistent basis.
David Steckel C
He’s big. He wins a lot of face-offs. I really don’t know what else to say. I mean, good teams need guys like Steckel for role-purposes (penalty-kill, face-offs, defensive assignments, etc.) and I know these types of players can be integral pieces in a much larger—when successful—team puzzle. I’m just not of the view that Steckel is exactly that kind of player in our set-up. Thus, the modest grade for the veteran center.
Matthew Lombardi C-
Lombardi has always had wheels. He’s a nice player. Again, like so (too?) many Leafs, he’s NHL caliber, but, well, not much more than a third or fourth line player over the course of a season at this level. His “plus” skill, as scouts like to talk about, is obviously his skating. If he were a baseball player, where they talk about that rare “5-tool player”, I’d say Lombardi is a 2-tool contributor. Which is fine, but it’s too late in his career to think about potential, so the grade to me seems fair.
Nikolai Kulemin B-
Nik is another personal favourite of mine. That said, while I know people have defended him, saying while he didn’t score last year he still did other things to contribute, I just can’t cut him that much slack. Whatever the reasons for his obvious decline in production (and we have certainly chatted about the various possibilities here in the past), I felt his overall game actually fell back as well. He didn’t play “big” enough often enough. He was not consistently physical and simply wasn’t consistently a strong Leaf ‘presence’ on the ice. He didn’t always seem as engaged as he had been in earlier seasons, at least to me, when his career arc was trending so positively. I think he is—and will be—better than the grade I have ascribed to him. But last season, he was worse than I’ve graded him now. To me, that’s a reasonable compromise. I need to see more, and he needs to deliver this coming season.
Nazem Kadri C
Really, the grade should be “incomplete”, because I feel, as I’ve said in this space before before, the Leafs have mishandled this player. I won't bore you with why I feel this way—I’ve chronicled that perspective many times here before. (Click on his name on the right hand side of the site under "categories" if you’d like to read further mild rants in this regard…)
We all see his attributes. And yes, he is now a physical specimen after working with Gary Roberts all summer. How that translates into being an impact player at this level, I really don’t know. He’s still plenty young at 22 and he will hopefully receive the opportunity to play real minutes with the big club this season.
Mikhail Grabovski B/B+
Some Leaf fans cottoned to Grabovski from his earliest days in Toronto. I was a slow adapter myself. It took me a while to appreciate the he was more than a guy who a) had a thing for the Kostitsyn brothers (i.e. he hated them) and that b) he only played hard against his old team, the Habs. He has grown on me over the years, for sure. And he certainly created a buzz in Leaf country when Chara almost killed him during that game in Boston in the 2010-’11 season—and Grabovski came back and scored a brilliant game-winning goal on a solo rush later, obviously still somewhat concussed.
All this said, I still fear his size, despite his obvious feistiness, holds him back a tad. I’m not sure if his peak is any more than what we have seen. Thus, I’m reluctant to grade him higher but I’m open to arguments to the contrary. He’s a very nice second-line center, but to me, nothing more.
Mike Brown C-
How can you not like Mike Brown? He gives what he has. Stands up for teammates. Fights anybody, even makes some nice plays once in a while. Could he be “more” than what we see, given the chance? I don’t know. So, an average grade for a modest overall impact.
Phil Kessel A-
I recently posted on Kessel, asking readers if Kessel would ever be more than he is—or seems to be. I was thinking along the lines of things like leadership, toughness, consistency, all-around play, how he will fare when the going gets tough in the playoffs, etc..
Yes, he experiences scoring droughts every season. He yawns during hockey games. But in this part of the hockey world, he is the closest thing we have to a player who brings you out of your seat. He may always leave a lot of fans (including me) wanting more, but for today, I’ll give him his due. He is a rare player that can make creative plays and lead dangerous rushes at high speed.
Joffrey Lupul B+
Now, the “grade” may seem unfair given his career-year in 2011-’12 with the Leafs. My concern, though, is that I have no idea what his short-term future is here, much less the impact he will have longer term. He is not a strong defensive player, and while he did seem to bring a winning attitude to the Leafs last year, I just don’t know if Lupul can duplicate (must less better) his efforts of a year ago.
Did he make Kessel better, or did Kessel make him better? My guess is they complemented each other, and that’s how it should be when a line meshes. Everyone benefits.
Am I not giving Lupul his due?
Tim Connolly D+
I can’t possibly be fair to Connolly. I liked him five years ago when he was in his still youthful prime with the Sabres. But I was all too aware of how the Sabre fan base felt about him when he left the team in free-agency before signing with the Leafs last summer—for way too much money. I had modest expectations for Connolly in Toronto, and he delivered exactly what I expected. He played himself out of top-line minutes, and that enabled some Leaf supporters (and I understand their perspective) to defend him, saying it was unfair to expect more given declining minutes and mediocre linemates. True, but sometimes you create your own mess, eh?
Sorry, I just can’t do any better than the grade I gave him.
I don’t have enough information to comment thoughtfully on Jay McClement or James van Riemsdyk. My expectations for McCelement are indeed modest. I’m sure he’s a perfectly capable third-line player, but the world is full of those, it seems. While van Riemsdyk quite impressed me in the playoffs for the Flyers a couple of years ago, I can’t say I’ve watched him closely enough to make a valid assessment. I’ll let those of you who do know them well enough to comment share your thoughts.
Has anyone noticed that unlike Matt Frattin, Keith Aucoin is listed on the current Maple Leaf roster on the organization's web site?
We still have needs….