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Grading the Leafs, Part II—the forwards

Yesterday we took a look at how our goalies and defensemen have fared so far this season.  I appreciated your feedback.  There are always differing views on players.  This is hardly (not the way I do it, anyway!) an exact science.

As I indicated in yesterday's post, in brackets, I include whether I believe these individuals will be 'core' players going forward, or may be seen as expendable.

Today, we’ll focus on the forwards.

Mikhail Grabovski:  B-    Projected:  B   (will be traded at some point, if there are takers)

I know lots of Leaf fans feel differently than I do, because Grabovski is being asked to check good players every night.  But heck, he is supposed to be a good player.  He is paid like an NHL star and I expect him to be one.  Frankly, I could give him a C+.  Yes, he has ‘heart” and all that, but honestly, I don’t see it every night and in all situations, at least not like I feel I used to.  He’s a “nice” player, sure.  He can check and that’s important.  But is he a big-time difference-maker? I’m not seeing it. (His being ignored during the Saturday night shootout has nothing to do with this assessment. That decision by Carlyle may or may not have deeper meaning, but at this point, I have no clue...)

Nick Kulemin:  C   Projected:  C+  (no longer necessarily a core player going forward)

Until the 2011-’12 season began, I wrote here many times that I was loving this guy’s career arc.  But he hit a big wall last season and I’m tired of hearing how good he is in his own zone. That may or may not be the case.  I'm not an expert at assessing defensive play.  Like Grabbo, he’s a significant minus player (minus 7 right now).  He does not hit anywhere near as often he should, given his skating ability and size. He works reasonably hard but he’s not exactly “tireless”.  So my grade reflects my relative disenchantment.

Jay McClement:  B   Projected   B- (he’ll be here for the rest of his contract)

Yes, I’ve jumped aboard the McClement cheering section.  We can all see the good things he has brought to the table most nights, including almost singlehandedly creating a new mindset on the penalty kill.  That alone is worth something. I just caution us not to build him up into more than he is—a dependable, third-line guy who can chip in offensively at times.  That’s why my projected grade is actually lower than where I have him at right now.  Let’s see where he is in a year.

James van Riemsdyk:   B++   Projected   A-

I’ve tried to find the 'fatal flaws' in van Riemsdyk’s game, and I’m not saying they aren’t there.  But I will say that he has done just about everything we could expect.  He started out the year on the third line, yet moved his way up to the first line.  He has been a big factor with Kessel—and I think it’s a two-way street so they both deserve credit for the successful marriage. He is not super physical, but his big time hit on Malkin a few games back reminded us he has a bit of physicality in his game, too.  We have long needed a guy who will plant himself, Homstrom style, in front of the opposition net.  We seem to have one. (I would like to see him improve his plus/minus, as I would with Kessel...)

Tyler Bozak:  C+  Potential:  B-

I hesitate to say Bozak will never be better than he is because I think there has been incremental improvement in his game at this level every season.  Will he ever become a first-line guy?  Does he top out as a pretty good second-line center?  I don't know.  He’s an NHL player, who does certain things quite well, but is limited in other areas.  Thus, the C+ grade.

Phil Kessel:  B/B+   Projected:   B+

I have a feeling we’ll be debating just what we had in Kessel long after he is gone.  Based on his being the most dangerous guy on the ice many nights, that alone makes him valuable. We expect him to produce offense and he delivers quite often, despite drawing the attention of opposing teams.  He scores, het sets up his linemates.  Is he what I’d like him to be when I contemplate great all-around players?  No, so I accept what he is and grade him accordingly.

Joffrey Lupul:  no grade  (will be a core player going forward)

I just don’t see it as fair to gauge Lupul’s season based on the sample size.  Let’s see him back in action for a few weeks and then we can have a discussion.  I do think they will keep him, and build with him as the team improves. (As I mentioned in a weekend post, I loved Lupul trying to pump up the crowd after his second goal on Saturday night against the Jets.)

Matt Frattin:  C+  Projected: B

Many will no doubt feel this is not a high enough grade given the number of goals he has scored in limited playing time.  I concede he has put himself in the right spot at the right time to score some timely markers, but I’m not blown away most nights by his overall game.  Yes, he’s spent time with the Marlies and on the injured list- I'm not penalizing him for that.   I’ve said here in the past he can be a good mini power-forward, and that’s how I still feel. So he projects out better than his current grade, in my eyes. (Yes, I expect some dissent on this grade!)

Colton Orr:  C-    Projected:  C-

As a fourth-line guy who gives everything he has (and handles a lot of the “fighting” for his teammates) he’s done a nice job—and in fairness, better than expected.  He gets in on the forecheck.  He deserves credit for trying to re-make his game.

Fraser MacLaren:  C    Projected:  C

Like Orr, a useful fourth-line guy who protects his teammates.  He does go to the net.  Can he play bigger minutes?  I see no evidence of that.  So he receives a limited grade until I see he is more than a fighter.

Clarke MacArthur:  B-   Projected:  B-

Frankly, I cringe at giving MacArthur this high a mark, because he is one Leaf that routinely infuriates me and leaves me wanting more.  But I can’t ignore his production, so he gets a nice grade—for now.  Check back with me in a month.

Leo Komarov:  C+   Projected:  B

I find not very much to dislike about the first-year NHLer’s  game.  He hits, finishes his checks, and is annoying to play against.  It would be nice, yes, if he could add a bit more offense, but I believe that may come as he gets to know the league better.  Right now, he is doing the job asked of him by the coaching staff.  He should be even better a year from now.

Nazem Kadri:  B+   Projected:  B+/A-

As I’ve said here before, can we really know what Kadri’s ceiling is?  Will he become a true first-line center?  Maybe so.  We’ll see.  For now, I like the way he has been utilized by Carlyle.  As he gets more power-play time his numbers should jump, though they're pretty impressive right now.  He has an edge to his game and we all know he sees the ice awfully well and can thread the needle with his passing.  So he has earned a solid grade, with an eye toward even better days ahead.

VLM visitors will no doubt see things differently, and isn’t that what we ought to enjoy?  A little back and forth banter around who and what we like—and don’t like.

I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Michael,

    Overall, I would have to say that in the two days of assessments. You are more generous than I would be. Especially, on the defensive front. There are two exceptions, Franson and Kadri. I cannot figure out how to give either of these two anything but the highest grades possible. Both of them were in the pressbox, or demoted entirely last season. Expectations coming into camp were so low. Both were struggling to make the team out of camp. Franson was being talked about in "the I don't care if he re-signs way'. Kadri has always had a high ceiling but that is different than expecting this kind of production from someone who has never been a regular NHL'er before. Kadri is tied for the team lead in points, and Franson is leading the defence in the same category. These two players deserve an A on their card, I am a little disappointed that you graded them both so low. I wouldn't argue with an A plus for both of them. They have been remarkable in their improvement this season.

  2. I certainly see your point about both Franson and Kadri, Jim. ( I was one of those who was not to concerned about whether Frnason was coming back or not, as the lockout moved along.)

    I enjoy hearing the different perspectives! Thanks Jim.

  3. My grades are a little higher than yours, as I think the problem with the Leafs is mostly in the defenseman area with a hurt Gunnarsson and Holzer, playing to many minutes. Perhaps Gardiner, Ranger or a trade will solve that problem.

    On to the forwards:

    Grabo C projected B+

    Grabos low stats are providing Kadri's success. Grabo is in more of a checking role with McClement and Komorov as partners rather than the more offensive MacArthur that he has been successful with in the past. All this heavy defensive lifting is providing Kadri with sheltered minutes. As Kadri grows and becomes better at faceoff and plays fewer sheltered minutes, the reliance on Grabo defensively will decline and his offense should come back.

    Nick Kulemin: C Projected: B
    He should come back we saw signs of life with recent goals. All the defensive work has hurt his offensive production.

    Jay McClement: B+ Projected B+
    Doing exactly what he should do as an elite defensive guy. The PK is up dramatically, but I don't want him playing so much with more skilled guys like Grabo.

    James van Riemsdyk: A Projected A
    Big body and is 11th in goals. Converts Kessels passes, bangs Malkin can't ask for much more without giving a higher grade.

    Joffrey Lupul: Incomplete
    We will see the rest of the forwards play better now that defenders have to deal with the additional threat of Lupul. Maybe Grabo takes off soon.

    Tyler Bozak: C+/B- Potential: B
    Good on the faceoffs but should have better stats considering his minutes and linemates. But he does get better every year.

    Phil Kessel: B Projected: A
    I think he will turn it up a notch if, Lupul gets on his line.

    Matt Frattin: B Projected: B+
    Great stats but has to start producing again.

    Colton Orr: C Projected: C

    Has done his job, but I want a better playing enforcer type

    Fraser MacLaren: C Projected: C

    A little bit more hockey skill than Orr, but I still want a more skilled enforcer

    Clarke MacArthur: B Projected: B

    Doing exactly what he should and is playing with some decent energy

    Leo Komarov: B Projected: B
    Doing what he should but I think he is more of a very good third or fourth line player. He doesn't have much scoring touch. That's ok, he could become a very valuable pest/checking guy that can move up when there are injuries.

    Nazem Kadri: B+/A- Projected: A

    What more can you ask. Should get better with age. Tied with Kessel for the most points on limited minutes and may become a number one center....might become the kind of star that people actually come to see play. I keep thinking of Martin St. Louis.

    I still want another elite checker for the 4th line to take the place of Orr/McLaren against soft teams and in the play offs. I want the kind of 4th line that can actually shut down a first line and free up the top three lines to play more offensively.

  4. I'm not sure what Ranger's status is, DP (in terms of his desire to play at the NHL level). You've mentioned the fourth line question before and I'm thinking that will be on the Nonis "to do" list before the deadline. Thanks for those grades, DP- we're not that far off.

  5. On to the forwards.

    Grabovski B-

    Has been very good defensivly. Needs to score more often but part of that is he starts in his own zone for the vast majority of his face offs against the best players from the other team. Rather makes it difficult to play a lot of offense. Still has a place in TO, would like to see him get 1st line time.

    Kulemin B

    Not sure where the dislike comes from Michael. I think we need to stop thinking of this guy as a 30 goal man. He is on pace for about 40 points pro rated out over 82 games. That is exactly his career average. He is an excellent third line player who is also a big factor on the PK. About as low maintenance as you can get and comes at a reasonable price. He does a lot of grunt work, the hard thankless minutes and if he gets traded (50-50) we will just spend a lot of time trying to replace him. In my opinion if he is on a line with McClement and McArthur we have that shut down line that we so badly need.

    McClement B

    Should be our third line center. Everything about Kulemin applies here as well. These two guys are exactly the same player.

    McArthur B

    Another solid third line player with a little offensive upside. Sometimes seems to disappear but for the most part has been decent. Like the two guys above, you never or very rarely see him getting burnt for a goal against. They maybe on the ice but it is rarely their breakdown that leads to the goal. These 3 guys would make an excellent checking line that has a some offensive upside, not lots but enough.

    JVR B-

    His play often reminds me of Kessel. He has dynamite hands and only needs one shot to score. There are just to many nights where he is a non factor. The old saying here is true, the youngster just needs to get consistent. He is a huge part of this team going forward. On nights where is on, he is really on. Needs to use his speed more often.

    Bozak C+

    In his last year as a Maple Leaf. He is what he is. Not good enough to be a number one center offensivly, not good enough defensivly to be a checking center. A depth guy who will fetch a premium at the deadline. Sell high.

    Kessel B+

    Best player on the Leafs bar none. Needs to play with a better center (Grabovski). Has been more consistent this year. Should keep him because they are finally starting to put a decent top 6 around him. A major part of the team going forward.

    Lupul INC

    Not much to say here. Like his game so far in his return.

    Frattin C+

    Had a good year going but since his return from injury has been all but invisible. A younger version of McArthur but with a better shot and more speed. If there is a big trade to be made one of these guys will probably have to go. If they keep him, he will be an important piece moving forward.

    Orr C-

    For what he brings to the table and what is expected of him he does all right. Not a big fan of facepunchers. Gets marks for at least trying to improve his game.

    McClaren C-

    Entirely redundant with Orr in the lineup. Leafs need to choose one or the other. Makes no difference whether he plays or not, same for Orr.

    Komarov C

    Meh, yeah he hits but has no offensive touch at all. Fourth line guy is all he will ever be. Probably plays 5-6 years and then is done. I also think his pest abilities are overblown. For a pest he doesn't really draw a lot of penalties against but at least doesn't take stupid penalties either.

    Kadri A

    A revelation this year. Plays with grit. As BobbyC says plays with "muckulence". The core piece for the future. I like watching him play almost every single game. Quickly becoming my personal favourite.

  6. Sorry about the second post but I couldn't fit it all in one

    Lines I would like too see in the last 2 months.

    Time to put the most talented center with the most talented winger. Grabo might help Kessel with some of his defensive liabilties but can still keep up with him offesnivly.

    Fast scoring line that plays with a bit of edge. All three guys hit and muck and all three can score. Need to be sheltered but can score. Would get to play against the other teams lesser players on most nights and would thrive as Kadri is already doing.

    Finally a third line that can check the opposistion into the ground. All three can fly but some scoring touch as well. Just an excellent checking line.

    Carlyle will always have at least one facepuncher so I guess Orr is the guy. Bozak is only here until he gets traded and because the other three center posistions are taken. At least this fourth line can actually play 10-12 minutes a night. 2 of these guys can skate and Bozak is a wizard on the faceoff. No need to worry when these guys are on the ice.

  7. Thanks Willbur. I'm not as big a Kulemin guy as you (and many others who like his game) at this point. I'm off his wagon. But I hear what you're saying. I just see him as nowhere near as physical as he needs to be for the Leafs to be what they need to be. And he projects as a guy who will finish as a negative plus/minus guy. For me, not good enough but I recognize that others see something in his play.

    Interesting line suggestions, too. Not sure if Bozak would ever slide that "low" on the depth chart- first line to fourth line! That would be a fairly significant adjustment. The first two lines would have some jump.

    Good stuff, thanks as always Willbur.

  8. Grabovski
    I like your assessment Michael. Personally I think the Leafs missed an opportunity to trade Grabo before the deadline last year and capitalize on his value. Instead they overpaid him based on the points he was putting up the previous two seasons. Yes, he seems to be a good two-way center, but would typically be a 3rd line center on most quality NHL teams. I’m not sure how easy it would be to move him at his current salary. That being said, I’m okay with him staying. But please, fans have got to stop thinking this guy is (or should be) a #2 or even #1 center.

    Your assessment is bang on. I can tolerate him on the 3rd or 4th line as he is a responsible forward in his own end. But he just does not have the offensive skills or desire to excel in any other area. He’s a worthwhile piece on the PK. If other teams look at him in a more favourable light, then I’d be fine including him in a trade.

    I’m not sure of your grading system Michael, but somehow we need to evaluate a player based more on their role with the team. McClement was brought in to be a 3rd or 4th line checking centre/forward, who could play some valuable minutes on the PK as well. Outside of potting more goals, I’m not sure we can ask (or expect more from this guy). He is doing a great job. I would say he is already at an “A”.

    Van Riemsdyk
    I love this guy at times, but in my opinion his work ethic is not there every night. He gets sleepy/complacent on the ice at times, and he’s capable of so much more. I’m hoping now that Lupul is back that JvR may wake up and realize he has to produce or he’ll lose those first line privileges. I’m convinced he has so much more to give this team. But he has to apply himself.

    Bozak seems to have added weight to his frame, and a lot of hair to his head, but other than that I’ve seen no improvement in his game. Under Carlyle he is being asked to be more responsible defensively, but in my opinion Bozak is just not up to the task. He is not a #1 center, and using him in that role seriously diminishes that line’s effectiveness. Earlier on I thought Bozak had a lot of upside, but he has failed to step up his game. He’s a UFA, and hopefully the Leafs trade him and try to get some value now. I see little point in re-signing him.

    Believe it or not, Kessel has actually done well under Carlyle’s system. Although he’ll never be an outstanding forward in his own end, he’s helping out and getting back when necessary. What Kessel lacks most is a #1 center. He’s a sniper who needs to be fed the puck (either on the fly, or when positioned in an open area). JvR has complimented that line, and the two of them work well together. Bozak just doesn’t have the skillset to maximize Kessel or JvR. Bozak just doesn’t win puck battles and can be easily negated by the opposition.

    We know what Lupul can be, although as you said it is unfair to rate him based on the few games he has played this year.

    Frattin’s injury set him back, so I can’t argue with his current grade too much. I want to see Frattin healthy for an extended period of time. As well, I’d like to see him reunited with Kadri (or maybe even Colborne). He has speed, a wicked shot, and is a tough two way forward. His upside is decent, and could be a projected B+ or even A- forward.

    Agree Orr is better than what he was in the past, but I just don’t see it necessary to have him on this team. McLaren is superior to Orr in every category. Do we need two bruisers on this team??

    Perfect 4th line guy. Has speed, size, reach, can play the PK, and be an enforcer when needed.

    MacArthur’s grade is fine. My only complaint with his game is that he’s a streaky player. You can’t totally blame MacArthur for the lack of consistency, given that he has been shuffled around a lot between the second and third lines. I’d like to see the Leafs re-sign him, but hopefully at a reasonable price.

    Totally agree with you there Michael.

    Totally agree with you again.

  9. Yes, I'm getting some friendly grief on Twitter, Don (TML_fan), for my grade on McClement. I get what people are saying. I know he is playing his role really well. I just have a hard time giving a third line guy an "A". Steckel did a nice job in his role last season, but I just don't see him as an "A" player. But I absolutely see what others are saying. (Maybe I'll reconsider for the "year-end" grades!)

    Otherwise, we're awfully close. Thanks Don. A big week ahead!

  10. My grading system is based on what I think each player is capable of, and how well they're playing to that potential.

    JvR - B. When he's present, he's great. But too many games of swanning around.

    Bozak - B+. I guess I'm one of the few Bozak non-haters. I can't penalize him because the coach puts him on the first line. His game has improved every year.

    Kessel - A-. Still a threat whenever he's on the ice, and has become a terrific playmaker as well. Backchecking has improved, too. That goal against Winnipeg was classic Phil - a beauty.

    Lupul - n/a. I love his energy, his feistiness, and his scoring touch. Really hoping he can bring his old self to the rest of the season.

    Kadri - A. Had a terrific first half, but the going is getting tougher for him as teams get to know him. Considering he had a lot to prove this year, he's done really well.

    Frattin - n/a. I'm giving Matt a pass here - he and Kadri made an exciting tandem early in the season, but we'll have to see how he recovers from that injury. I sense he's taking it a bit easy now, until he's confident he can go full throttle.

    MacArthur - B+. One of the problems I have with MacArthur, Grabbo and Kulemin is the great year they had two seasons ago. Apparently it was an anomaly. For the amount he's been moved around, I think he's doing pretty darn well. Would like to see a bit more of his scoring touch, but that depends on his linemates.

    Grabovski - B. As mentioned above, I've had to recalibrate my expectations for Grabbo. This has been his least impressive year, I'd say, but since he's always opposite the other team's top line, what more can we expect? I'd love to see a stat that measures performance against contract. How many players fail to deliver the same high level of play that earned them the big contract once they've got it? I have a feeling that Grabovski falls on the "lesser" side of that ledger.

    Kulemin - B-. Kulemin never looks like he's having fun, does he? I've given up on expecting him to find the scoring touch we saw two years ago, and I've given up on expecting him to use his size effectively. Solid third or fourth liner, I guess.

    Orr - B+. Again, the issue for me isn't whether we need one, two or three fighters, it's how the player is living up to his potential. I thought Orr was done last year. He's an effective physical guy, whose line often stirs up more action than any of the others on given nights. And there;'s no question that thanks to McLaren, Fraser and Orr, we're no longer seeing the same liberties taken with our team as in previous years.

    McLaren - B+. Pretty much the same as Orr.

    McClement - A. Doing exactly what he was brought in to do.

  11. I totally respect your views Gerund O'- always do. For me, I just can't grade players like Orr or MacLaren that way!

    Thanks for sharing that- good stuff Gerund. (Interesting how divided fans are on players like Grabovski and Kulemin...I can see why.)

  12. Overall I think our forward group is stronger than our D. However as for absoltue "keepers" I can think of only 5: Kessel, Kadri, Lupul, JVR and Frattin.

    Kessel as you often say "is what he is" - a very good scorer (with little help from his centerman), good passer, but sort of soft and unwilling to help out regularly on defence.

    Kadri if handled the right way can be a number 1 guy on our team.

    Lupul when going on all cylinders I think is our best overall player. When he's on the ice, everyone knows it. The way he plays, the plays he makes (and tries to make) sets him apart. He doesn't "blend in" like MacArthur, Kulemin or McClement. Sometimes if it wasn't for the numbers on their backs I wouldn't know who was who.

    JVR seems to be what the Flyers thought he would be. Just a really good player.

    Frattin I'd say is in the boat Kadri eas in last year. Young, skilled and we're waiting to see if he can achieve what everyone thinks.

    As for the others, of course there are useful guys. Each useful in their own way and in various situations. MacArthur, McClement, Komarov, Grabo and even Orr are usefull to us now, but in the right situation could bring in some value.

  13. Your "blending in" reference caught my eye, portuguese leaf. When you don't notice a player, sometimes that's a "good" thing (usually in the case of a defenseman), but sometimes it means they are not really in the game.

    How many Leafs would we really miss if they were gone?

    Nice players all, of course, all worthy NHL'ers. But that question may be one way to "rate" our players. Thanks portuguese leaf.

  14. I got my wish. Holzer sent down , Gardiner up:

    Now we should see what we really have in this team.

  15. Holzer has a future, I think, DP. Hopefully he'll be back.

    Leaf fans won't have any whipping boys to blame things on now- Holzer is with the Marlies, and Kostka is in the press box. They'll have to find someone else, I guess. Thanks DP.

    1. I agree with you about Holzer. Just like Kadri a while back, he's had a taste of the NHL and now has some work to do. As for Gardiner - it will be interesting to see how he fulfills his role as designated saviour. Every year, many Leaf fans seem to think a Marlies' player (or coach) will solve all our problems. We're about to discover the proof in that particular pudding!

    2. I still like Kostka and Holzer.

      They have just been slotted too high in the pairings. Kostka shouldn't be on the first pairing, though maybe he could be ok on the second and would be fine on the third. Holzer seems more of a third paring, 7th defenseman type.

      I'm quite sure somebody would grab Kostka off waivers for their third pairing. He is better than than many teams' 5th or 6th defenceman.

  16. Exactly Gerund- most of us are guilty of it.

    I like Gardiner- who doesn't? But I'll hold my excitement until the entire team plays to its potential. One guy can help, but...

  17. I can understand the differences in opinion on players. Everybody sees something different. What I can't figure out is how 2 guys who play the exact same style can be seen so differently. Someone please tell me how Kulemin (whom most people seem to dislike) and McClement are different? Neither is overly physical, both are good on the PK, both are excellent skaters. Neither one has a lot of offensive potential but can chip in once awhile moving up and down the lineup. Both are on reasonable contracts and probably won't get huge raises going forward. Too me I don't see a whole lot of difference. I like both guys and think they have major roles next year.

  18. I can't speak for others, Willbur. For me, Kulemin lacks the consistent passion I want to see. For me, he's just "OK".

    Even if he was paid less, I would expect more- because I've seen the size, skill, speed and ability to make big hits in the past. When I don't see what is is actually capable of on a regular basis, I'm not satisfied- regardless of how much he makes. It's not that my expectations are for him to score 30 goals, though he is capable of that. But I do expect more than this.

    But I'll say it again- we all see things differently. Thanks Willbur.