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Season-end Maple Leaf grades: today, the forwards

In my last post, the focus was on assessing the Leaf goaltending and defense corps based on their performance during the 2012-’13 NHL season and mini playoff run. Today, let’s try to apply a similar approach and criteria in “grading” the blue and white forwards from this past season.

The Forwards

Tyler Bozak  B

Why not start with one of the ligtning rod players?  We all know the things Bozak is thought to do well—good skater, pretty solid on face-offs, can kill penalties, moves the puck nicely, Kessel likes him, yada yada.  The down side in the minds of his critics is that he is not a first-line type finisher.  (Of course, the issue has long been that he has been mis-cast, as opposed to him simply not playing well...)  Since we’re not talking about “what he’s worth” today (that’s a whole other debate, but yes, it can’t help but tie in a bit here, I realize…) but simply looking back at how he played this past season, I think the assigned grade is fair.  If you balance expectations and production, he contributed nicely.  Would we miss him going forward if he leaves in free-agency?  Maybe a fair bit, but maybe not—depending on who would slide into his slot.

Mikhail Grabovski C+

Grabbo supporters (or Carlyle haters, I’m not sure if they are the same folks) point to his supposedly poor utilization by the coach this past season for his lousy offensive production.  The poor guy often had to check the other team’s best centers, eh?  Horrors.  But here’s the rub:  that was his assigned job—to be a shutdown center while still contributing a fair bit at the offensive end.  He was handsomely paid to do it.  His raw “numbers” (in the regular schedule and against the Bruins in the playoffs) don’t take into account his “heart”, but those numbers simply are not good enough—full stop.  Thus the grade: not good enough.

Jay McClement  B/B+

If I did this solely based on expectations and how he handled his “role”, of course it would be higher.  A third-line guy who is that versatile and was an impact player (penalty-kill, for starters) is pretty important on a team.  He brought experience and by all accounts a great attitude and work ethic, so what’s not to like?  I just have a hard time giving a player in his position an A, and ranking other guys lower than him when they have big-time (first, line, or whatever) responsibilities and expectations.  My expectations were low, and he over-delivered.

Nazem Kadri  B+

Again, given that we did not know if he was even going to be a regular on the roster this season, Kadri certainly surpassed expectations.  In his first playoff opportunity at this level, while he was not always a standout, he was a physical presence and still created some challenges for the Bruins.  He stood out during the season because of his elite vision, passing skills and feisty play.  While he slipped back at times into old habits, I thought he worked pretty darn hard in the playoffs to get back on defence and be a factor in his own zone.  The really important “grade” will be two years from now when he is in his mid 20’s and we will need him to be a consistent impact player at both ends of the ice.  But this season was a major step forward, for sure.

Matt Frattin  C+

Frattin, for me at least, falls into the category of player who, on his really good nights, can make you think he is a fairly high-end power-forward in waiting.  Other nights when he is not focused or on his game, he seems like just another guy out there.  Injuries and inconsistency made it a bit hard to assess, and while he was OK in the playoffs when given the chance, I did not walk away thinking he was absolutely going to be a key player down the road.  Time will tell, so an uncertain grade.

Colton Orr  C

By all accounts he worked hard to became more than a tough guy, but the truth is, that’s still his role at the end of the day.  I guess he did it well.  I like the fact that he tried to finish his checks.  But a limited player still.

Frazer MacLaren  C

Hard-working guy, but while he contributed a bit on offense at times, and definitely was part of the Leafs developing a tougher, harder-edged reputation, I find it difficult to give him a higher grade.  He worked hard, sure, which is important, but I would expect that from any borderline player trying to keep a job in the best league in the world.  Others may assess his performance and value differently, and I get that. But this is all I can give him.

James van Riemsdyk  B+

The obvious criticism of van Riemsdyk is that he is sometimes invisible for long stretches of time.  That said, that is the criticism of a lot of players.  It’s a pretty long season for these guys.  Yet he brought a net presence (one of those terms that didn’t exist when I started following hockey in the ‘50s, but what the heck, I'll use it...) to a team that desperately needed it, and some soft hands, too.  I like that he is young and can presumably be better as time goes on.  He’ll have to go a ways to get to that next level as a “straight A” player.  To me, you really have to earn that.  But he can get there, I think.

Leo Komarov  C

Those who visit VLM a fair bit know I like his grit and the fact that he finishes his checks.  He is an old-time agitator and hard to play against.  Opposing players are learning to hate him and we need players like that, for sure.  Now, I was hoping, honestly, for a fair bit more of an offensive contribution from him, but for the role he played, he played it pretty well.  Whether he is considered a core guy by the Leaf brass, I don’t know.  He was OK against the Bruins in the playoffs but for me, he falls into that, “Is there someone better out there?” situation.  Will he be better in two years, when he knows the league better?  We’ll see.

Phil Kessel A-

Kessel’s “flaws” have always been easy to spot (not physical, a one-way player, inconsistent, poor defensively, not hungry enough, can’t play against Boston, etc…) since he arrived in town.  But even his most ardent critics would likely admit that while he will never be confused with Brendan Shanahan or Gary Roberts when it comes to physical play, or to Bob Gainey as a defensive winger, he has made strides in other areas of his game.  He is still a “streaky” scorer (isn’t everyone, basically?) but most nights he is the most dynamic player on the ice.  He flies up and down his wing and is hard to contain. He stepped up and had a lot of good moments against the Bruins in the playoffs, despite their preoccupation with him.  In my view he still needs to take one more step to become a truly elite player in Toronto but for today, he certainly deserves a solid grade.

Nik Kulemin  C

I was a Kulemin defender for years, but after two straight seasons where he just didn’t deliver what he showed he could a few seasons ago, I struggle to keep pumping his tires.  He fights for the puck sometimes, yes, but is still, in my eyes, nowhere near as physical as a guy his size (and given inability to contribute on offense, apparently) warrants.  For him to be truly invaluable to the Leafs—and Carlyle—he would need to be better than he is. Others disagree, but I’m no longer of the “we have to keep Kulemin” persuasion.  He’s an OK player, but will he ever be better than he is, after five years in the league?

Clarke MacArthur  C

I just don’t have a lot of patience at this point for MacArthur.  I know a lot of people like him and, like Grabovski I guess, see him as not utilized properly by the coach.  But he has had ample (and I mean ample) opportunities to establish himself with different teams, and it’s always the same old story.  Early promise, flashes of solid play, and long periods of “was MacArthur playing tonight…?”.  Others can grade him higher if they’d like.  I just can’t.

Joffrey Lupul  B+

Injuries make it difficult to really assess the guy, but is there any doubt that he is the team leader and one of the central pieces we need to play well (and stay healthy) to be a squad that can play with the best in the East?  I could give him an incomplete rating, but in his case,  I feel that would be unfair.  He is an impact player and while he is not always great defensively, he has won me over over the course of two injury-plagued seasons.  We need guys with passion and he seems like a guy who could be a proud Leaf over a period of years.

There are others who contributed this season, like Joe Colborne, but I just don’t feel comfortable giving him an actual grade.  He did not look out of place when he replaced Bozak against the Bruins in the playoffs, and maybe even showed me a bit more than I expected.  But the proof will be in the longer-term pudding for me.  I always expect young players to play hard in those situations and he certainly did.  But he will need to be good all season long to help the big club’s roster going forward—not just play hard in spurts, a la Dustin Penner.

Assigning grades is always a point of contention.  We all see things differently, so feel free to disagree!


  1. Good summary of the pros and cons. Just a couple of points:
    1. I think Frattin will be better next year, as he missed a lot of time injured. I'll bet that if he manages to stay healthy and in the lineup for a decent stretch, he'll be able to put together more of a consistent power forward production. So I think you should have put him in the same group as Colborne for this year.

    2. I agree with your MacArthur grade, but he did seem to step it up in the playoffs when put into the lineup after a long hiatus in the press box. If he could just be a bit more consistent....

    3. I struggle with Grabo, because I remember him as one of the few guys you could see playing all heart during the last few years of non-playoff hockey. That counts for something in my Leafs-fan eyes. He also threw himself physically at every Bruin out there. I don't hate Carlyle, but I do wish that he put Grabovski in more of a position to provide some offence -- I love it when he turns Tasmanian Devil on the forecheck. But I guess you are right about him not being able to shut down the opponents top guys, it's his job and if he can't do it, then he gets a poor grade.

    Just watch when they trade him to a team that puts him on a scoring second line. I'll always be a fan.

  2. All fair comments, Anon. I was just exchanging thoughts with someone on Twitter about Frattin. I still like his upside, but he will need to take that "next step" soon, I would think.

    Grabbo is a bit of a puzzle- all that hard work, so little production.

  3. Appreciate the work you did in putting these ratings out there, but feel that the application of judgement was applied with little to no discernible method. It comes across with certain players seemingly judged on your expectations of them, and other (most) players being judged on a "league wide" standard of some kind. Or, more accurately, you tend to apply both positions simultaneously.

    For instance, Jay McClement. How this guy doesn't get a higher grade is beyond me. Rating him by assessing his play relative to any other forward with his job in this league would necessitate an A no question. But because he couldn't do both his own job as well as putting up a whole bunch of points means that he gets a letter grade lower? How does a guy who was getting legitimate talk as being an outside candidate for the Selke get a B?

    I like your site and come often to see what you're posting, but articles like this where you are ranking players should start out with a much clearer explanation as to the "how", or what standards you are going to be using, to make these judgements. (right now, it appears that you're just looking at stats and deciding everything on points alone.) And they should be rigidly held to when completing the work. Currently this comes across as someone randomly throwing out numbers based on how much they either like, or don't like, the player in question.

    Look forward to seeing what you have to post in the future.

    ps-how Lupul doesn't merit an A after the season he had I really don't follow. What was it he failed to do other than stay healthy??? Perhaps if you had given examples of who you felt had earned an A this season elsewhere in the league than I'd understand your rationale better?

    1. I can understand your comments, Anon. To be clear, I'm not a points/stats guy, so I certainly don't make that a huge part of my assessment of players. As I explained, there is indeed no discernible criteria, other than what I see.

      Your example of McClement is one case in point: I indicated he would deserve more based solely on how he handled his "role", but I have a hard time giving, say, a fourth-line guy an "A" for doing his job 6 minutes or whatever a night.

      So for me, there is some nuanced thinking here. I do this for fun. Is it absolutely consistent? Of course not.

      As I mentioned, it's hardly scientific and I do these sorts of pieces (I never used to do them for this very reason- people take them seriously and then I have to get into explaining why I gave so and so a certain grade when it's just about what I see...and we all see things differently...) mostly to give others a forum so they can do what you did- point out what you think is off base. Thanks.

  4. Why did you leave Leaf Matters, Michael?

    1. A lot of other pressing priorities and projects right now...

  5. It's Optimistic O'Malley chiming in today. My grades are non-scientifically based on what I think the player is capable of, what role they were assigned, and how I think they delivered.

    Phil Kessel: A. I don't know what else fans can ask of Phil. Top ten scorer two seasons in a row, constant threat, devastating shot and speed, brilliant playmaker, with a developing backcheck game. And he takes a licking most nights as well and keeps on ticking. A must-keep.

    Jay McClement: A. Brought in to bolster the PK and be a shut-down kind of guy, he did exactly what he was asked to do, and did it well. The sort of key guy any team needs.

    Tyler Bozak: B+. Bozak has improved every year, and I think there's still upside. His faceoffs got better as the season progressed, as did his defensive play, and I temper my disappointment at our losing the Bruins' series with the knowledge that we weren't going much further without a first line center who could win faceoffs! I hope we keep him, and I hope he continues to develop his chemistry with Kessel.

    JvR: B+. Was our best forward for a stretch - with no small thanks to Kessel's playmaking - and also looks to have tremendous upside.

    Joffrey Lupul: B+. Too few games to get an A, though I like his play a lot, and strangely flat in the playoffs. I hope we get to see him for a full season next year.

    Leo Komarov: B. His game in/game out play was probably the most consistent of anyone on the team. I've seen some call him a "rat", but I don't see that. He hits clean and plays the game. As one of the players brought in to increase the Leafs' "compete" level, he noticeably did his job well from the first game on. I hope we keep him.

    Ryan Hamilton: B. A small sample size, maybe, but I thought his play evidenced a guy who's ready for prime time. He carried out his assignments well, and generally played a big, solid game. I'd like to see him get a longer stay.

    Frazer MacLaren: B. I can feel raised eyebrows at VLM headquarters, but MacLaren fulfilled his mission pretty darn well. A goal here and there, some pretty heavy forechecking, and a knockout to boot. Whether we like it or not, it's thanks to MacLaren, Orr, Komarov and Fraser that the coach's stated goal of earning "respect" was achieved. I guarantee that by the end of the season, no team thought they were going to push us around. And again, whether we like it or not, that mindset is crucial to success in the NHL.

    Colton Orr: B. See MacLaren.

    Nazem Kadri: B. Strong start, flat finish when the going got tougher. Tremendous, dare I say it, potential. I'm looking forward to his play next year.

    Nik Kulemin: B-. More present than last year, and defensively important, but it just feels like he's capable of much more. We got glimpses of it now and again, particularly when he was on a line with Kadri and Lupul (who each praised his play), but overall he still eels like an underachiever.

    Mikhail Grabovski: C+. I don't know whether it was the role he was assigned, or lingering illness, or some other undisclosed reason, but this seemed like an off year for Grabbo. We need more from him but, in fairness, he needs linemates who can score.

    Matt Frattin: C. Frattin's play this year was wildly uneven. I think the injuries last year and this year affected his gung-ho style. I hope he gets a chance to show us what he can do next year.

    Clarke MacArthur: D. The flashes we saw of the old MacA during the playoffs made me wonder where the heck that guy had been all year. But I don't think we'll be seeing him in blue and white next year.

    Joe Colborne: N/A. Too small a sample size, but he sure looked better than he did last year.

    1. I think all those grades are fair, Gerund O'. I understand your points regarding MacLaren, too.

      I neglected to "grade" Hamilton, and while I may not have assigned him a straight "B", he certainly gave everything he had in his time with the big club.

      We'll all be watching developing players like Kadri, Frattin and Colborne next season!

      Thanks Gerund!