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Who is the Most Valuable Leaf player so far this season?

The Leaf victory against Edmonton boosts their season point totals, which gives them, if not a cushion, at least some “play” in the standings as they embark on a number of road games through the rest of the month.  It is becoming clear that the flailing Sens and the surging Devils (at least for the moment) remain the serious “competition” for a playoff berth in the East.

As Ron Wilson noted some weeks ago, the Leafs may be well-advised to look in front of them, rather than focus on simply clinging to a playoff spot and worrying on who's behind them.  The higher in the playoff seedings the better, generally speaking.  (And that 'attitude' is partly why they have had some success this season.  They don't play to just "protect" a lead...)

For its part, Edmonton has some nice young forward pieces, and not that long ago, I posted on the notion of “would you rather be a Leaf or Oiler fan”, when it comes to how the line-ups of the two teams- that were among the worst in the league a couple of seasons ago- stand right now.  (Click here to read more…)

Besides a win, the good news for me, personally, is that enough time has passed since the bad old days (when the Oilers were so good in the '80s) that I no longer shudder at the mere thought of Edmonton coming to town.  In those days, you could pretty much count on Gretzky and the boys to put up at least six against the Leafs most nights- and that's if they just they made it off the bus.  The question often was:  could we keep it close, or occasionally outscore them (because we had some guys ourselves back then who knew how to find the back of the net, like Vaive, etc....).


I’m not a fan (at all) of talking about MVP’s and who, for example, will win the Norris or Vezina trophy etc. based on perceptions that we have, say, half-way through the season.  Why?  Well, guys get hurt, the level of their play changes dramatically, all kinds of things can and do happen to make someone being “on pace” for whatever (goals, GAA) largely, for me at least, meaningless.

That said, without trying to proclaim how things might look at the end of the regular season in April, I think it’s fair to suggest we can at least talk about who the guys are who have been “most valuable” in the context of how the Leafs got where they are now—fairly nicely entrenched in a playoff “spot” (there’s a projection again) in the Eastern Conference standings with less than 30 games to go.

Let’s be honest.  If a team is playing fairly well most of the time (and the Leafs are), it’s indeed because they are a “team” and playing like one.  That usually suggests that guys know and fulfill their roles.  The scorers score, the checkers check, the defensemen clear the front of the net and move the puck smartly and the goalies make the stops.  Everyone contributes in their own way.

But for the sake of a fun discussion, who, for you,  has been the single most important/valuable guy for the blue and white through the now 53 games of the regular-season?
  • There are plenty of candidates, I would argue.  For starters, how about Lupul?  While his defensive deficiencies are sometimes apparent, Lupul has certainly helped make Kessel a better all-around and more productive player since Phil was placed  alongside the veteran winger.  Kessel aside, Lupul brings a lot of jump himself most nights, not to mention putting up some significant offensive numbers for a team that was screaming for just that kind of “out of nowhere” production.
  • The obvious name that springs to mind is indeed Kessel.  His flash comes with substance most nights this season.  Speed can overwhelm and his speed on the wing (including on his off-wing on his particularly inspired nights) has driven many a defenseman to high anxiety this season.  We all know about the quick release, but like many fine scorers before him (whether we’re talking about a Brett Hull, a Mike Bossy, etc.) there is something a bit hard to describe about the way he deftly handles the puck and lets it go with barely perceptible movement (and often just enough to ever so slightly change the angle of dangerous shots).
  • Gustavsson?  Our season could have gone into a pretty deep tank of nothingness if Monster had not pulled his confidence—and therefore his game—together in time to put some big “W’s” on the board for the Leafs.  OK, few would try to declare him a legitimate team MVP, but would the Leafs be where they are in the standings right now without him?
  • I know this would be a heavy minority view, but what about Gunnarsson?  I know he’s not perfect, but night after night, he makes the quiet, simple play (and prevents disaster looming in his own end) that helps keep the Leafs in games when they are behind—and stay ahead when they are leading.  He’s not the biggest, toughest or fastest Leaf.  But he sees the ice and knows what’s going on out there.  He’s only a plus 4 with modest production on the ‘points’ side, but he generally makes whoever his partner is better.  Not every defenseman can do that.
  • Did I hear someone calling Grabovski?  I admit, he had me a bit puzzled in the first 30 or so games of the season.  As I posted here, it wasn’t that I sensed he was disinterested or not putting out, he just seemed a smidge off the benchmark standard he established last season.  Given that he, like Kulemin, had seen a very nice career arc developing over the past four seasons, we perhaps assumed that that would naturally continue for both players.  Whereas Nik is still struggling, in my eyes, Grabbo has produced some sterling play and strong, if not quite eye-popping numbers over the past few weeks.  Taken as a “whole”, I could see why some would support Grabovski.
I know there are all kinds of contributors here—Crabb has done his job, Steckel (though he might want to throw an assist in there once in a while for good measure), too.  And of course Bozak, who I’ve liked (as I’ve mentioned here many times) from the get-go in his rookie season—and through some challenging periods in his young career.

To be honest, I’m not sure that Jake Gardiner isn’t our overall best player some nights, but for the purposes of our debate and discussion today, he’ll have to settle for being the interim or temporary “rookie of the year” for the Leafs.  (And, given the importance of the position he plays—and the minutes he is asked to be on the ice—there could be worse choices for league rookie-of-the-year, if he keeps this up…)

But not everyone can be “MVP” of the first 53 games, right? So……my vote goes to: Dion Phaneuf.

I’m probably not among Dion’s biggest boosters.  I’ve been a bit of a “Doubting Thomas”/guy from Missouri on this one.  But even I can see the guy is important to this team.  He is playing both ends of the ice, because that’s what he is being asked to do.  He kills penalties, plays huge minutes (surely the most on the team; it certainly feels that way).  He is a guy that I would not want to see out of the lineup for a prolonged period of time.  Not that the Leafs don’t have depth on the blueline now—they do.  But he would be missed.

So it’s Phaneuf for me.

But I mostly wanted to get your thoughts.  Do your best to nominate one guy, and make the case as best you can.

I look forward to reading your views.


  1. I wasn't "calling" it, I was yelling it from Peterborough.

  2. Phaneuf has been fantastic. His play at both ends of the ice has been inspired at times, and he's really risen to the occasion as our team captain. It's been a thrill to see.

    Sure, we have the luxury of having a number of people playing good hockey this season, but Phaneuf is my vote for MVP.

  3. I like the call on Dion, Michael. Prior to last night's game, Dion was 7th league-wide among defensemen in points and goals. I know his +/- isn't stellar and there are other stats where he lacks, but by those two metrics he's above elite guys like Suter and Doughty. Having our captain ranking the Top 10 at his position is a little bonus that I think a lot of fans overlook. And, like you said, he's a tank out there in terms of big minutes.

    I think I'd have to toss my vote to Gusty. He still makes me nervous out there some nights, but you can't deny that as many games as he's let slip away, he was our rock over probably the most crucial stretch of the season so far. We owe our 7th place ranking to a lot of guys, but we owe Gusty BIG TIME for not being forced to fight for 11th or 10th right now.

    Second vote goes to Lupul for the energy he brings to the 1st line, and the team as a whole. He did a stellar job of representing us at the ASG, he came out big when Wilson broke up the first line a week-ish (?) ago, and he's a character guy that clearly loves the team.

  4. I'll take the easy way out - Phil Kessel. I would say lately it's been Grabbo, but for the year, I'd have to tip my hat to Kessel. The great start the Leafs had at the beginning of the year was because of Kessel (and Lupul). He leads the team in goals and scoring and for most of the year has been a consistent offensive threat.

    That being said, I reserve the right to change my mind to Grabbo as we go down the stretch drive ;) His line is going to get the tough assignments for the rest of the year and if he maintains his current level of play, all bets are off!

    Phaneuf has had a great year as well and is also a good choice. I think it's great that there are several MVP options for this team.

  5. KidK...once again, your vote is discredited somewhat by your clear bias toward Grabbo but all is forgiven!! Seriously, your "favourite" is a legit know my feelings on him.

  6. walrus....Dion takes the early lead....thanks. Hard to deny he has been a big-time player for the team, walrus.

  7. Steve W...I can't argue with Gus. I agree, without his consistent contribution, we may be looking "up" at a playoff spot in the standings right now. (And good points about Lupul, too.) Thanks Steve.

  8. Hogie...great post. How can we argue with Kessel, really? And I support your thoughts on Grabbo (that's why we can't call an MVP now...still way too soon) and of course Phaneuf.

  9. It has been Monster. As little as he has play, if Monster didn't come up bigger then expected when Reimer went down the leafs would be out of a playoff spot. Phaneuf on the other hand is finally living up to the hype of the trade.

  10. I really wish I could pick Phaneuf but after games like last night the jury is still out for me; I’d like to categorically say yes to our captain but I keep have reoccurring visions of Lindross when I watch Dion.

    For me, this year….. Lupul has shown the mental grit, the positive attitude required to win and I believe this has been infectious to the entire team. He’s happy to be there which is really evident during the interviews – especially during their slumps. I think his fever to win (and pay the price to win) offset the inconsistency on defence that creeps in. For this year at least, he’s punching above his weight class and I have a feeling we’ll see more from him in the playoffs.

  11. leafer4lifer. A vote for Gustavsson. (And as I acknowledged in my post, I agree that Gus has been pivotal...) Thanks.

  12. David...a vote for Lupul. As for Phaneuf, you may know I've been a "slow adopter" when it comes to Dion. But I recognize he has played very well for the most part. I will want to see how the rest of the regular-season pans out before any more formal declarations, though. Thanks David.

  13. Like a few others, I'm having a difficult time naming Dion the MVP so far. It's more the inconsistencies in his game that won't let me vote for him, although I acknowledge he's vastly improved and on his way. I'm giving the nod to Kessel. He's brought that consistency he so lacked before, and it seems the others are feeding off that, so he does give the team confidence and make mates better.

    On a side note, although not close to MVP-talk, it's hard to ignore the "Armstrong effect" - for whatever reason, the Leafs seem to win when he's in the lineup.


  14. Well said, Caedmon. There are probably a few of us who are holding back, wanting to see Dion's level of play over a full season, and into next year, etc. And I agree, Armstrong (which baffles me a bit, to be honest) falls into some kind of other category, though I don't quite know what to call it...

  15. For me, I also have to take the easy way out and say Phil Kessel. His start to the season, that march to 10 goals before most guys had 5 was a small sample piece of a year I think every fan hoped/dreamed/expected Phil Kessel to be capable of having. That start set up our whole year so I have to give my MVP vote to The Thrill

  16. LeafluvrCC. Thanks. He did, as you cite, help the Leafs surge early, for sure. So another ballot for Phil. He's in the lead now (temporarily?).

  17. When I hear the MVP question my brain wants to freeze up. Perhaps this is because the question is more interesting than the answer. The fact that there is no consensus MVP tells us that the Leafs’ success this year is rooted in team play, more than one shining individual effort that carries the team. Once my brain thaws a bit from the cloud of the MVP question, players that come to mind are Lupul and Gustavsson. But then, I am taking Kessel’s star power and Gunnarsson’s quiet defensive play for granted.

    Recently, Michael asked our opinion about Phaneuf’s captaincy. If the team is the real MVP, then who, coaches aside, is more important than the captain? As the team play improves, and players like Grabovski step up, Dion Phaneuf seems to recede into the background and integrate almost seamlessly with the team’s play. Of course, I see the imperfections too. However, his shift in play appears to be something subtle at work, a feeling for the game that knows when to jump forward and when to hang back, what buttons to push and when to push them. Could this be a leader's skill, a feeling that recognizes hockey as a team, not individual, sport?

  18. Thanks Bobby C. My challenge, in reading carefully through a very well-thought-out comment on your points, is determining where you are landing. (I'm sensing your actual "ballot" is still being weighed...).

    I think I struggled with some of the same "issues" that you cite before deciding on Phaneuf, because this has been a genuine team effort, in the good, old-time sense.

    For now, I'm putting you down as casting your net with Dion.

    But I stress again, this is an interim designation only in my mind. We are still way too far away from the end of the 82-game schedule to make formal and final pronouncements.

  19. Gotta be Phaneuf. On nights when he forgets to play defense, the whole team forgets. On nights when we're pushing scoring and letting little happen in our own end, he's there leading the way.

  20. That is right Michael. I am saying, there is no MVP and the MVP is Dion Phaneuf. Confused? So am I!

  21. When I thihi of MVP, I think of the player who, if removed, would likely negatively affect the team's performance the most. Phaneuf has been great this year, Lupul magnificent, Grabbo is really coming into top form, but I cast my vote for Kessel - not just because he's a gifted scorer but because he's also a gifted playmaker who, game after game, turns whichever Leafs are on the ice with him, into potential scorers. His linemates feed off his speed, and they're showing a creativity in the offensive zone not seen on a Leaf squad for a very long time. Moreover, the threat his line poses means they're seeing the #1 checking unit, which opens up some room for the Grabovski line. It's hard for me to imagine the Leafs having this year's success without Phil's contribution.

  22. Your ballot's in, Karina- one more for Dion. Thanks.

  23. Great perspective as always, Gerund O'. Another for Kessel.

  24. I have to say the MVP so far is Lupul. I really think without Lupul this team would not be where they are. Watching him night after night, there are no forwards on the Leafs who play with as much passion as he does. He works hard on every shift, even in the little slump Kessel and him had Lupul was still working just as hard every night. He may not be the best defensive forward but then again that isn't what he is paid to do.

    Phaneuf has been very good this year, but he still still has moments that make you wonder. Kessel is the same, very, very good this year but can sometimes take a shift off. To me on a consistent night to night, shift to shift basis Lupul has been the best Leaf player all year long. I wonder to this day who is making who better on that line and I tend to lean to Lupul being the guy.

    If Grabo had been more consistent earlier in the year he would be a worthy canidate as well. Over the last two weeks Grabo has been All-star good.

  25. Well argued for Lupul, Wilbur. Thanks.

  26. Mike (@Leaferbeleafer)February 8, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    I must vote twice and if this disqualifies me, then, it was worth it :) My vote goes to Lupul. I'm surprised each game by his work ethic and maturity. Never did I think his acquisition would result in the type of output we are getting from him! And of course, I'm voting via heavenly proxy for Sam and #OMGrabovski because he's just superb isn't he?! ;-)

    Great work.

  27. Mike...thank you for sharing your views on this one. I'm really glad you continue to check in on the site. And given you are "speaking" for Sam, you're darn right you can vote twice. (You've got a sister who'll look out for you always from heaven...). That's two ballots for Lupul.