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Grading the Leafs fairly—now and in terms of what they can/will be, Part I

I’m not sure there is a perfect time to critique our Maple Leaf roster, but 29 games into a short season  (and with a few days off before their next game) feels about right.  My intent over the next couple of days is to “grade” the Leaf goalies, forwards and defensemen in a straightforward, fair manner (at least based on my own observations to this point in the season).  At the same time, I will attempt to project what I believe they “can be” in a Leaf uniform and whether they are a “keeper” for when the Leafs are actual Cup contenders- or may best be used as trade bait to bring in different pieces for when we are a legitimate contender.

Here goes.


James Reimer:  B   Projected:  B+  (keeper, at least as a back-up)

If I was assigning a grade for Reimer based on what many Leaf fans were expecting this season, he would deserve a higher slot.  But if we are doing this within the context of the expectations of an NHL goalie—especially a first-string goalie—then I feel a straight “B” is perfectly fair.  He’s had more pretty good games than not, in my view.  And I do not believe he has struggled as badly as some seem to  feel since he returned from his most recent injury.  (I sometimes think fans start clumping games together just because he lost or let in a weak goal, or conveniently forget the big stops he makes a key times.)  He struggled early against Pittsburgh a few games back but was stellar in stealing a point back for the Leafs that night.  His teammates let him down in Winnipeg.  He sure gave the Leafs a chance in the shootout against Winnipeg Saturday night.  We all know he has flaws, but he’s a gamer and deserves a decent grade based on what he has done so far this year.

Ben Scrivens:  B-     Projected:  B-  (potential asset to be moved)

I’m hardly a goalie expert.  Maybe Scrivens will become a bonafide star, but my sense is he is what he is- a guy who battles and will win some games but does not project as a frontline NHL goalie over a period of time.  I’d be happy to be proven wrong.  He had a nice run earlier this season. As a fan, I’m not entirely comfortable with him yet, but I don't question his guts or competitiveness.


Dion Phaneuf:  B+  Projected:  B+   (keeper, unlikely to be moved though I would not oppose a trade)

I don't see Phaneuf getting better than he is right now. Again, I could be off base, but I see him as not as tough as many think he is, and still too likely to be soft on certain plays.  I’m not judging him based on leadership here.  If I was, the grade would be lower.  But he brings enough to the table most nights at both ends of the rink to deserve a solid grade.

Carl Gunnarsson:  B-   Projected:  B  (used to think he was indispensible, now could be trade bait)

I thought Gunner was slow off the mark this season, and he has been playing hurt for a while. Overall he has continued to do his job, still usually limiting his mistakes and making the simple plays. He has not quite developed the way I had hoped a couple of years ago, but he’s been good enough to earn a solid grade in my mind. He doesn’t take bad penalties so he doesn’t hurt his team in that regard.  As a dependable guy, he gets a B-, though even on a better team I’m not sure his ceiling is all that much higher at this point.

Cody Franson:  B   Projected:   B+  (as Gardiner and Rielly move into the lineup, he could be a trading piece for a team looking for what he has to offer…)

Franson has emerged as a guy who has to be in the lineup pretty much every night this season, even on a squad loaded with defensemen.  He is not super physical, or overly tough, but he does a lot of things pretty well.  He can skate, can eliminate his man and move the puck.   It’s easy to notice that he is adept at getting the puck to the net from the point.  That he has put up 17 points and is a plus 11 so far is a sign that he has earned his ice time.  He may have a bit more upside in his game.  We’ll see.

Mike Kostka:   C+  Projected:  B-

I’m still on the Kostka bandwagon, though he has been a healthy scratch lately.  If he was placed on waivers, I think he'd be snapped up in a second.  Yes, I see his mistakes but we’re hardly a mistake-free group on defense.  He’s not exactly alone.  Even if he did not come on board as a 27 year-old “rookie” and been perceived as an “AHL player” only, I would give him credit for not being a liability most nights.  He grades out modestly, but I feel people have been a little harsh when we should mostly be thankful the guy can actually play.  Maybe the league has "caught up with him", but Carlyle has seen something—and so have I.  Let's not make him a whipping boy.

Mark Fraser:  B    Projected:  B  (keeper as a third-pairing guy)

Now, if I was grading Fraser on my surprise at how well he has played when I barely knew who he was six months ago, he’d get an A.  But while I love his attitude and how he can play physically and make simple plays, he’s not a first-pairing, big minute guy.  He just isn’t. He’s playing well because, yes, he’s done a good job, but also because Carlyle is playing him the right way—putting him in a position to succeed most of the time.  Fraser has become a guy who I feel good about most of the time when he is on the ice.

John-Michael Liles:  C   Projected  C+/B-

I’m not sure it is possible to give Liles a fair grade, given how much time he has missed as a healthy scratch and also coming off a long lockout.  He's playing now, and I thought he was “fine” when he was playing top-four minutes earlier in the season, but he was not sterling.  At his age, it’s unlikely there is a high ceiling for him.

Mike Komisarek:  No grade        (Could be traded)

Komisarek has not played anywhere near enough to assign a fair grade.  I actually thought he was performing at a decent level before he saw his playing time cut as a healthy scratch some time back.  He will no doubt be bought out this summer.

Korbinian Holzer:  C+  Projected:  B

I like the physical edge to Holzer’s game, and I sense there is an ability to be a pretty good player at this level.  I’m not sure his ceiling is that of a first-pairing defenseman, but I’m somewhat open-minded about his overall potential.  They have to find the right fit for him.  His plus/minus (minus 12), not a sure-fire barometer, I realize, is concerning, though he has been matched up against some top lines at times.  So I think a C+ grade is fair. 

I know people want Gardiner here, and Kostka and Holzer back with the Marlies.  I'm guessing that will happen at some point.

Do you see things differently?  Your views, as always, are welcome.  Let me know what you think.

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the forwards.


If you haven't been here at VLM recently, some posts that could be of interest....
  • Why Sidney Crosby scares me when he's on the ice, a bit like Bobby Orr


  1. I think I'd swap Franson and Gunnarsson's grades, personally. I love what I've seen from Franson so far this year and I think he's earned the opportunity to play a greater role moving forward but we've already seen Gunnarsson perform at a very capable level and there isn't much that's convinced me that once he fully recovers from this hip ailment that he wont be able to get back to top form.

    If I were Nonis, it would take a King's Ransom to pry Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, or Franson away. Those three and Gardiner should be the nucleus of our defense in the short term, in my opinion.

  2. I certainly would not argue vociferously over swapping those grades, Curt. (I acknowledge my methodology, as usual, is hardly an exact science!) Both are capable guys. I've long wanted to keep Gunner, but I recognize someone may have to be moved at some point to acquire more elite talent up front.

    Thanks Curt.

  3. Riemer A-

    Has been excellent most of the year, struggled abit since the injury but had a good third period and shootout in relief on Saturday. In my opinion the biggest reason why the Leafs are in 6th place.

    Scrivens B-

    Has been a solid back up. Can't see him being a number one but he can carry the ball over short stretches. Decent solid year. At 27 not sure how much better he is going to get. Could end up as the extra piece in a trade for name player.

    Phanuef B+ (bordering on A-)

    Plays all the tough minutes and has done well most of the time. Not sure if the defensive breakdowns are his fault or because his partners have not been up to first line minutes. Not amongst the elite defenseman but a very valuable player and by far the best dman the Leafs have. Won't comment on the supposed leadership thing because I am not in the dressing room and have no clue.

    Gunnarrson C+

    Has struggled for most of the year. May have an injury but other than brief moments his play has been average at best. Needs to show more. His descion making and play making skills have not been up to his usual standards.

    Franson B

    Has done well on the third pairing. Has shown a real offensive flair. Suprisingly physical this year. Have seen him use his body more in first half of this year than in all of last year. With Gardiner and Rielly on the way his time in TO is probably limited especially since I'm not sure he could handle more work against better competition. His play this year is probably his ceiling.

    Kostka C+

    Had a good start but as I predicted has found his natural level as a depth player. Solid game but seems to be a little slow, both in his skating and his thought process at the NHL level. Nothing wrong with his game at all this year. Would be a nice guy to keep around as that 6-7 guy.

    Fraser B-

    Has been really good. Excellent fit on the sheltered third pairing. Plays to his strengths and doesn't try and do to much. Could improve his skating but has done a very good job. Should keep around.

    Liles C

    Has done little when in games and been scratched for almost half the games. Expect more from a seasoned veteran with a big pay check. Trade bait at the deadline. His style of play is rendered completely redundant by the imminent arrival of Gardiner and Rielly. Between him and Franson I keep Franson.

    Komisarek INC

    I don't know what he has done to loose faith this year with the coaching staff. In the games he has played he was actually decent I thought. Not sure what he has to do to get back in the line up. For his sake I hope he does get traded. A shame the brass has completely given up on him this year.

    Holzer C- (bordering on a D)

    Does play with a physical edge but has been completely in over his head in his first taste of the NHL. Does have some potential but would rather have Kostka in the lineup every night over him. May become a third pairing guy in the future but the jury is definitly out on him. On a side note I have thought for a while now that he was going to have to fight sooner or later due to his style of game and that he would probably get tuned badly, then last night happened and well now I don't have to wonder anymore. His pushing and shoving after the whistle can only go on so long before you have to answer the bell. We'll see if his style of play changes after his rather one sided fight.

  4. Enjoyed seeing that breakdown, Willbur. That's a fair assessment of the defensive group.

    As you say, with Rielly and Gardiner on the way at some point, the roster (and how Carlyle will deploy them) will shift again. Thanks for your analysis, Willbur.

  5. I have always been curious, are there good captains on bad teams and bad captains on good teams? Captain is one of the few things in hockey that it seems impossible to judge as we as fans must rely almost exclusively on the small quotes and stories that leak out of the locker room upon which to base our decisions.

    That's not a criticism of your article Michael, I'd largely agree with your grades (though I think Scrivens has shown himself to be a decent back-up), the questions around Phaneuf's leadership just make me wonder how we come to our conclusions.

  6. That's a fair comment to make, mapleleafmjt- none of us really knows what players are "like" in the dressing room, etc.
    Willbur made a similar point above.

    My comments around Phaneuf and his "leadership" are, at best, broad observations. I'm sure his teammates, if asked, would publicly speak only in the highest terms about him. (In the old days, I used to wonder about Borje Salming's leadership because he so often had that sad, shoulders hanging down look- poor body language, in short - but his teammates swore by him. So I could be way off base about him, and the current captain as well.

    I just don't see a guy that others follow. Maybe that's not fair. I don't know. But it's just what I feel I'm observing. As fans, our "conclusions" are often up for debate, because we really don't know.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Salming (my all-time fav and the only jersey I own) always looked like someone just ran over his dog. I think it had something to do with the fact he played 55 minutes a game carrying a Flyer or two on his back ...

      Being respected as a leader is tough today with all the money, the turnover in players, the different ethnic backgrounds and the agents being involved. And the media plays a big part in whether or not a leader gets his dues. And if your GM and/or coach is larger than life or plays big time in the media, who's dressing room is it?

      As long as Phaneuf, works hard and plays within his limits, he's a leader. Is he the best captain? He's not the worst but I like Lupul as the face of the franchise if he can only stay on the ice.

  7. It's a good time for our mid-point grades - the games are about to get much tighter and on-ice decisions will have to be faster. To my eyes, we're already showing signs of having trouble adapting to "second half" play. Hopefully an infusion of Lupul's energy and skill will help us get back on track.
    Reimer/Scrivens both get a B from me. The've both had some really good games, and both had some bad ones. Neither can handle the puck well behind the net. I think improved D has helped both of them.
    Phaneuf: A-. He plays the most minutes, usually with a rookie, and based on the games I've actually attended, is far and away our most rugged defenceman. He plays the role of policeman and retaliator, but within the play. Leadership? I don't know. My sense is there's still something missing from the team, but whether it's Phaneuf's fault or just the make up of our players, I can't say. On a personal note, I wish to heck he wouldn't wear a Red Bull cap in post game interviews. Rightly or wrongly, I feel it compromises his role as Captain.
    Franson: B+. He's more physical than last year, helping with the offence, and pairs well with Fraser.
    Fraser: B+. I think he's done more than we could have expected, and I can't fault him for not having top line minutes. Rather I'd say he's being well deployed by Carlyle.
    Gunnarsson: C+. I've been quite disappointed with his play. He may not be physically right, and he's become prone to egregious giveaways. I no longer feel confident when he's on the ice.
    Holzer: C+. Lots of mistakes, but I like his physical presence. Learning on the job, for sure. Management seems to like him.
    Komisarek: n/a. He looked pretty good to me on the few shifts I've seen him play this year. Not sure why he's not playing, and expect to see him in a game as Holzer starts to fade.
    Kostka: B-. May be fading a bit now, but played huge minutes against top lines early in the season, and maybe they've started taking their toll.
    Liles: n/a. Sample size too small.

  8. We're pretty darn close on a lot of our "grades", Gerund O'. Again, we all see things a little differently, and that's OK. This group has worked hard, and we'll need them all, including both goalies, the rest of the way.

  9. Hi buddha hat- Salming did carry the team on his back in his hey-day. I just always wondered if he was a "leader" in the way we often think of team leaders. But yes, he took on the "Broad Street Bullies", played huge minutes and led, certainly, by how he played. (Though I do wish he had been more physical in front of his own net, and not spent quite as much time on his backside while the Bruin and Flyer forwards were scoring on rebounds!) He was a courageous and dedicated Maple Leaf.

    Fair comment with regard to Phaneuf. It seems a lot of folks might like to see Lupul as the captain. But Dion is the man for now, at least. Thanks buddha hat.

  10. Michael, your ratings are fair regarding the defence and goalies. Some may argue one of more ratings could be tweaked higher or lower, but as fans we sometimes see things a little different.

    I'm not sure how I would want to rate Holzer or Kostka yet, seeing that this is their first real taste of the NHL, and they have so much to learn. Personally I think fans are too critical of both these guys, and rather unforgiving when they make mistakes. In fairness, both have been called upon to play huge minutes and have been paired with Dion against the opposition's top lines.

    The elephant not in the room, is Gardiner. I'm pretty confident that Carlyle and Nonis are holding Gardiner down temporarily to allow the Leafs to evaluate the rest of their D-men and determine who they want to trade. For me, the four guys I definitely would want to hold onto are Phaneuf, Franson, Frazer and Gardiner. Komisarek doesn't appear to be in the Leafs' plans anymore, and his contract is probably too rich to move. So call him a buyout. Liles, although experienced, is just too small in his own end, and his puck-moving skills can be easily replaced by Gardiner. I would like to think other teams might be able to utilize a player like Liles, and willing to make a trade with the Leafs (maybe with some contract sharing if necessary). Personally I think that is why Liles is getting playing time now prior to the trade deadline.

    So that leaves Gunnarsson, Kostka and Holzer. Gunnarsson seems out of sorts this year, but based on what we've seen from him in the past, he is a valuable defenceman. I doubt that the Leafs are shopping him, but if a valuable piece came the other way, they probably would consider him in a trade. I see enough in Holzer to want to hold onto him. He can be as physical as Dion, and has a decent shot. He just lacks experience. If needed, send him down to the AHL for more seasoning rather then trade him. Kostka on his own may not get much return in a trade, but could be packaged I suppose.

    Basically Nonis has got to resolve all this before April 3rd to maximize his resources. If not, then Liles and Komisarek are likely buyouts this summer, and you get nothing in return. At season's end, Franson, Fraser and Gunnarsson become RFA's and will each be looking for significant pay hikes. Kostka is a UFA, and easily could be picked up by any other team after July 1.

  11. When it comes to people being unduly harsh on Holzder and Kostka, Don (TML_fan), I'm with you. Defense is a five-man unit thing (and certainly so the way Carlyle expects them to play), and I have a hard time ascribing blame to individual players all the time. Sure those guys make mistakes on the back end, but that is usually coupled with "mistakes" made by forwards further up the ice first.

    Gunner has not been a standout this year in my mind either, but if he's playing hurt, that provides some perspective as to why, at least.

    And I think you're right: Nonis, like Calryle, wants to see what he has. They need to play these other guys on the blueline to see if they are "keepers" or have any value as trade assets. Gardiner will be a non-issue soon.

    Thanks Don. Solid post, as always.

  12. Our defence as I see it has 5 keepers: Phaneuf, Gunner, Gardiner, Franson and Fraser, not to as we say "build around" but to "build over". To be front-runners we need Phaneuf and Gunner to be our second pairing and so on. The names I left out are tradeable. I'm not including Reilly in the team next year because I think a year with the Marlies will do wonders for him. Let's not rush another young D-man.

    As you wrote above, Reimer and Scrivens are two B grade goalies. If none are going to be NHL caliber starters, isn't it more reasonable to keep Scrivens as the backup? Wouldn't other teams pay a little more for Reimer if he were traded?

  13. I would have zero issue with Rielly spending a year with the Marlies, though if I'm not mistaken, he may either have to be with the Leafs or go back his his 19 year-old season in junior. (As those who follow VLM regularly are aware, I loathe the idea of constantly rushing these kids, especially defensemen, into the lineup. It's a man's league, and very, very few are truly ready for the jump.)

    Good question about Reimer- my only thought is can he actually become a true number-one guy? If so, I'd hate to see him traded.

    Always enjoy hearing from you and getting your perspective- thanks portuguese leaf.

  14. Goal:
    Reimer- B-, As of March 18th, in the top 15 in save %, top 25 in GAA. But I see growth which is a good thing
    Scrivens- B+, As a back up, goalies usually play easier teams, but Scrivens took the team on his back when Reimer went down...

    Phaneuf- C+, I am sorry but last year when everything went downhill, did we see Phaneuf act like a Captain? During this slump, in my humble opinion is that Phaneuf has been terrible. I am grading has our 1D and captain, and he has not impressed compared to other 1D's or captains. But like you said, we dont know what goes on behind closed doors, so maybe he shows his leadership there..
    Gunnarsson- B, He has been slow, but he has also been injured. +2 (for what it is worth) with about 21min ATOI is decent, and I am seeing improvement where he might be back to 100% soon.
    Franson- A-, a third pairing D, on the 2 PP and he tops our D in points and 2nd in +/-. Thank you for the real Franson standing up!
    Kostka C+, A nice feel good story, the coach might of asked too much from him, but when he got pushed down, he played a strong game without too many mistakes
    Fraser- A-, The only other D that hits the >80 mark for me. Third pairing, plays a stong sound D, with little mistakes, but I love passion! and the +16 aint too bad either
    Liles- B-, I can not fault this guy just because the coach is looking for something else, really thought this would be a comeback yr for him after the concussion. If given the chance I think he can get back to form, but for now B- seem appropriate
    Komi- N/A, too bad, I enjoyed the 4 games he played, and saw heart!
    Holzer- C, This grade is only due to his mismanagement. Carlyle understands how to put Kadri in a position to succeed and learn the game, and throws Holzer to the wolves. I just dont understand. Unfortunately he is being graded as a top 4, and he still needs a lot to learn.

    That was fun Michael, looking forward to the rest of the grades!


  15. Those are all fair assessments, Bester30. Some may feel you're a bit harsh on Phaneuf, but as you note, he is the leader and team captain. Expectations, fair or not (and given his salary, fair, I think) are high.

    The next 20 games will influence our final "grades", for sure! Thanks for chiming in, Bester30.