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Reflecting on Dave Nonis’ “exit” thoughts—and grading out the Maple Leafs, with some perspective, after a season that ended a bit too soon…

One of the challenges in trying to objectively analyze and assess how individual Maple Leafs did this past mini-season is trying not to get too caught up in the sometimes overly-positive hoopla and roller-coaster emotions of the recently concluded 7-game series with the Bruins.

Thus, I've given myself a few days off - and about a week of contemplation - before wading into this sensitive subject.  We've all had some time to think since the Leafs were ousted so painfully last Monday night in Boston.

Why the need to step back a bit?  Well, if you “graded” certain players on, say, their best moments against Boston, we’d urge Nonis to give them the keys to the city and 20-year contracts at 10 million each—more if they wanted it.  In the same breath, some guys would be traded on the spot (and be given poor grades, too) for some terrible flaw that made fans feel we needed more from them against the not so big and bad after all Bruins.

In any event, I’ll try to provide some kind of fair overview, which I understand right away many of you will disagree with.  But that’s OK, as we do that all the time here at VLM.  What I “see” may not be what you see, etc.., especially when it comes to the Leafs and their sudden-death playoff exit.


Quick aside, before I get to my not-very-exhaustive grading methodology regarding our Leafs:  I’m not sure I was exactly thrilled with Nonis’ year-end media session.  Maybe I did not listen closely enough, but he did not sound convinced on Reimer—a lingering open sore for me.  Why we can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer when it comes to Reimer is confusing to me.  Of course he has flaws in his game (to be clear, so does Carey Price, Rask, Lundqvist, Jimmy Howard and every other “elite” goalie in the league)  There aren’t many all-time greats in the league right now, as there were just a few years ago with Belfour, Hasek, Roy, maybe even Curtis Joseph, etc..The Leafs should feel good that they finally have someone who can generally rise to the occasion.  Beware what you trade for, sometimes.

Look, I understand (we all do) that GM's always say the same things at this year-end 'pressers'.  They are looking to get better, etc., etc.  Everyone has to earn their job.  The standard stuff. I get it.

But I’m not sure where exactly Nonis thinks he is getting someone better in goal, and it’s quickly becoming an old and an annoying theme for me.  (Yes, guys have to prove themselves every day, every season, etc., but I’m tired of hearing it when it comes to Reimer.  I never bought Burke’s supposed  “belief” in Reimer because it was said always with the obvious caveat that they were looking to replace him, if  they could, with someone better.  Nonis is singing, in my ears, the same tune.  Would we be having this conversation if we could put a puck into an empty net in Game 7?  Oh well….)

On the other hand, Mr. Nonis appears set to bet the farm on Kessel, which is a popular choice in Leafworld these days because Phil played pretty well (and the puck went in the net a few times) and hard for the most part in the Boston series— after a productive 2012-’13 season.  Kessel seems to have won doubters over, though I can all but guarantee the doubts will return the next time Phil is perceived to sort of 'glide' through a stretch of 10 games next season without lighting the lamp.  (Did we, by the way, over-rate his efforts against the Bruins, because of years of hype and his obvious struggles against them?  I’m not saying he didn’t play well—I think he did—but were we also desperate to see him as a playoff performer, eh?  Joe Thornton has had some big series in the playoffs, but is still criticized after all these years when he doesn’t lead the Sharks further every year.  Let’s be honest: the bar was fairly low for Phil this year in the playoffs and we were thrilled he met it.  He didn’t have to keep proving himself under pressure for four rounds…)

And I'll add this:  when it comes to Kessel, the organization is still trying to make the public case they were not swindled by the Bruins.  So we of course will hear Nonis praise Kessel and talk about re-signing him.  They don't want the guy to walk and they don't want to be left with "nothing" while Seguin and Hamilton play big minutes for the next several years with Boston..  (And if that is the case, by the way, if I'm Nonis I will make haste to get a deal done this summer.  Every time I hear a GM say there is no hurry to lock up a free-agent who won't be "free" until a year from now, I think of all the guys (like Parise and Suter last summer) who went elsewhere in free-agency.  This is a deal best done sooner than later, if I'm in Nonis' shoes.

Nonis talking about Bozak, on the other hand?  A very different response, and understandably so.  The Leafs are clearly interested in retaining Bozak, but only at the right price (which is fair).  That will please those who aren’t fans of the now “veteran” Maple Leaf pivot, but not supportive enough a statement for those who think Bozak brings a lot to the Leaf table most nights.


One thing I did like about the year-end stuff:  Carlyle acknowledging his own errors in the dying moments of Game 7.  I don't recall that he expressly said he should have called a time-out when things were getting tense, but he did say that he should have urged his players to be aggressive and not sit back (he had the opportunity during the Bruins time-out) in the final moments.

He also indicated he should have had different players on the ice.  I think that was not a case of throwing the players on the ice under the bus; more his admitting he did not put people in the best position to handle a tough assignment.  Good for Carlyle.  He expects his players to "be better", as he put it, next season.  He knows he will need to be better, too.


This is just the beginning of that long and sometimes exciting off-season, when speculation ramps up about all the things that will—or won’t—happen.  But that’s Nonis’ job, and I’ll leave it to him to keep moving the project along.  Froma  fan perspective, I'll say this:  give me a) some veterans who can help prevent what happened in the dying minutes in Boston Monday night last   b) get me a big-time center, and please,   c) another defenseman of high quality.

Not easy to do, but I’m not paid millions to make it happen.  So I’ll leave it to Nonis and his staff.


On to the grades, starting today with the defenseman and goalies.  (By the way, as I tried to note above, these grades relate to their full body of work this past season- not simply what they did in the playoffs, though that is a factor, of course…)


James Reimer  B+

To be clear, I’ve never said Reimer was the reincarnation of Terry Sawchuk (shown at right in his mid-'60s Leaf days...) or that he  is a modern-day Johnny Bower.  Those guys were the among the best of the best, some of the finest of all time and Hall-of-Fame goaltenders.  But Reimer overcame a lot of doubt and adversity to register a heck of a season.  Do we get to 7 games against the Bruins without him this past season?  His aforementioned imperfections aside, to me, the young man has the temperament and skill to play in Toronto.  Now, I cannot forecast consistent success for him. Too many goalies go from hero one season to “can’t stop a puck” the next nowadays.  But as of this moment, he deserves to be the (un-questioned) “number-one” guy.  I have no problem with brass challenging him, as there is never room for complacency.  But he deserves to know he is the guy.  I think he will continue to get better, and prove his worth.  Wouldn't it be nice to going into the next few seasons without huge question marks in goal every summer and fall?

Ben Scrivens  C+

I like the way Scrivens battles.  Maybe it’s not fair, based on awfully limited sample sizes, but I’m just not seeing him as a first-string goalie in this league.  Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas weren’t "stars" until their 30s, so the young man may have a higher ceiling than I’m projecting.  But for me, it’s hard to give him a better grade, based on relatively little playing time.  That said, he did his job, however.


Dion Phaneuf  B+

Those who swear by Dion will say I’m being unfair and not acknowledging all that he brings to the table with this grade.  Those that primarily see his flaws will think I’m grading him too easily.  I’ve tried to find a common ground.  He was tougher at times this season than I’ve given him credit for.  He logs huge minutes.  He always plays against the other team’s top guys.  What more do I want?  Rate him higher if that’s how you see it.  I just can’t.  Being a de facto number-one because we don’t have anyone else, for me, doesn’t mean he deserves an “A” based on effort  (most nights) and ice time.

Carl Gunnarsson  B-

I’ve liked Gunnarsson for years.  I’m just not sure he has jumped out of the pack quite the way I had (in my mind) projected him doing two seasons ago.  He’s a nice player and does a lot of good things.  And we all know he played hurt all season long.  But I just see him as, basically, a decent-to-good “number-four” defenseman on a really good team.  Is that unfair?  Maybe it is. Thus, given his limitations, he gets the assigned grade. Feel free to take umbrage with me...

Jake Gardiner  C+/B

Why the wide gap in the grade?  I’ll get this out of the way, because I know Leaf fans love Gardiner and think I’m too hard on him.   He was hurt and his season was almost “un-rate-able” as a result.  When he did play, he did not perform the way Carlyle wanted/needed him to.  So he spent a lot of time upstairs.  When he got a chance in the playoffs, he was a demon on skates, flying all over the ice (maybe not what Carlyle had in mind; I’m not really sure) and making plays.  However, he was in front of his own goal in overtime when the season ended, watching the Bruins scored the series winner—a situation I feared he might find himself in at some point in the playoffs.  Was that last goal all on him?  Of course not.  He’s a young player with rather remarkable skills.  Once he develops his game in and around his own goal (and goal line) he should be superb.

Mark Fraser  B

He doesn’t get the grade for his offensive prowess, eh?  And yes, his extra minutes against the Bruins (until he was hurt) exposed him a bit, but that’s no surprise, surely.  Who expected Fraser to even be on the roster, much less become a minute-eating guy on our blueline at playoff time.  I like that when he hits guys, they stay “hit”.  He’s smart, doesn’t try to do too much.  In the right circumstance, he has shown himself to be an excellent 5/6 defenseman.  His very healthy plus/minus during the regular season was nice, too.  That he could fight and stand up for teammates made him a popular and important guy.  And he was more than just a fighter. So a solid grade.

John-Michael Liles C

How long has he been here?  Two years?  Three?  I don’t even know.  Nice player.  Has good skills and does good things.  But at the end of the day, I’m not sure (maybe  because of injuries, etc.) he has had much of an impact in his time here, at least not on a consistent basis.

Ryan O’Byrne  C

Adequate, I guess, as a 6/7 defenseman.  I don’t know what to say.  Most NHL teams in the cap era employ players on the fourth line and their final defense pair that are there because they are a) tough or b) don’t cost a lot.  I’m not sure where O’Byrne fits, and I don't really have a strong view as to his ability or “value”.  So a modest grade, at best.

Cody Franson  B-

Now, this is a tricky one.  Again, as I noted above, as with some of his teammates, on his ‘best’ nights, he’d get a much higher rating.  On his worst nights, he’d get a lot less than what I gave him.  So again, I was trying to be fair, recognizing that he made strides this season.  He brought some physical play to the table, and we all loved that (finally) we had a guy on the blueline (and especially on the power play) who could actually get the puck to the net—where good things could result.  A useful player, so a useful grade. Next year could be better—or worse.

Mike Kostka  C

If I was grading Kosta based on my pre-season expectations (which were, ah, zilch…) the longtime AHL rearguard would probably get a B+.  He played valiantly all season, was solid early on and at various points along the way, but was swimming with sharks as the season went on.  I like his passion, but thought that, as he tried to rein himself in as the season wore on, he may have actually been less effective at times—though my guess is Carlyle feels quite the opposite.  Played beyond expectations, which is always a good thing.


As much as I appreciate what this group (the defense corps, specifically) worked to achieve this season, it seems clear that we need something more to be able to play with the “big boys” on a regular basis—and certainly once we start competing against Western Conference teams again (have you seen the playoffs out West? Ouch...). 

Yes, young Rielly is on the radar, maybe as early as next season (a little soon for my liking, but I so seldom seem to get consulted on these things…). But beyond his pending arrival, I’m talking about the need for a proven guy who can play big minutes and be a physical presence, much like the Predators had with Suter and Weber all those years as they were on their way to building a top-flight team. (And even they didn’t get to the promised land, after literally years and years of David Poile assiduously building that roster to meet the needs of a Barry Trotz-coached team…)

I don’t expect unanimous agreement regarding my “grades”—again, I’m not exactly employing a statistics-based assessment tool and don’t suggest this is remotely scientific or without flaws—so by all means share your thoughts if you drop by VLM this week.

Again, a reminder to those who visit VLM—I’ll be posting less frequently in the weeks ahead but will still post when the time feels right and there is something to bat around.  (Likely I’ll post on Sunday nights/Monday and again at some point during the week, as we gear up for free-agency and a summer of trade activity and of course, the draft.)

In the next day or so, I’ll look to grade the forwards.


  1. I think I'm over the playoff blues... and the jokes about the newest Leafs signings being the Russians Teeov and Summerov...

    Reimer: B+ is fair, I think. He won me over, but needs better rebound control, which I'm sure he'll develop. I think we saw improvement from last year, and I expect the same next year.
    Scrivens: B. I think he played well in most games he got into. I like his mobility and I think he has superior rebound control to Reimer. Unlike last year, I had confidence in both our goalies this year.

    Phaneuf: A-. Along with the tough play, top line match-ups and big minutes you mention, he also was saddled with rookies most of the time. How would he have done with a healthy Gunnarsson, for example? Yes he made mistakes, but all defencemen do. Overall, I was happy with his play.

    Gardiner: B-. Cost us way too many goals and scoring opportunities this season, despite his obvious skills. I expect him to really benefit from his experience this year, though, and blossom under Carlyle's tutelage. Easily our most tantalizing prospect.

    Gunnarsson: B-. He looked better in the playoffs, but was just not his old self this season. Hopefully it was injury-related and we'll see him return to form next year.

    Franson: A-. Became one of our most dependable guys, and the player we thought we were getting a year ago. As he used his size more, he became even more effective in our zone. Another bright spot this year, and even brighter next, I'm hoping.

    Fraser: B+. I don't know what more we could have asked from him, and I think he performed ably. He's yet another player who I think will benefit hugely from his experience this year. And I like his stay-at-home, tough style of play.

    Kostka: C+. He started strong, but clearly withered under the demands of the season. I don't see him back with us next year.

    Liles: C. I don't think we've seen JML's best play yet. He was definitely more effective pre-concussion, and he did make some nice plays in the playoffs. The O'Malley jury is out on him, though with some of the Marlies coming up, he may be expendable.

    O'Byrne: B-. Too small a sample size, really, but I don't see anything wrong with having a big body to take third pair minutes - and he did dish out some pretty punishing hits during his games with us.

    As you can see, I'm pretty optimistic about where we're headed. But I agree that we need a proven, physical player to be added to our defence. It will be interesting to see who becomes available!

    1. You may have been a smidge more lenient in your grades, Gerund O', but that's the good old-fashioned O'Malley hopefulness at play, and that's good. Your grades are fair.

      We should be hopeful and optimistic heading into next season!

  2. "give me a) some veterans who can help prevent what happened in the dying minutes in Boston Monday night last b) get me a big-time center, and please, c) another defenseman of high quality."

    I don't think much of this will happen. I think you are asking for far too much and will be disappointed.

    I think we could have much the same team. We might get a more veteran guy for the bottom 6 and maybe a 2 way defenceman for the 3rd or 4th spot.

    The grades for the defensemen, I mostly agree on. However I would give our goaltenders a better grade.

    I give Riemer an A.

    He came back from injury, posted the 8th best save % in the regular season at .924, was tough down the stretch, got us int the playoffs and stole some playoff games. In the playoffs, he posted a .923 against a tough Boston team. He was 8th in save percentage and probably played well enough to get us to the second round. Every goaltender who was above him in save % went on to the second round along with Jimmy Howard at .916

    I give Scrivens a B.

    Scrivens won some key games and kept the Leafs in the hunt. He was 22nd in save percentage in the regular season at .915 The only teams with a second goalie above Scrivens in save percentage were very good teams: Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh.

    The combination of Riemer and Scrivens put Toronto in the top ten of the league for team save percentage.

    They get along, they aren't problem. They might even get better with a better defense.

    1. You may be right, DP, that what I'd like to see Nonis bring in won't happen. But that's his job. We don't have what we need in the system. More young players with "potential" is nice, but the teams winning these days have experienced pros who know how to win. We don't have that and need it, badly.

  3. MIchael,

    It has been a while since we chatted. Sorry to hear that you left the podcast. That sure was an interesting season of Maple Leafs hockey, eh? From the lockout discussion, playoff prognostications, to a magnificent playoff berth, and a disheartening exit from the first round.

    In some ways I agree with everyone this morning. Your assessments are very similar to my own. I like Gerunds optimism and I also agree with DP's points about the difficulty of finding what the team really needs in the offseason. I am very interested to see what Nonis does this summer. Very, interested. He has a lot of big decisions to make. Does he make Bozak a true number one centre, via a pay raise? Even though his numbers are just so mediocre. Does he take the plunge with Kessel and make him one of the highest paid players in the game? When we would all agree that he is no Malkin, Toews, Crosby or Chara. Does Phil have yet another gear, or is he destined to be the player that leaves us wanting more?

    You mentioned veteran leadership as one of the areas that the team needs to address. I agree, they do. How they go about changing that dynamic is crucial. I don't want Nonis to go out and get some over the hill veterans like Iginla to try and change the team. I would rather they see if the team itself can right the ship. Lets be honest, a number one centre isn't coming this offseason, nor a Norris trophy candidate defenseman. A few summers ago Burke lost out on Brad Richards, and we are very thankful he did, in hindsight. I have heard a lot of talk about David Clarkson being the type of player this team needs, a man of many hats. Nonis should try and sign him, a lot of other GM's would like to add him as well, so I am going to temper my enthusiasm.

    The series against Boston was crushing. For a little while I believed, truly believed. I believed that Reimer would make the big save, when his team needed him to. He didn't. I could go on about how well he played overall, and all the big saves that he made getting to the last ten minutes of game seven. He played really well until then. Until he wins a playoff series for Toronto, I will always remember those last ten minutes. A good goalie, unable to hold on to the puck and seize momentum away from the Bruins. I will also remember how much I hated the way the team played almost every night this season, the bend but don't break strategy. Get out shot, out chanced, then dump it out and change so the siege can begin again. It backfired in the end. The Leafs played ten straight minutes without the puck and had no answers. The strategy needs to change next year, that is on Carlyle. I'm also sure that I am not the only one that was screaming call timeout during those ten minutes. No idea why Carlyle couldn't see what was happening, I sure could.

    While I am on a bit of a rant. What is the purpose of playing McLaren all those games during the regular season so that he can be in the pressbox in the playoffs? Frattin getting time to develop seems like a better option than dressing another face puncher.

    I am left with no feelings of optimism going forward, no pessimism either. A massive opportunity was lost by this team. From game one, Boston played the games the way that Toronto wanted. There was no animosity, no after the whistle punching, no hatred of any kind, it was a skill and skating series, and the Leafs lost. There are lots of players that I don't care whether or not they wear the blue and white again. It is my wish that Nonis find some players this summer that are willing to stand up and be difference makers should the team make the playoffs next season. From the lockout and the arguing to the way the season ended, this season hurt, really bad.

    1. Really good to hear from you, Jim. I'll essentially let your comments stand on their own. You cover the bases. There isn't a lot to add. There's work to do this summer. Some players need to be better, and as I intimated above, there are ways Carlyle can be better, too, as you outlined.

      In terms of veteran leadership, it doesn't have to be a big-name UFA. (I was not a fan of the Richards pursuit two summers ago, as I wrote at the time...) I'm thinking someone like a McClement, but with a bit more to his game, perhaps. Character and poise is what I'm looking for.

      Thanks Jim. Stay in touch.

  4. Just some more minor points about goaltending and veterans:

    How's the great veteran, Henrik Lundqvist, doing against those very good Bruins so far?

    He's allowed 8 goals on 80 shots for a .900 save percentage! Compare that with Reimer's .923?

    Dan Girardi, part of NY's top defensive pair was -4 last game.

    It might take a while (until we see what Boston does to other teams) that we gain enough perspective to fully recognize the valiant effort that the Leafs may have put forth this season and in the playoffs.

    You can bring in veterans or let your young guys play and become veterans. For the most part, I think Noonis is going with the second option.

    Veterans like McClement? Jay Pandolfo and Eric Nystrom are UFA?

  5. I find that grading players is a difficult task for me because I wonder if I should grade according to my expectations for the player, against comparable players, and there are so many other variables we don't know fully (like injury effects, personal issues, etc.). Having said that, I think your marking is reasonable and in the same range as my thinking in general, though I acknowledge the points made by others (how's that for some fence-sitting?) that incorporate other variables.

    I think we're going to have a hard time getting the 'pieces' we need in free agency and anticipate we will see some more interesting options bubble up to the surface as a result of the lower cap. New buyout free agents could provide options, however, unexpected trades are what I think is most likely. Could be very interesting.

    When you mention Nonis' presser lacking the full endorsement of Reimer that we'd both like to have heard, I think it speaks to his intentions. Namely, I think he still wants Luongo, and hopes to get him for little more than taking on the contract (maybe early rights to speak with Bozak and a lower-than-1st-round pick). It's not what I want, but I think Reimer's injuries and technical deficiencies have him worried.

    I believe that James will be improving his glove hand and puck handling with determination and commitment. Heard Dave Keon commenting (on the Hockey Legends series) that you have to keep working on improving every area of your game throughout your career, or you will go in the opposite direction. I suspect James Reimer has a similar level of commitment in one so young... which I think is often overlooked by some regarding our goalie.

    In any case, I think Bozak will look for money that is too rich for his place on the team (though I'd like to keep him at 3-3.5M on a 2 year deal to see if he can grow into a player that deserves more, instead of defaults to it). I also think Liles does not fit with Carlyle's expectations and will be surprised if he's not part of a trade package. O'byrne seems like a place-holder for players presently on the Marlies, and I hope to see Franson and Gunnar resigned in the Bozak range I've mentioned (if not a bit less).

    Gardiner has become a bit more well-rounded, but has a ways to go yet. Could he be part of one of those surprising deals that brings us a key center? Unless it's Tavares, I hope not...

    Just a few random thoughts in the hopper...

    1. The Reimer conundrum is an interesting one, InTimeFor62. A lot of us like him, but recognize he is maybe a few things away from being truly "elite", whatever that term means.

      Two years from now, I sense the blueline will look a fair bit different than what we saw against the Bruins. Some incoming youngsters will change that picture, I would think and Nonis will be looking for additional mobility and toughness, too.

  6. Reimer: a-. check out his save percentage in the goldfish bowl called toronto. slow glove, big rebounds, losing the puck and aweful stickhandling, but the last 2 improved in the playoffs, game by game. positionally solid, but still goes down too much.

    Scrivens: b. close behind, but small sample size. worse stick handler than reimer, but more agile. mentally weaker than reimer, if he let in a bad goal, he had a really bad game and couldn't keep the leafs there. more upside if he can get mentally stronger.

    phaneuf: c+ asked to handle the top opposition and did a poor job looking at his plus minus. he's more d3-4. during the playoffs, he didn't go into the corners, didn't block shots, he didn't knock people down in front of the net and a mediocre passer as well as not being fleet

    gardiner: b+. he has a lot to learn in the defensive end, but unlike kostka, he could cover up his mistakes and it didn't lead to goals most of the time. his offense and first pass are game changers.

    gunnarson: c he was never really fast, but post concussion looked a little lost positionally. before over time in game 7, he and phaneuf were on for the last 2 goals and didn't cover much of anything. in game six when boston was turning it one, his pairing couldn't clear it.

    franson b+. made mistakes but best combo of offensive and defensive dman. he doesn't make as many position mistakes, he finished his checks, great passer and shots get through to the net.

    mark fraser: a-. low ceiling, but did everything asked of him and was generally more positionally solid than phaneuf. he didn't try too much and great pairing with franson.

    kotska: d+. slow foot speed, mistakes leading to goals and bad decision making exposed him as an ahl level filler.

    liles: b-. not as good as he once was, but still a great passer, did hit and added some offensive punch. he looked better with o'byrne.

    o'byrne: c-. looked clueless at times and bad decision making in the playoffs, especially with passing, but he didn't know the system to be fair. however, he doesn't seem to have high iq or great vision.

    1. Some of your grades are a bit harsher than mine, Anon, but I can see your rationale. Thanks for chiming in.

  7. I think your grading is very fair and if we are perfectly honest the Leafs do not have an NHL caliber # 1 and 2 defense pair. Phaneuf and Gunnarssoon are at best a 3/4 pairing, Franson and Fraser would be a good 5/6 pairing with Franson having potential to be a top 4 D man. Gardner is probably the Leafs best over all D man, and the leafs need a big, tough mobile defenseman to play with him. Liles best years are behind him and should be traded or bought out. Kostka at best would fill the 7 or 8 slot. Reimer is what he is, a very good young goaltender who, if he stays healthy will only get better. Goalies reach their peak when they are 27 to 30 years old, and I would suggest that if Reimer stays healthy by the time he is 30 he will be a top 3 NHL goaltender.

    Great article,

    1. Building up the defense corps will indeed be one of Nonis' tasks, mrj. They are all NHL'ers, but they still have needs on the back end. Thanks for posting.