The Maple Leafs are 15-9 at the halfway point of the abbreviated 2012-13 regular-season schedule, more or less surpassing everyone’s pre-season expectations.
Without Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner for the most part — arguably their best forward and best defenceman, respectively, last season — the Leafs have not fallen off. Neither of those players receive grades here, given their absence from the lineup.
Have there been missteps? Sure. But no team is perfect.
This is a group that has adapted quicker than many figured it would to Randy Carlyle’s insistence that defence-first hockey wins. It’s a group that fore-checks with tenacity. It’s a group that’s aggressive in its own end, and when the play breaks down, it’s a group that has been bailed out by strong goaltending.
Carlyle is going to be in the running for the Jack Adams Award if the Leafs repeat their first-half performance in the second half and earn a berth in the post-season.
Grades for the Leafs through 24 games:
Coach Randy Carlyle — A
So much for pre-season predictions, eh? The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs, but Carlyle has them pointed in that direction. The players have picked it up, and there’s not the feeling that the bottom could fall out, like it did just over a year ago under Ron Wilson.
General manager David Nonis — B+
The best trade Nonis didn’t make, whatever the reason might be, was sending Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak to Vancouver for Roberto Luongo. Nonis has said he wants to improve the team but not to put the long-term future at risk. That has to be refreshing for Leafs fans everywhere.
James Reimer — A
Never mind the knee injury. Reimer has won six starts in a row, is 9-3 overall and has a .921 save percentage, tied with his career high. Reimer, on just about every night, has given the Leafs a chance to win. You can stay where you are, Luongo.
Ben Scrivens — B
A couple of shutouts among his six wins and a .923 save percentage. Held the fort admirably while Reimer was out.
Cody Franson — A
Forms consistently solid pairing with Mark Fraser. Along with Nazem Kadri, biggest benefactor of Carlyle’s open-door policy. Said in camp he would be better and has been true to his word. Leads Leafs defencemen in scoring. Plus-11.
Mark Fraser — A
Is there a bigger surprise on the roster? Probably not. Almost never out of position. Gladly will drop gloves to stick up for teammates. Oh yeah, and there’s the plus-minus. His plus-16 is second overall and leads all NHL defencemen. Physical style fits Carlyle perfectly.
Carl Gunnarsson — B
Keeps it smart and does not get into trouble very often. The question is whether he is physical enough for Carlyle’s liking in the long haul. Probably not.
Korbinian Holzer — C+
He has signed a two-year extension, but Holzer is proving to be a work in progress. Positional play has been a challenge for him, but his size is an asset.
Mike Komisarek — D
In the same boat as John-Michael Liles. A healthy scratch for 16 consecutive games. You have to figure he would have been traded by now if not for his $4.5-million salary cap hit next season.
Mike Kostka — B
Ice time has dropped from the average he had through first 10 games when he was Phaneuf’s partner. Up there with Fraser as a surprise. With a salary of $600,000 and his unrestricted free agency status this summer, could be attractive on trade market.
John-Michael Liles — D
Too small for Carlyle’s liking and has been a healthy scratch for the past nine games. If he had been performing to Carlyle’s standards, he would not be out of the lineup. Biggest question is whether he is a Leaf after the April 3 NHL trade deadline.
Dion Phaneuf — B+
The captain often gets maligned, but he’s among the NHL leaders in ice time and usually is on the ice against the opposition’s top players. Going back to his days with the Calgary Flames, Phaneuf always has been a minute cruncher.
Tyler Bozak — B
We still think Bozak does not have the offensive talent to be a true No. 1 centre, but his meshing with Kessel and van Riemsdyk is clear. Sharp on faceoffs, especially when Leafs are shorthanded — his 54 faceoff wins when Leafs are down a man lead the NHL. Trade bait? Doubtful.
Matt Frattin — B+
Until he was hurt, had been the only point-a-game player on the club. Didn’t sulk after he was cut in camp and came back with a great attitude. Goes hard to net and plays a chippy brand of hockey. Overcomes his smallish stature with speed and enthusiasm.
Mikhail Grabovski — C+
Has been given task of playing more defensively and it has taken time to come around. Offensively, he’s a shadow of what he has been in the past. His $5.5-million US salary cap hit through 2017 looks awfully hefty now.
Nazem Kadri — A
Many want to credit Carlyle and Dallas Eakins for Kadri’s rise, and they deserve some of it. But the growth comes from the player himself, and he has been the Leafs’ best forward night in and night out. Leads team with 24 points and is plus-13. Works for us.
Phil Kessel — B
No, Kessel has not scored with the regularity that he should be. But he has been close just about every night, and his mark would be an A if half of those chances had gone in the net. Hustles more than some are willing to acknowledge.
Leo Komarov — B+
Komarov is not one to judge by looking at his offensive numbers (one goal and four assists). Often sets the tone with a body check or a desire to go to the net and get under the skin of the opposition. Makes the Leafs tougher to play against. Third in NHL with 98 hits.
Nikolai Kulemin — C
Yes, Kulemin hustles and finishes his checks. But people like shiny things, and there is disappointment with Kulemin’s goal totals — nine in his past 94 games, including two in 24 this season, after he scored 30 in 2010-11. Remains an effective penalty killer.
Clarke MacArthur — B-
Starting to come on playing with Kadri and has points in seven of his past nine games. Have to wonder what his future is in Toronto, with looming unrestricted free-agency status this July. Pinky finger injury did not help.
Jay McClement — A-
McClement’s work ethic was noted by his teammates from the first day of camp and it has carried over. Leads all NHL forwards in ice time while team is short-handed and his smarts are a big reason why the Leafs have moved into the middle of the NHL pack when down a man.
Frazer McLaren — B-
The rangy winger knocked Mike Brown out of a job and then right out of the city. Fearless and willing to fight. He’s not going to win many contests as the best defensive forward on the team, but like Colton Orr, has done everything asked of him.
Colton Orr — B
Ask Kadri what kind of space he was getting when Orr was on his line. For what he has been asked to provide, Orr has come through. The Leafs take no prisoners, and Orr’s belligerence is a big reason why. What’s more, he was not handed a job. Worked hard for it.
David Steckel — C-
Became the forgotten man with the addition of McClement, but got back into the lineup because of injuries. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and chances are good the Leafs will let him walk.
James van Riemsdyk — A
Took Carlyle’s early critique to heart. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound New Jersey native still needs to use his body more to his advantage, but has done well so far. Only four players in the NHL have more than his 13 goals.