Given that the Leafs have failed to make the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth year running, the B is emphatically of the "B for effort" sort. In some respects, Toronto vastly exceeded expectations this season: many pre-season publications predicted a last place finish, or close to it. Instead they managed to play almost .500 hockey, nearly duplicating the record of last year's squad--which, on paper at least, was considerably more talented than this rag-tag collection of rookies, castoffs, and spare parts.
Coach Ron Wilson: A+
Don Cherry hates him, but I think he's the best Leafs coach since Pat Burns. A few more points would have secured a playoff berth and garnered Wilson serious consideration for the Jack Adams.
Wilson is a man of strong opinions and he's not in the least afraid to air any of them. If you're not doing your job, you're going to hear about it. If you still won't listen, you'll ride the pine. But he'll reward a fine effort with plenty of ice time, the currency of choice for hockey players everywhere. And he and his staff are very good at developing rookies. They've had to be, this year, because Toronto has led the league by a wide margin in rookie man-games played.
Kudos go to Wilson also for the never-say-die attitude his team has shown this year.
Jason Blake 25-38-63 B+
MUCH better. This is the Jason Blake the Leafs were looking for when they signed him last year. Of course, last year he was diagnosed with cancer...between the diagnosis and side effects from the medication he took, he admitted he didn't feel much like playing hockey. That cut zero ice with many Leaf fans, but he's redeemed himself this year. I no longer think he's overpaid, but the length of his contract all but guarantees he can't be traded. That may not be such a bad thing.
Alexei Ponikarovsky 23-38-61 B
Another forward who has improved, especially in the absence of his friend and long-time linemate Nik Antropov, who was traded at the deadline. Alexei has by all accounts become a leader in the room, and he closed out the season red-hot on the ice. But...believe it or not, he could have been a point-a-gamer this year, if only his hands didn't desert him at crucial moments. He's missed about ten yawning cages. I'm fairly sure Burke will move Poni while his stock is high. He'd be a decent second-liner for any team.
Matt Stajan 15-40-55 B-
Started off the season at a great clip, then faded. Still, a career year offensively. Lunchbox guy who has the heart but lacks the grit. There was talk of him wearing the C...but he's not a Burke-type player and I think he'll be moved.
Mikhail Grabovski 20-28-48 B+
Could have got an A but for a horrific mid-season slump. Finished fourth among rookies in scoring and, at least at the bookends of the season, impressed the hell out of a lot of people with his puckhandling and his passion. He's a keeper and an ideal second line center.
Lee Stempniak 14-30-44 C-
In the last game of the season--the game I just finished watching--I saw Stempniak buzzing all over the ice, getting two assists and looking dangerous every shift. That's the Stempniak the Leafs traded Colaiacovo and Steen for, but not the Stempniak they got, most nights. Often invisible, he doesn't seem to have a role on this team. Unlikely he'll stick.
Niklas Hagman 22-20-42 (64 GP) B
Prorated over a full season, Hagman produced at nearly the same pace he did last year, a career year. Pretty impressive player, especially at his salary. Lacks a physical side (only 4 PIM!) but distributes the puck very well. Is the only Leaf with a no-trade clause, and says he wants to stay around and guide this team into contention. I think he will.
Nikolai Kulemin 15-16-31 B-
Some serious upside to this kid. It took him a while to find his game; he looked lost at the beginning of the season. But as the campaign went along, we began to see flashes of the linemate Evgeni Malkin called "a real solid NHLer." I think he'll crack 60 points next year, if healthy.
John Mitchell 12-17-29 C+
Burke and Wilson love Mitchell. I think he's another Domenic Moore, making the most of his time on the first and second lines. Good fundamentals--which is probably why the coach and GM love him. But...well, he's neither impressed me nor unimpressed me.
Jamal Mayers 7-9-16 D+
Not at all what I expected out of a guy touted as a gritty team leader. Occasionally fights (losing most of his bouts)...and that's almost the only time you notice him. I've read that he's well-liked in the room...but yeesh. Trade him away already.
Brad May 1-6-7 B
Played his 1000th career game this year and as regards talent he's definitely deep in the twilight of his career. But he's a worker. Every shift he'll do the little things that never show up on the scoresheet but are nevertheless necessary if you want to win hockey games. Moreover, word is he's mentoring the Leafs rookies to play the same way. There's a reason May follows Burke around as if he's on a string. The Leafs picked him up almost for free, and if he wants to stay on, a place should be made for him.
INC: Devereaux, Hollweg, Williams, Hamilton, Hanson, Deveaux, Stapleton, Tlusty, Ondrus
Wow, that's quite the parade. None of these players managed more than 26 games in the NHL this year. Some of them could well make the team next year. Hanson, the big college acquisition, acquitted himself well after his first game. Devereaux came on very strong as the season wound down, even going so far as to score a hat trick in the final game.
Hollweg, though---ugh. Almost made me miss Andy Wozniewski.
Pavel Kubina 14-26-40 C+
Matched his point total from 2007-2008; also matched his schizoid play. At times he was fantastic, and at other times he stunk. Still has a knack for taking penalties at inopportune times. He's not the defenseman you want back on a two on one...but he's not half bad quarterbacking a power play.
Tomas Kaberle 4-27-31 (56 GP) C
In a season marred by two hand injuries, Kaberle's motivation also seemed to suffer. He is still and will likely always be a premier puck-moving defenseman, but his play away from the puck is increasingly questionable and his drive seemed to disappear for long stretches. I strongly suspect he'll be moved--possibly with Ponikarovski--to Tampa Bay on draft day.
Ian White 10-16-26 A
Arguably the Leafs' best all-around defenseman and a cinch for most improved player, White has blossomed under Wilson's tutelage. He was a healthy scratch for the first 11 games and first saw action as a forward. From the midpoint on he was logging 20:00+ a game and playing like he deserved it. I called him redundant last year; the crow's in the oven.
Jeff Finger 6-17-23 C+
Dogged by an over-rich contract he should never have been offered. It's not that Finger's been that bad...on the contrary, he's played quite well and leads the team in blocked shots. But not that well.
Luke Schenn 2-12-14 A-
"The Human Eraser". "Lockdown". "Cool Hand Luke." This boy makes defense look easy. Five more of him and the Leafs would have allowed fewer goals than anyone else in the league. Bone-crushing hits, an endearing propensity to stick up for his teammates, and an almost endless litany of smart plays, with few mistakes. Believe the hype: he really does have the makings of a Scott Stevens. Not much for offense, but I still think that'll come; it improved just over the course of this season. Possible future captain of the Leafs, if not next year than in 2010-2011.
Anton Stralman 1-12-13 (38 GP) C-
Not quite ready for prime time, Stralman still has the makings to replace Kaberle at some point. A mean streak would certainly help: he's softer than Dove soap.
Jonas Frogren 1-6-7 (41 GP) B-
As hard as Stralman is soft. I like what I saw of Frogren before he went down with a leg injury halfway through the year. Solid, stay-at-home type who always finishes his checks.
INC: Oreskevic, Sifers, Harrison (all of which were at least halfway decent). I particularly liked the ten games I saw from Oreskevic. I think Big Phil's got a good shot to make next year's squad.
VESA TOSKALA 22-17-11, 3.26, .891 D
It came out, towards the end of the year, that Toskala'd been playing hurt. Boy, could you tell. He reminded me unpleasantly of Raycroft from 2006-2007 (indeed, his SV% was three ticks worse). It wasn't just that he gave up goals, it was when he gave them up: more often than not, in the first or last minute of periods, or just after the Leafs had scored one themselves. Or he'd let in three goals in three minutes. It got so bad I winced every time the puck was so much as directed towards the net. If I felt like that watching at home, imagine what the players felt like.
Hopefully he'll rebound next year, but he needs someone challenging for his job.
Curtis Joseph 5-9-1, 3.57. .869 D-
As much as it pains me to say it, it's time this old hound was taken out back. I may never forget the goaltending clinic he put on when he was inserted into a tie game against Washington with three minutes left in regulation...he stoned Ovechkin immediately, then erected a wall in overtime, and finished up with three saves in the shootout for the win. Unfortunately, nearly every other game he played, he outsucked Vesa Losskala. Which is quite an achievement. Cujo: thanks for the memories. A goaltending coaching career awaits you.
Martin Gerber 10-14-1 3.03 .902 D+
As a Leaf, he was...okay. He got lucky one night and made 48 saves. I say "lucky" because Gerber lets out rebounds on almost every shot. His puckhandling is poor at best and his attention can wander, leaving him just as prone to weak goals as the rest of the Leaf 'tenders. Unlikely he'll be here next year.
INC, but, if anything, even worse than the other three: Pogge. That Rask for Raycroft trade just keeps looking more and more terrible. If I'm Burke, I give Toskala ten or fifteen games next year to prove he can play...but I have a good backup in place challenging him right out of the gate. That backup is not Gerber, not Joseph, and most assuredly not Pogge.