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While we pretend there will be hockey soon, a highly-informal ranking of the Leaf roster as we head to training camp

Those who know the leanings of the Vintage Leaf Memories site know that I tend to eschew doing the traditional (if often fun) player rankings.  What I’m referring to are those “letter” assessments that seek to categorize players in a quasi-academic style of grading.  I’ve tended to not do this because I feel there are other observers who are much more qualified and who do it more expertly than myself.

Acknowledging that, let’s have some fun nonetheless and walk through the present Leaf roster, and, as best we can, project what it will look like come October (or early January, more likely…).

(Editor’s note- though I’m the writer and the editor, so no discernable distinction there, eh?  My method is kind of a amalgam of different criteria.  It is not based on statistics, and certainly not the popular ‘advanced stats’ utilized by many modern-day analysts who have an expertise I simply don't.  It’s also not just my perceptions of how guys performed this past season, though that obviously is a significant element in my breakdown.  It does include my view of their track record, their potential for growth and their desirability when it comes to being a Maple Leaf for the foreseeable future.

Today:  Goaltenders and the defense


James Reimer:  B

Now, you may wonder precisely how I can possibly ascribe this kind of relatively high “grade” to a goaltender who is coming off a serious injury and played only sporadically—and somewhat inconsistently—during a grueling sophomore season in blue and white.  For me, it’s simple.  I know he has issues with his glove hand.  I know he is lacking in certain areas.  But beyond his engaging personality (which I really do appreciate), I think we can better make an assessment on a young player as he strides through his third season than in our usual rush to judgment after a flashy rookie season—or a struggling sophomore year.  Let’s just say this:  I think Reimer has something to “prove” this coming season.  If he stays healthy, I think he will grab the number-one job and run with it.  In his first year here, he gave up soft goals, as most netminders do, but he also usually closed the door late in games or when the Leafs were fighting to crawl back into a contest.  I like his spirit, and think he can play the position.  Thus, the “B” grade.

Ben Scrivens:  (incomplete)

I guess we're looking at Scrivens as the "other" Leaf goalie at this point, along with Reimer.  But I actually believe something will happen once the CBA is cleared up and the Leafs will ultimately sign or trade for a goaltender.  Whether that it a big name like Luongo, someone we're not even thinking about or simply an experienced back-up, I have no idea.  But I'd be shocked if we went into a season with two young guys that have less than 100 NHL games between them.

Scrivens played OK during his brief time with the big club last season, and was certainly instrumental in the Marlies making it all the way to the Calder Cup finals.   But I can't say I have much to offer when it comes to assessing him.  Does he have a much higher ceiling?  Is he just another nice goalie, someone who can play well in bursts but is generally just another guy in net?  I don't know at this point.  But he seems to want it, and that counts for a fair bit.


Dion Phaneuf:  B+

Phaneuf rates this grade, for me, because he logs huge minutes on an unproven blueline corps. He brings an offensive dimension, though perhaps not quite what we were sold on (or hoped for, with that big shot) when he first came over from Calgary.  He can certainly be beaten on the outside, and he gives up on plays sometimes, but by and large he brings a modestly physical presence to his work, the occasional big hit and is a solid overall contributor.  A team leader?  That I’m not sure of, but I’m comfortable focusing on what he can do, as opposed to what he can’t—at this point.

John-Michael Liles:  B-

Liles may have been operating at a B+ or even better level in the first part of the 2011-’12 season, but post-concussion, he was not really the same guy, understandably so.  So I’ll saw it off in the middle.  He has always been a fine skater, and makes heads-up plays to go along with the usual assortment of flaws in his defensive game,  Is he just another everyday NHL defenseman?  Maybe.  I'm not sure he will ever be more than that.  Whether he is now “trade bait”, I have no idea.  But a Liles who played as he did in the early part of last season would be fine, thank you.

Carl Gunnarsson: B

I’d like to give Gunner a higher grade (he’s probably one of my favourite Leafs) but he remains a mystery man to me.  He’s not particularly anything (not super physical, not the world’s best skater, etc…) but  he can play significant minutes if necessary and does more than just take up space.  He’s a smart player who seems to play his position well most nights and can chip in with some timely offensive plays.  He’s one of the few trading chips that we have (a proven NHL defenseman) but I continue to hope that we won’t have to move him.

Mike Komisarek:  C-

I spent the last two autumns telling myself (and readers here) that I believed Komisarek would bounce back and find his stride -and confidence- in Toronto.  He never really has.  I like his attitude and he certainly is a ‘gamer’.  I just don’t know if he somehow peaked in Montreal,  while playing in the perfect pairing for him (it was Markov, right?) or what happened, but he’s not the same guy here.  I’m trying to keep salary out of the assessment equation here, but that can’t help but colour my thinking just a bit.  So a C- seems fair.

Jake Gardiner:  B

Now, I’m sure some observers will say I am grossly under-valuing Gardiner here.  But I need to see more.  He clearly is a wonderful skater.  But like a skilled young pitcher (or hitter) in baseball, the league will know him a lot better the second time around.  Teams know he doesn’t like to be hit, and they will know better how to not go for his jukes, feints and 'head bobs' (a la Carl Brewer, right, the ultra-skilled Leaf defenseman in the team's hey-day in the early 1960s.  While Brewer was a sneaky dirty in his early NHL days and Gardiner is not that, young Jake does possess some of Carl's splendid offensive gifts...) this season, I would suspect.  Yes, he can often skate away from trouble, but while he is no doubt an untouchable in the minds of the Leaf brass, he remains, again just for me perhaps, a work in progress.  If his career arc grows as it did last season, he may well be a straight “A” in terms of not just skill but impact before too long.  Right now, I think we were blown away because we were surprised by his performance last season—and we haven’t had a lot to cheer about in terms of high-end skill here in recent years.  As I’ve posted here before, I want to see him develop as an all-around defenseman and be better in the corners and in front of his own net.  So I’ll apply a somewhat harsher criteria here, and a more modest-level grade.

Cody Franson:  C+

I really don’t know what to make of Franson.  He was good enough to help the Predators in the playoffs and play key minutes in 2010-’11,  and his former coach, Barry Trotz, said last season they'd take him back in a second.  Yet  he wasn’t even dressing for the Leafs early last season.  There seemed to be a feeling that, like Keith Aulie, he had “assumed” his position on the roster.  Perhaps was a victim of the supposed “meritocracy” regime.  (You know, where Leaf players have to "prove" themselves and all that.  Until they’re in the regular, everyday line-up, that is, and then their flaws are seemingly more easily forgiven…)  Bottom line: the guy can skate a bit, has that powerful shot, and can be somewhat physical.  An All-Star?  No, not right now, but an NHL defenseman, yes.

Part of the fun in all this is that we all see things differently, and I full anticipate that many observers will disagree rather vehemently.  So by all means share your views.

I’ll aim to post on the forwards in the next day or two….


  1. One of the challenges we face when trying to rate the Leafs is that most of players are at least one of Churchill's three famous words - an enigma, a riddle, or a mystery.
    For me, Reimer merits a C+, based not on potential but on what we've seen to date. He reminds me of Carlos Delgado when he first came up to the bigs years ago. His first time round, he was dynamite. But once his weaknesses were known, it didn't take long before he was back in the minors. Hopefully, Reimer will make a triumphant return, as Delgado eventually did, but at the moment - who knows? He had a pretty good half season in Year 1, but other teams were finding the top shelf glove side before the year was out. Last year, well, I can cut him slack on last year. But the bottom line is, I have no clue how he'll do. And I haven't seen anything that gives me confidence.
    Scrivens is another mystery. He definitely wasn't ready for prime time last year. He looked pretty good during the Marlies' run last Spring, but I didn't see a skill level that made me think he was ready to burn it up at the NHL level. So, as with Reimer, we'll have to wait and see. Based on his short stay, I'd rate him a D+, but the sample size is admittedly much too small.
    Of course, one of the reasons for our goalies' problems is the enigma of our defence.
    I'll agree with your B+ for Phaneuf, though I might upgrade him to A- simply because of the minutes he shoulders. I won't factor in his leadership qualities, though I will say i can't think of another current player who evidences his passion.
    Liles has become another unknown. I'd give him a B because I liked his play pre-concussion, but will he recover, and will his style work in the Age of Carlyle? No way of knowing.
    Gunnarsson gets a B+ from me. Solid, unspectacular, improving (to my eyes). I look for him to be one of our key stay-at-home defensive guys this year.
    Komisarek... sigh. One of the enigmas. I really hoped he'd bounce back last year, and I think his play did improve. When he was good, he was tough. He's also the meanest guy we've got - when he wants to be. (We need a couple more, btw). But too many games saw him caught out of position, or making bad clearing decisions and giveaways. I'd rate him a C+, but I acknowledge that my O'Malley soft heartedness may be influencing me.
    Jake Gardiner is another Delgado. There's a lot to like, but his style isn't suited to tight-checking games (aka the playoffs). I have no idea how he'll do this year, now that everyone knows how to play him. I think your B is a fair assessment. Maybe Komi can give him some meanness tips...
    Cody Franson is yet another mystery. Shoulda been a real plus last year, but somehow just couldn't put it together under Ron Wilson. C+ seems just about right.
    One thing is for sure - our goaltending won't really improve unless team defence does. That's Carlyle's specialty, so perhaps some of these mysterious, enigmatic riddles will be resolved this season.

  2. You've aptly summed up our back end with the words enigma and mystery, Gerund O'. (And yes, we could surely throw riddle in there as well...).

    I think your baseball/Delgado reference is an interesting one, too. That's precisely how things went for Carlos: a stunning first time around the league, a serious setback as others adjusted to him, and ultimately, offensive brilliance when it all came together for him.

    In that vein, we will see about Reimer and Gardiner over time.

    Thanks for kicking this one off, Gerund O'....

  3. Goal: Unless there is a Johnny Bower lurking in the weeds it looks like we may have to go with what we've got. I am a believer in James Reimer. I feel that with an injury free season and improved team defense under Carlyle he will establish himself as a true #1. Ben Scrivens was the best goalie in the AHL last year and has earned a chance at the back-up position. As I understand it, he would have to clear waivers if we brought in another goalie and attempted to send him down and we would most certainly lose him. As I have stated here before, I am sick and tired of seeing homegrown talent going elsewhere to have a productive career. LA went with two youngsters last year and the results weren't too bad.

    Defense: As with the goaltending, I believe the defense will benefit from an improved team defense under Carlyle. I hope he can establish defensive pairings early and keep them together.

    Phaneuf is certainly a top pairing defenseman and it looks like Gunnarsson is his logical partner.

    I loved your allusion to Carl Brewer in regards to Jake Gardiner. Brewer established himself as a top 4 defenseman straight out of junior. He was an excellent skater and was adept at moving the puck out of his own end. On defense he was sneaky dirty and hence very effective. He used to cut the palms out of his gloves, slip his hands through, and get a pretty effective grip on opposing forwards. He also had rock solid tough as nails Bob Baun as his partner. Gardiner needs to develop defensive acumen to go with his offensive skills and he needs his own Bob Baun. Komisarek doesn't look like much of an answer...maybe Korbinian Holzer???

    John-Michael Liles was very impressive pre-concussion. We can only hope he regains that form.

    Cody Franson has an impressive skill set. It will be interesting to see if he will thrive under Carlyle.

    I see a very bright future for the Leafs defense with players such as Holzer, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, Morgan Rielly and Matthew Finn in the pipeline.

  4. I agree Pete Cam that our pipeline of young defensemen looks promising. You never know for sure, but if even some of them emerge, it should bode well for the future of the blue line corps.

    I'm with you on Gardiner. A real talent, but not the edge you sometimes like to see. Not that he necessarily needs to be like a Brewer (love that you remember Carl played with the palm of his gloves cut out...true story...). Paul Coffey is an example of a defenseman who was awfully good without being a hard-nosd guy in his own zone, but a little sandpaper might be good for Gardiner.

    Thanks for chiming in, PeteCam.

  5. Michael,

    A very nice change of pace today. I think that you underestimate yourself a little. The people on other sites are not in any way better at handicapping the abilities of our team. They just spend a lot of time doing it. There are no real arguments to make with regards to your grades. You and I both like what Carl Gunnarson is, and hopefully, that he will continue to improve. A-

    I think that if I were to sum up the defense and goaltenders for their play last year. I would do so and say that I hope there is improvement from all of them as we eventually get back to hockey this year.

    My hope is that Phaneuf makes better decisions at the opposition blueline, as well as plays a step or two deeper in the neutral zone in the future. Other than that, if he could learn that no matter how hard you shoot the puck, if it misses the net you aren't going to score. He plays the hardest minutes of any player on the Leafs. I would have given him a solid B, with room for improvement.

    Komisarek, is eligible to be transferred to another school, isn't he. D- He doesn't seem to know where he fits into the League, in my mind. Is he a solid stay at home guy, or a beast on the back end who takes a tonne of penalties? Some clear direction from Carlyle would be great for Komi, and maybe get us someone like the guy that used to play with Markov.

    For some reason that I am not sure of. I want to see more of Cody Franson this year. A lot more. He does things I like, he hits the net from the point, and rarely gets his shot blocked. He has good vision, makes some nice exit passes as well as ones in the offensive zone. He is a good playmaker to my eye. He is soft on the man in his own zone. Strange, given the fact that he is a giant. Will Randy toughen him up, or at least stress the importance of that kind of play? I think he will. C

    You summed up Liles perfectly. Do we get the guy we had before the concussion, or the one that came back too soon? B-

    Gardiner. Wow. Even though I don't like the talk of potential. This kid sure has a lot of it. Lets all wish good thoughts for his development into some kind of Brian Leetch type. B

    Reimer. Jeez, I should just copy and paste my Liles comment from above. B- Sometime in the future one of the players the Leafs have drafted will turn into a real world beater, maybe it will be Reimer. B-

  6. I like your Leetch reference when it comes to Gardiner, Jim. That would certainly be OK!

    We're very close in our assessments throughout. I've been waiting and hoping for Komisarek to play with the confidence he showed earlier in his Montreal days. That would have (and still would) make a difference on the back end.

    I agree, there is hope for us on the blueline, as PeteCam also noted above.

    I'm less certain about our forwards, and I'll try to cover that in the next day or so.

    Thanks Jim.

  7. So.. is there some sort of "Leave No Child Behind" grading system applied?

    Cause I don't see how Komisarek could possibly get more than a D or F without being graded on some sort of weird and dysfunctional curve.

  8. I acknowledge that my grading was probably soft in some cases, Chuck. But hey, it gave you an opportunity to chime in and you gave me my smile for the day....Thanks.

  9. Hi Michael,

    Of the two goaltenders I am willing to bet that Scrivens has more upside. He was the best in camp last year and was a victim of contracts. I think just about everyone now knows to go high glove on Reimer, unless he can cure that flaw he will struggle.
    On defense, as Jim said above Gardiner reminds me of Brian Leetch. And you only have to look at the success of Nick Lidstrom to understand that defensemen don't necessarily have to be physical to succeed. This was his first year out of college, I look for even better things going forward.
    Of the others I really like Gunnarsson, solid and skilled. Other than that it is a mystery. Which Phaneuf will show up? Both have been very good at times and not so good at others.
    On paper you look at this group and it looks not so bad. As we have seen, that doesn't always transfer well to the ice.


  10. The Lidstrom reference vis-a-vis Gardiner is a reasonable one Brad (cbh747). (Leetch, too, as Jim noted above...)

    I agree that physicality is not absolutely necessary, though, in most cases, you better be awfully skilled and think the game unusually well. Gardiner seems to have- and do - that, so he may be just fine. I just wonder about playoff hockey. But we'll see.

    Interesting point on Scrivens. I have not seen enough of him at this level to have a good feel, so I trust how those who, like yourself, have seen him more, feel.

    I'm a Gunnarsson guy. Just hope he continues to get a little better every year.

    Thanks as always Brad. Good stuff.

  11. Just an FYI - I always enjoy your articles even if I don't 100% agree with them


  12. No worries- you're always welcome to disagree here, Chuck. It would be painfully dull if Leaf fans agreed all the time- we'd be the Stepford wives of hockey.

    Stay in touch....

  13. I was wondering if Drew Doughty would be a good comparable for Gardiner? We can all appreciate Jake's skating and offensive skills that he demonstrated last year yet concern seems to exist about his defensive capabilities. Are these same concerns expressed about Drew in spite of his offensive skills?
    Are we being overly concerned about Jake? I haven't seen Drew play much so my comparison may not be a good one. Perhaps your readers can think of a better young offensive Dman to compare him with?
    Just wondering. I'd like to think he's going to be an A+ for us in the future but I'd give him an A for his efforts last year.
    I'm not a big fan of Phaneuf. I would give him a C or C+ at best. There had to be reasons that Calgary was willing to get rid of him in what appeared to be a lopsided deal. I'm not convinced we were such a big "winner" in that deal. We didn't lose, but I don't see it as a win either. He never lived up to his hype after his first year with them. I think he is too slow with a short fuse that only invites penalty trouble. And he can't hit the net from the point. Did I say I wasn't a big fan?
    As for the other defencemen, I too like Gunnar and give him a steady B+. nothing fancy, just effective. Komi struggled to find his way and could only rate a D for us at this point. Franson I liked, the little I saw of him, but it's too soon for me to rate him. I also agree that Liles looked good before his injury and I'd give him a solid B for that period.
    As far as our goaltenders are concerned, I was impressed by both of them but agree that once opponents started to figure out Reimer, he had a problem. Scrivens may meet the same fate. Their ability to improve in their weak areas will determine how good we can grade them in the future. Having said that, do we have the right goalie coach for them that suits their style of play?

  14. Very well said re the goalies, Ed. The challenge may indeed be, can either or both of Reimer and Scrivens counter the adjustments teams and shooters will make regarding their style and individual weaknesses? All goailies have to work through that period of adjustment, it seems.

    Doughty may be a fair player to more or less 'compare' Gardiner to. I think everyone is hoping Jake will seamlessly move forward, and he may well. We'll see.

    I can understand your criticisms of Phaneuf. I'll let your comments stand on their own merit.

    Thanks as always Ed....

  15. Hate to disagree with you Michael, but all your grades are a full mark too high, with the exception of Gardiner. Tremendously hopeful. I sincerely hope you're proven right.

  16. By all means disagree, Brent. I sensed myself I was probably being too generous in spots! Thanks for posting.

  17. I think I'd probably give Gunnarsson a little bit of a higher rating and Gardiner a little bit of a lower rating. I love the future for Gardiner but I think he needs to develop a stronger all-around game (as you alluded to above) before I'm willing to view him in the same light as Gunnarsson.

    As reluctant as you are to put together these lists, you always do a fine job of it.

  18. interesting comments...I think I will be in the minority, I am a big Reimer supporter, I have been following him since he was drafted and his history says he will be fine....sure hope so

    as for the d, I see Dion and Gunnar as the top pair, I really like the idea of Gardiner/Holzer as a pair...and Franson/Liles as another - Komi is the 7th in my view ...
    I am assuming we will have pre-concussion Liles as we were humming along pretty good at that time, his injury may have hurt us more than James'

    I also think we will be pleasantly surprised on the blueline by 2 things this year
    1) Carlyle's system
    2) the absence of Schenn..I never bought the hype of Luke Schenn, decent rookie year and regression ever since...can hit at times, cannot fight and is slow with a low hockey iq...I think Luke in Philly will be a big "addition by subtraction" scenario for us

    on a totally unrelated note, I have to say I am glad I found this site...rational respectful hockey discussion is a rarity these days....kudos to everyone here

  19. I hemmed and hawed, Curt, about Gunnarsson's ranking. I was maybe a bit conservative- and hoping to spur him on, probably! Thanks.

  20. I have much the same feeling about Reimer, freshwind. He just seems to have the disposition and mentality required to build on both his earlier struggles and successes.

    Your Holzer/Gardiner pairing is one to watch, if we ever get to training camp...

    As for Schenn, I'm torn. You may be right. I just kind of feel he has some upside. We'll see!

    Thanks, by the way, for the kind words, freshwind. As I noted in my "thank you" post yesterday, a lot of people make a valued contribution here.