On the latest MLHS Podcast, Anthony Petrielli and Nick Ashbourne graded the 2023-24 Maple Leafs’ first-half performances at the unofficial midway mark of the season.

Note: All of these grades are based on the pre-season expectation level for the individual player (i.e. if Simon Benoit receives a better grade than Mitch Marner, it doesn’t mean Benoit has been a better or more valuable player this season).

William Nylander

23 goals and 61 points in 47 games | 49.23% GF | 53.85% xGF

Anthony's GradeNick's Grade
William NylanderB+A

Nick Ashbourne: I am giving him an A. I know the recent production has not been as strong, but if you look at the body of work, he has consistently driven a successful line. At times this season, he has been on pace for something around 120 points.

I am pretty confident that is not going to happen now. When he was really going, he was doing a better job of getting his shot off and getting to dangerous areas.

He has also learned to penalty kill a little bit and has looked dangerous on that side of the game with the “power kill” mentality.

I understand the criticisms of Nylander, but when I look at what he has done this season, I have a hard time going below A.

Anthony Petrielli: I am going to go below A. I actually have him around a B+ at the moment. It might be surprising to some considering the points pace that he is on.

He’s added penalty killing, where I think he is actually quite good. I don’t think you want him on the opening faceoff of the penalty kill, but once the puck is cleared and you get to throw him over the boards, he can cause trouble in the neutral zone for teams and potentially even burn them on the counterattack.

The reason I have graded him outside of an A: Ultimately, at five-on-five, he has been on for 32 goals for and 33 against. We can talk about the points until we are blue in the face, but ultimately, he is getting outscored at five-on-five. His power-play production has juiced his totals a little bit.

Some of the team’s power play struggles of late — and we’re talking almost a month now — have been because Nylander is getting perimeter shot-happy. I think that has been a big issue on the power play. He has ripped more than a few goals from those spots, but over the past few weeks, I think it has had a little bit of a negative effect where he has kind of fallen in love with it. It is almost like an NBA player falling in love with their jump shot instead of driving it to the inside.

I love the skill. He has broken a number of games for the team. There were wins early in the season that he carried the team to. But I want to see him tilt it more at five-on-five. I want to see the power play get back in order, in which he plays a big part.

Nick: That’s understandable and fair. He doesn’t have a great on-ice save percentage, though, so there are some PDO factors in that five-on-five goal share. If you look at expected goals, he has generally been pretty good on that side.

I think that the power play point is definitely valid. He has settled for some shots where the percentage of scoring is going to be low. If you miss that shot, the percentage of the puck rattling around the boards or the team not getting a second opportunity is high.

There is a nasty opportunity cost. If Morgan Rielly throws the puck on net on a spot where he is not likely to score from, it is more likely to be okay; you have someone right in front of the net — generally, John Tavares — with an opportunity to deflect or there are going to be more rebounds. If Nylander comes in from the wing on a wide angle, rips it, and misses, there is a good chance it’s going out of the zone or somewhere they don’t recover it.

Auston Matthews

40 goals and 58 points in 46 games | 60.29% GF | 53.24% xGF

Anthony's GradeNick's Grade
Auston MatthewsA-A

Nick: I went with an A. Has Matthews been a better player than Nylander? At this point, I would say yes.

Matthews has scored an absolute ton. He has maybe not been quite as good defensively as when he’s been at the very best of his capabilities there, but he has still been good.

If there was a little more setting teammates up, if there was a little bit more continuity on the penalty kill, or if I felt he was a true Selke candidate, he could be at A+, but there is not much more he can do than he currently is.

Anthony: I wish you were my teacher in elementary school, high school, and university. I ultimately have him as an A-.

Pacing for 70 goals is outrageous. He is an automatic goal right now. The way that he is hunting his shot down is a joy to watch. We can get into the analysis and the Xs and Os, but at some point, I do just try to sit back and enjoy what we are watching. It is incredible to see. We have never seen anything like it; as a Leaf, Phil Kessel never hit Auston Matthews’ current All-Star break goal total (40), and Kessel was a great Leaf.

The reason the grade is a little bit lower: At the end of the day, he is tracking for his lowest shot-attempt share percentage at five-on-five since his third season in the league. I think it shows. There have been extended times when they are hemmed in their zone. He plays a role in that.

Adam Lowry handed him his lunch two games in a row against Winnipeg. I could understand it in the one game where the Leafs were back from a long road trip and Sheldon Keefe tried to give them a pass. But Lowry handed it to him on the Saturday night; he went on multiple breakaways or mini-breakaways because of Matthews.

I do think it is a bit of a microcosm of his play. I think he has struggled against the top guys. Nathan MacKinnon came in and had his way with him. The Oilers had their way with him. At the end of the day, the team is built around Matthews matching up against top guys. I think it has come out flat a little bit in some of those bigger matchups.

We can draw it back to any number of playoff series. Aleksander Barkov handled him, and Matthews didn’t score a goal in that series. He was productive against Tampa, but if we’re honest, Tampa outplayed them and I thought Brayden Point out-played Matthews in that series, especially at five-on-five.

I want to see more from him in terms of driving and controlling play. He can take over games. We have seen it. His goal-scoring is outrageous, but he is about to be the highest-paid player in the league. The expectations are astronomical.

I did not like him on the penalty kill, either, and don’t want to see him there.

Nick: I thought he did a good job of defending the line and defending entries — it is where you notice his quick stick and hands. Nylander has done a better job in the neutral zone and creating opportunities the other way than Matthews did. I don’t think he is an ace in that regard, but I would definitely like to see more of it.

Anthony: He is a star, so if the puck is in his vicinity, he can get it back. He is a big, strong guy. If the puck is in his radius, he is still going to win it. I rather see that than Alex Kerfoot, who loses a 50-50 puck battle most of the time.

In the sense of actively going out of the way to disrupt things, closing the lane, and having his stick in the right spots, it wasn’t what I wanted to see from him in that regard on the PK.

Mitch Marner

20 goals and 57 points in 47 games | 58.73% GF | 49.82% xGF

Anthony's GradeNick's Grade
Mitch MarnerB-C

Nick: It is hard to go really, really low. The production is more or less there. It is not as high as you’d love it to be, but I think the goal-scoring has been pretty good. There have been some instances of Marner finding shots and scoring where he maybe hasn’t in the past.

At the same time, when I think about what Marner can really do for the Leafs — beyond a gaudy point total; he’s going to play top minutes with top guys and is a great playmaker — I think about the special teams. He is going to be the key distributor on the power play. He is running the first penalty-killing unit. It is one of the reasons why he plays such an incredible amount of ice time.

The Leafs are currently 11th on the power play and 18th on the penalty kill. We can’t put that on one player’s shoulders, but to me, it is a bit of an indictment of Marner. He is supposed to be someone who helps get them over the top on both sides of it.

When you combine it with a scoring pace that is a little bit off what you want as well as watching him — he has not looked quite the same with the moments of brilliance on a night-to-night basis from a playmaking standpoint — I am going to put it at a C.

Anthony: I am quite torn on Marner. He is still super productive. He still does a ton of really good things for the team. I am trying not to be negative about the players. I am trying to be honest about where I would slot them in terms of my expectations for them. A large part of it is the expectations that they put on themselves which is tied to their salaries.

I have him at a B-. He is still going to track for 90+ points. He offers a number of things across the ice, but I do think he plays a role in some of the penalty-killing troubles. At five-on-five — and this ties into Matthews — those two should be hopping over the boards and dominating. They should be doing what we saw MacKinnon and Rantanen do to them. They are supposed to be at that level as a combination.

Nick: When you’re spending that much on the line, it has to consistently hem its opponent in their zone.

Anthony: They should be hopping the boards and we should feel giddy seeing them on the ice. Matthews gets the higher grade to me because I think Marner is more responsible for it.

Here is the part that is tricky for me, and who is to blame is up for debate: I think Marner plays too much. I think he makes business decisions on the ice as to when he is going to go hard for pucks and when he is not because he is playing so much.

Who’s at fault for that is a subject of debate. Is it on the coaching staff for overplaying him, or is Marner playing a role in how much his ice time is juiced up? I am not going to get into the debate, but I am acknowledging the reality that he wants that ice time and responsibility, and I am not sure it is the best thing for him or the team.

Ultimately, there has been a lack of signature Mitch Marner games this year. Earlier in his career, there were games where you could see it on the first few shifts. He would look light as a feather on his feet, would be dancing out there, and was electric nearly every shift. We don’t see it as much from him.

I think a large part of it is because of how much he plays. He is conserving himself, and I don’t blame him for it, but is he conserving himself because of his own demands or because the coaching staff is heaping the ice time on him? You could spend all day trying to break it down.

At the end of the day, I think Marner should be driving more at five-on-five. The penalty kill should be better with him on it. On the power play, similar to Nylander becoming shot-happy from the perimeter, I think the power play gets silly at times because of Marner. He will pull up top for no reason, and there are a number of times when I have seen him look off shooters to float nonsense to the net.

He can do a better job of buying into the greater good.

Nick: It is a chicken-or-egg with the coaching situation and to what extent Marner drives it. It is on coaching if the coach is letting him drive it, though, to be honest. Whatever way you cut it, it is not great from the coaching perspective.

There might be a “less is more” here. If we saw Marner more in the 19-20-minute range, would he be fresher? Would he be more electric? As the team is currently constructed, we are probably not going to find out.

John Tavares

13 goals and 35 points in 47 games | 50.98% GF | 55.36% xGF

Anthony's GradeNick's Grade
John TavaresB-C+

Nick: I had a lot of difficulty with this one. You could argue that he has done a better job of driving play at five-on-five than he did last year. His expected goals are over 55% at five-on-five. He has a 7.5% shooting percentage, which is kind of ridiculous for a player who spends all of his time around the net and has hands like Tavares does.

Natural Stat Trick records his individual expected goals for the season at 26 over all strengths. You don’t take that as gospel necessarily, but Tavares puts himself in good positions to convert scoring opportunities and does it at a good clip. He just hasn’t converted so far this season.

Is he unlucky and snake-bitten? It is a similar conversation to the one with Tyler Bertuzzi. At the end of the day, I had to give him a C+. A lot of the fundamentals of what he does are there, and there is an alternate universe where he is having a much better season, but at the end of the day, the production is not there.

At this point in his career when he doesn’t offer that much defensive value, he has to produce. I am kind of in between a C and a C+.

Anthony: I have him around a B-. I debated a B. I know the production has started to dip, but my expectation was that the production was going to start to dip.

He has done a good job in terms of five-on-five play. He is 26-25 at five-on-five for goals, so he is plus-one at five-on-five, which is by no means great. That is what pushes him down to a B- for me.

By and large, he has centered their best line this season. In terms of what you can reasonably expect from Tavares, he has kind of done that. He is excellent in the faceoff circle. I find it hard to really sit there and criticize his effort. I think he is consistent in what he does and what he brings

He has been good on the forecheck. I still think he is strong down low. His process of creating chances has been there. The line has been solid territorially.

I shade to B- because I do think he can bear down more production-wise. Part of it is on him finishing better. I very much think he is capable of producing a little bit more even though he is aging in his career. In terms of a second-line center — which is what he is on this team — I think he has generally done what you would expect him to.

For more of the mid-season Leafs player grades at all positions, check out the latest MLHS podcast:

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