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.
Yesterday, we published the grades for the Leafs’ Core Four forwards. Now we’ll jump into the rest of the forward corps.
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).
4 goals and 24 points in 47 games | 54% GF | 48.1% xGF
Nick Ashbourne: I have him at a solid B. He has produced offense at five-on-five at a pretty good clip. He is third on the team at five-on-five points per 60. He is ahead of William Nylander and John Tavares and behind only Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
He is a creative playmaker who I enjoy watching. Moving him to center has energized him. It has been night and day; he really didn’t do anything on the wing.
At the same, there are defensive issues. Clearly, there are issues of trust with the coach. From a play-driving or territorial/possession perspective, he has held his own, but it is in the context of not necessarily playing difficult competition and being held off of defensive-zone faceoffs.
He has been put in favourable positions and sort of stalemated those positions, which is not ideal, but generally speaking, I have liked how he has played over the last few weeks. In the context of how little he plays, he has been productive. I think he would really help on the power play if they had more time to use him there.
Anthony Petrielli: I expected him to provide secondary scoring, which he has reasonably done. I expected him to be a piece who could move around — someone who could provide a jolt here or there — but I don’t think he has been given that opportunity.
There have been times when I thought they’d maybe move him up with Marner at points and rekindle the junior connection. I thought that he maybe could slot in on the top-line or second-line left-wing spot and end up providing scoring down the stretch when the coach condenses the lines and is double-shifting. He hasn’t been given the opportunity at all.
I do find it disappointing that he hasn’t worked on the wing. He has to be one of the only players in the league who actively gets worse when he goes from center to wing. Winger is the easiest job in the league; you skate up and down the wall with half of the ice at your disposal. We’ve seen many players in the league move to wing successfully.
Nick: Pontus Holmberg was invisible at center and started to make an impact on the wing.
Anthony: It is by far the easiest position in the league, but somehow, Domi gets worse there.
I have him at a B. He has legitimately provided secondary scoring. I think he has produced a few game-breaking moments. The one time he was called to fill in in the top six, he was excellent (the game Auston Matthews missed vs. Pittsburgh). I think back to the big goal against Boston in the third period to tie the game. He set up a beauty against Ottawa in the third period. He has provided a little bit of that game-breaking ability.
Probably my biggest issue — beyond him not being moved around the lineup — is Domi not doing enough to earn it and also Domi not shooting enough. He needs to score more than four goals. He is not even launching 1.5 shots on net per game. I think he owns a good shot. His goal against Buffalo — where walked in from the half-wall and ripped one into the far side top shelf — showed he can shoot it.
There is clear evidence he can shoot it, but in 47 games, he has 65 shots. It is just not good enough. He has to put pucks on net more. We knew going in that he is a good passer — and he has definitely made some good passes to set up teammates for nice assists — but at some point, he has to keep teams honest. I don’t think he does a good enough job balancing it. That is on him.
I think he has to show some evolution in his game. With the physicality, there have been weeks on end where his body is not making contact with an opponent’s body. I would like to see him shoot more and get involved more physically. I don’t know if that is because he doesn’t get to play very much, but I also don’t know if he is forcing the coach’s hand necessarily to play him more. But he has provided secondary scoring, which is what we expected from him.
6 goals and 20 points in 46 games | 58.49% GF | 57.99% xGF
Nick: A lot of the things I said about Tavares apply to Bertuzzi. The difference for me is that Tavares is someone I expect to convert at an above-average rate. That is part of the expectation with Tavares: he is going to convert on the high-level opportunities. There has been a level of Bertuzzi being snakebitten that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but at the same time, I know he has the one high-scoring season on the resume, so I didn’t expect him to be an elite-level scorer.
Bertuzzi has the second-highest expected goals rate on the team at 57.99%. He has been one of the better Leafs at forechecking, puck retrievals, and sustaining offensive pressure. I like what he brings to the table, but he has been a little bit unlucky.
I am going to give him a B- with the understanding that if a few things had gone his way, it would be easy to imagine us really singing his praises. A lot of what he has done has been relatively solid. At the end of the day, though, when someone comes in making decent money to be a top-six player, there is an aspect of needing to produce. He has not produced to the expectations.
Anthony: Ultimately, my expectations coming into the season for Bertuzzi were for him to be on the top line.
Nick: I still would like to see Bertuzzi – Matthews – Marner for an extended period of time.
Anthony: Agreed, but maybe not with Marner. I think you could put Jarnkrok there and it would open up all sorts of possibilities throughout the rest of the lineup. We’ll get to the coaching grade when it’s time.
There is no excuse for Bertuzzi’s 36-point pace. At the end of the day, it’s just the reality. However, he is basically seeing no power-play time. I did expect him to receive looks on the top unit, but it has not happened at all, and it is not his fault.
Nick: Especially when Tavares has struggled. Bertuzzi is someone you could slot into that spot confidently to provide a lot of the same things. It is an obvious tweak that the coaching staff has never done.
Anthony: In the last three weeks, they have had Nylander pull up top with Rielly chilling by the goal line as if he can do anything by the goal line on the power play. Bertuzzi is watching it from the bench on power plays that he is drawing for the team. I would be beside myself if I was Bertuzzi watching some of the things he has had to watch from the bench on the power play.
Max Domi doesn’t have the same argument. I don’t think he can argue he should be playing on the half-wall over Matthews or Nylander. But Bertuzzi easily has the argument that he could go in front of the net and do a better job. I am a little bit frustrated with that.
The points pace is not lost on me. It is chicken or egg. He started the season slow. Could we have seen more of him on the top line, opening up a whole host of options for the team? Yes. He takes some blame for how he played to start the season, but at the same time, the coaching staff could be a little bit more flexible in how they are running it and trying out the options.
The second line has been the best version of the second line we have seen in this era of Leafs hockey. With Alex Kerfoot there, I never liked it. Last season, that line was dead even in goals for and against, and it was the line we ultimately saw Sheldon Keee turn to in the playoffs, where it was brutal. With Bertuzzi there, the line is outscoring and out-possessing opponents.
Even with Bertuzzi’s lack of production, by and large, he has been driving play. At five-on-five, he has been on for 31 goals for and 22 against. I think he has played a huge role in it. He has done great work in front of the net. He hasn’t been rewarded at times when he should have been. There have been a number of goals where he has played a big role in them without collecting a point. He works the walls effectively.
He does a ton of things I wanted him to do minus scoring and minus playing on the top line. He takes some blame for that, and so does the coaching staff. Ultimately, I arrive at a B for him.
8 goals and 17 points in 45 games | 52.83% GF | 46.77% xGF
Nick: It is his first full NHL season, and he has skated on the first line with Matthews and Marner a decent amount. He started the season playing more with Domi on the third line.
At the end of the day, it is a positive development season. You can see a lot of what makes Knies such a compelling prospect. He probably has a bright future at the NHL level.
He is difficult to grade for me. In a sense, the Knies trajectory is going fine, but in terms of his season, he has struggled to be the role player the Leafs need him to be right now. He hasn’t done as much with his five-on-five opportunities as you might want.
I am going to give him a B-, but it is a difficult one to grade. His play has been disappointing at times, but it is also pretty understandable.
Anthony: I agree with the B-.
Ultimately, a lot of the issues we are seeing could be worked through properly in the AHL. The Leafs‘ salary cap situation — and overall depth situation — kind of necessitates him being up in the NHL right now.
With Knies playing on the top line, it is more glaring if he has issues on the breakout. I think he struggles on the wall at times. It is also the physicality. He is billed as a power forward — when he joined the team, he discussed his aspirations as a power forward — but I think we go too long without seeing him be physical at all.
We have seen flashes. He crushed Ridly Greig before a goal against Ottawa. When they played Nashville right afterward, he laid two big hits in that game. There was the Gordie Howe hat trick against Pittsburgh. There have definitely been moments, but it has been few and far between.
He is a young kid in the NHL. At times, he gets pushed around. The Evan Bouchard cross-check from behind — where Knies laid on the ice looking at the ref asking for a call — didn’t sit well with me. I would like to see a “power forward’ get up and confront someone who did that to him as opposed to staring at the ref.
It is tough to play with Matthews and Marner at times. It is easy to get lulled into trying to make skilled plays because you see them doing it all the time. I think he is guilty of that at times.
At the same time, he is tracking for a reasonably productive season considering he is not playing on the power play at all. I think that is a little bit of a coaching issue. You can’t have a young kid like Knies up in the NHL and not give him second power-play unit time to get his touches for his confidence and maybe the extra point here or there.
I am not down on Knies in terms of his trajectory, but I think it is a tough spot when you are walking into the league and playing on the top line in terms of what is required of him on a night-to-night basis against the opposition’s best players.
Sometimes fans think a young prospect will jump in and go right to the top of the lineup, but this is more of what it actually looks like. Fans in Toronto were a little bit spoiled by how Matthews, Marner, and Nylander entered the league. That is not real life for 95+% of players who enter the NHL, especially for players who have not played a game in the AHL.
10 goals and 19 points in 46 games | 58% GF | 49.79% xGF
Nick: I am giving him a C+.
I know that Keefe uses him as a Swiss army knife. There are a lot of things he can do and has been doing, but I don’t think there is a realm where he has exceeded expectations or fallen short of them.
You could give it as high as a B and I wouldn’t be shocked, but there isn’t a ton of production and the on-ice numbers are not great for someone who has played on some decent lines.
Anthony: I give him a B.
I think he has done his job. He has been what I expected him to be. He takes good shifts. He is responsible. He is out-scoring opponents at five-on-five. He has been reasonably productive. He cashes in on chances when he gets them.
I think the biggest knock has been that Keefe trusts him too much. I think it has actively hurt him from a linemate perspective. Keefe has thought that he needs to play him with Domi because Domi is so bad defensively, but I think it hurts Jarnkrok.
Many were framing Jarnkrok’s recent injury as a major loss. With Pontus Holmberg there against Winnipeg, the third line was completely fine. At no point did I pine for Jarnkrok to be on the third unit as a game-shifting presence on the line.
I watched the Winnipeg game and thought they could move Jarnkrok to the top line. I don’t think it’s necessary for Jarnkrok to be a defensive anchor for the third line. At this time, I think he is the best option to play on the top-line LW spot. He was quite good there last year. His shot was notable, and I thought he fit in really nicely in terms of understanding his role and getting to the right spots.
To me, Jarnkrok has done his job. The coaching staff could use him a little bit better and smarter. His play will stay the same, but his usage could make people view him more favourably.
7 goals and 14 points in 29 games | 56% GF | 49.5% xGF
Nick: This grade would vary based on when you are asked during the first half of the season, but right now, I give him a B.
He is providing a secondary-scoring punch. He is fourth on the team in five-on-five points per 60 between Domi and Nylander. We all know about the shot, and it does pop off sometimes. There have been some ugly moments defensively.
He had been struggling to establish himself at the NHL level for a variety of reasons, but he has at least met expectations. The Leafs don’t have a lot of options beyond their top four to create offense. For all of Robertson’s flaws — his lack of size, sometimes his defensive awareness, and his decision-making with the puck — he has provided secondary scoring when others have not.
Anthony: I gave him a B+.
In the summer, I wrote that I think Robertson is a 20-goal guy in the league if he plays 82 games. It was met with a surprising amount of negative comments. At that point, he had played 31 games in the league and scored three goals. But I think he has a great shot. If he receives the opportunities — and you grease him up with a little power-play time — this is a 20-goal guy in the league as far as I am concerned.
He has seven goals in 29 games with barely any power-play time while playing third-line minutes. Realistically, he is playing fourth-line minutes because he is not even at 12 minutes per night on average.
I always thought he was a good secondary-scoring option, but the reason he is at a B+: I am starting to see some development in his game.
When he entered the league and was rushed into the NHL by the Leafs a few years ago — crazily, he was playing in the playoffs in 2020 — I thought people were strangely excited by the fact that Robertson would put his head down and shoot all the time. It greased up some of his numbers in terms of shot totals, and people would be impressed that he recorded five shots in a game. He would take the puck and shoot it; he wouldn’t look around at a teammate or try to make a play.
I think he is really starting to evolve into being a key cog offensively on a line. He shows signs of moving the puck around, getting to the right spots, and making actual decisions with the puck as opposed to only relying on owning an unbelievable shot.
I have really enjoyed watching the development of his game since he was reinserted in the lineup. If we had done this grading exercise three weeks ago, I would’ve given him a lower grade — to me, he faded when he played 24 straight games — but since he has come back into the lineup, he is showing signs of development in terms of breaking pucks out and his strength on pucks.
He is a small guy. When he got injured last season, he unnecessarily went into a battle with Matt Roy and lost it, which was to be expected. I think he is picking and choosing his spots a little better, which he needs to do. I think he is stronger on his stick.
I like quite a few things about what he is doing and how he is starting to show those positive signs. When I compare it to Matthew Knies, I want to see some more of those positive signs trending. I want to see Knies run a few players and start showing improvements on the breakout.
Robertson is older and has played more pro hockey than Knies. I think we are seeing those little aspects of Robertson’s game start to improve.
Nick: Robertson is an interesting player because he has more experience, but he has also only played 60 games at the NHL level. He is young — 22 years old — and his games-played total is low, but he has also had multiple tastes of the league.
From a developmental standpoint, he is an unusual case, so it is hard to know how to conceptualize him sometimes. But I think the Leafs have to be happy with what they are getting from him.
5 goals and 10 points in 46 games | 32.26% GF | 39.76% xGF
Nick: I gave Noah Gregor a C+. He is a player who is easy to overrate because he is fast. The on-ice numbers aren’t great. He has done some penalty killing — which he had not done a ton in his career — and has looked competent at it.
He had the one massive game against the Panthers where he kind of took the team over the top — which, in theory, could have ramifications later in the year — but realistically, it’s hard to give him a great grade.
Anthony: It is a C- for me. The only reason it is that high is that he is showing something as a penalty killer. Otherwise, I don’t think he has given them any reason to believe he can be trusted late in games defensively.
There have been too many long stretches of play where it is hard to notice him and you actively have to go out of your way to find him throughout a game. I think he could be more physical. He has flashed it sporadically, but from a consistency standpoint, it isn’t there.
4 goals and 8 points in 46 games | 35.14% GF | 37.79% xGF
Nick: The penalty killing isn’t there. That is not totally his fault, but he is a big part of it. His whole thing is that he stalemates other teams who are in beneficial situations, which is what he has done for the last two years. This season, he has not done that to the same level.
Anthony: I debated giving Kampf a D. I ended up at C- as well, the reason being his linemates. His best linemates this season were the weird fit with Knies and Domi. That never made sense. Otherwise, it is Gregor — a PTO signing who was released from the worst team in the league — and Bobby McMann, who cleared waivers. That is not putting him in a position to excel.
At the same time, I think Kampf has made bizarre decisions offensively. He has pushed the envelope a little bit to try to score more and is actively making it worse. The penalty kill has been poor, and he has played a large part in it.
His faceoff percentage is basically the same as last season, but he has had some really tough stretches where they have actively stopped using him as a faceoff man because he has struggled so badly. There was a point when Jarnkrok was taking the PK faceoffs because Kampf couldn’t win any and was losing them so cleanly that it was really detrimental.
The Leafs signed Kampf for the penalty kill, checking, and faceoffs. He is getting pulled off of faceoffs, the PK is struggling, and the fourth line can’t be trusted. I am almost giving him a pass for the last one because his linemates aren’t favourable, but on the other two, no chance.
2 goals and 7 points in 23 games | 37.5% GF | 45.23% xGF
Nick: I’ll admit I have a soft spot for him. I gave him a B-. You could convince me he deserves less than that, but I like the energy, size, and the little bit of skill he possesses. He is easier for me to dream about than Gregor in terms of being a consistent fourth-line contributor.
Anthony: I’ll give him a C. He did receive an extended run of games. I expected a little bit more from him. Similar to Gregor, he faded into the background a little bit too much for me. He has been better than Gregor at five-on-five and has flashed glimpses more consistently, but on a night-to-night basis, I want to see more from him.
2 goals and 8 points in 21 games | 62.5% GF | 53.7% xGF
Nick: I have him at a B. He was quiet at center — similar to Kampf, linemates played a role in it when he was a fourth-line center — but he has been more effective on the wing.
When they pushed him up the lineup, I think it exposed his hands and ability to finish. We saw the reason why he has never produced a ton offensively at any level, but I throw him in the Jarnkrok pile where he can do a lot of things for you at a not-overly-impressive level.
Anthony: I give him a B+. The B grade is the barometer of whether the player is meeting my general expectations. Jarnkrok has slightly exceeded them.
He looks like a legitimate chess piece to me. You can move him around a little bit. I am never going to argue he should be a staple on the first line, but I think he can competently take the odd shift there.
He is showing that he can help close games and play a little bit more on a checking line with David Kampf or he can move up and play with Max Domi as more of a two-way guy. He is proving himself to be a little bit more versatile than I may have expected of him.
I wish he could shoot. If he could shoot, I think you would have a real player there. But he is crafty with the puck and has some skill in his game.
For more of the mid-season Leafs player grades at all positions, check out the latest MLHS podcast: