NHL season preview series: Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS SEASON PREVIEW
By DEVILS INSIDERS
How they Finished: 38-36-8 84 points. (6th in Atlantic Division)
D, Stephane Robidas (FA)
F, Leo Komarov (FA-KHL)
F, Mike Santorelli (FA)
F, David Booth (FA)
F, Daniel Winnik (FA)
F, Dave Bolland
F, Nikolai Kulemin
F, Jay McClement
F, Mason Raymond
D, Tim Gleason
After the 2012-2013 brought some hope to a franchise that had been in the rebuilding stage for years, 2013-14 was as frustrating as it gets in Toronto. Any of the progress they seemed to make was gone as they team hemorrhaged goals and went from a playoff position to a 6th place finish in the Atlantic with a terrible April/May
For the Leafs, it begins with the goaltending. James Reimer was brutal last season, (3.29 gaa, .911 save %) but at least some of that can be blamed on their porous defense. Jonathan Bernier's numbers (2.68 gaa, .923 save %) point to the fact that he made quite a few stops, but there was just far too much rubber headed his way.
Whether it's Reimer or Bernier between the pipes, defensively, the Leafs have to be better. Their 3.07 team goals against was good for 26th best in the NHL.
Offensively though, there is a lot to be excited about. Say what you want about Phil Kessel in the other two zones, but offensively, he's the engine that drives the train. Along with James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and others, they will score goals. If David Clarkson is able to at least notch something close to 20 goals and if Nazem Kadri can have a bounce back season of sorts, the Leafs should conceivably have some scoring.
If everything breaks right: Toronto will find a way to at least limit some of the goals against, which coupled with a strong enough offense, should mean that they win a few more games. Though Boston, Montreal and Tampa Bay look like they are locks to finish in the top-three of the Atlantic, perhaps a 4th place finish could result in a playoff birth.
The fact is, for most of last season, the Leafs played well enough to be a playoff team. A contender, no, but if they can take a step forward, they should be right in the mix.
If it all goes downhill: Would anyone really be surprised. There's so much money locked up in certain players who haven't lived up to their potential. As a captain and a top-pairing guy, they need more from Dion Phaneuf. He still shows some excellent flashes, but he's not what they had expected. Signing Stephane Robidas after his second broken leg is a big risk. Though he's proven he can play at a high level, for a 37-year-old to bounce back from another devastating injury and play well is asking a lot.
Outside of the up and coming Jake Gardiner there's not much along the blueliner that makes you think that the Leafs will be any better defensively.
Not to be discounted is the amount of pressure on this team. Phil Kessel has been able to produce when many thought that he'd wilt under the pressure, but the huge contract given to David Clarkson looks like dead weight right now. Offensively, they brought in David Booth hoping that yet another change of scenery might allow him to get back to his old ways, but there's no guarantee of that. Outside of Joffrey Lupul, there's not much secondary scoring that can be counted on, at least on paper.
The saying if you have two goaltenders, you have none, could fit the Maple Leafs. Though it seems like Bernier is the way to go, bringing back Reimer at least means that they're not ready to completely give up on the young netminder. If one of them can't wrestle away the job, then they'll be right back where they were last year, looking for a goaltender to step up and stand on his head. Toronto was dead last in shots against last season. If that continues, it's going to make it nearly impossible for either goaltender to look good.
Realistic Expectations: The Leafs have enough talent to score, but the lack of defense is still going to hurt them. Even if they're somewhat better, that might not be enough. With that being said, their first line should produce and if they can find some depth scoring, they'll at least score enough goals to keep things competitive. Cracking the top-three in the Atlantic is most likely out of the question, but considering the issues that Detroit and Ottawa both have, it's certainly possible that Toronto can finish 4th and push for one of the two wild-card spots.
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