Every Thursday leading up to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Ryan Porth examines one club that is a true contender to hoist the Stanley Cup come June. The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of 10 Teams that Can Win It All.
Need we remind you? Toronto had its ticket punched to the second round. Leading 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 in Boston, the No. 7-seeded Maple Leafs were ready to upset their division rivals. And then The Comeback happened. The Bruins scored three goals in the final 10 minutes to tie the game, followed by Patrice Bergeron’s dramatic overtime winner. It was as gut-wrenching a loss can possibly be in Game 7 for a franchise making its first playoff appearance since 2004.
The Leafs have moved on, though, and the off-season brought numerous changes to the roster. GM Dave Nonis acquired Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland via trade, opted to retain Tyler Bozak and buy out Mikhail Grabovski, and gave David Clarkson a seven-year, $36.75-million contract. Fans questioned the moves, but the reality is this team will be better in the short-term.
Is this the year the Leafs win their first Stanley Cup since 1967? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t go all the way.
1. Wingers provide enough goal-scoring
When it comes to pure offensive ability, Toronto’s collection of wingers is among the NHL’s best.
Phil Kessel is coming off his two best seasons, averaging more than a point per game since the start of 2011-12; before then, his career PPG average was 0.66. James van Riemsdyk’s 18-goal output in the lockout-shortened campaign would have equated to his first 30-goal season. Clarkson, though signed to a bad contract for the long haul, scored 30 goals as recently as 2011-12 and is the type of gritty power forward Toronto needs in its top six.
The X-factor is Joffrey Lupul, who had 11 goals and 18 points in yet another regular season cut short by injury (16 games). When healthy, Lupul has been Toronto’s second-best forward since arriving midseason in 2010-11. He had 67 points in 66 games in 2011-12, a career season for the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
If Lupul stays healthy, the Leafs have a great mix of wingers that can consistently, as a group, put the puck in the net. It’s a key reason why they finished sixth in offence last season.
2. Kadri develops into a No. 1 centre
The biggest news surrounding the Leafs leading into camp was the status of Nazem Kadri. The restricted free agent finally signed a two-year, $5.8-million contract on the eve of training camp. Toronto hopes a bridge contract for an up-and-coming youngster pays the same dividends it did for Montreal last season with Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban.
Will Kadri go out and win the Hart Trophy? It would take a full moon and all the stars to align for that to happen. However, Kadri, who turns 23 in October, had his breakout season in 2012-13 as he finished second on the team with 44 points. He can establish himself with equal or greater success here in 2013-14.
If the Leafs want to win in the playoffs, Kadri has to be the team’s No. 1 centre. Tyler Bozak is not a top-line pivot. If Kadri carries over his success, perhaps that will give the Leafs the production they desperately need from the centre position.
3. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer shine
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing goaltending battle than the one that will take place in Toronto this season.
The oft-scrutinized James Reimer was solid last season, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average. Facing a 3-1 series deficit, Reimer was instrumental in the Leafs’ forcing a Game 7 against Boston; he also can’t be blamed for the implosion that took place.
That didn’t stop Nonis from acquiring Bernier. The 25-year-old has been thought of as one of the league’s brightest young netminders, only that he was blocked by Jonathan Quick in L.A. Bernier gives the Leafs a potentially great one-two combo between the pipes, but one that will be under the microscope from start to finish.
The Leafs say they’ll go with the hot hand. Assuming both guys use the battle as motivation to get better, the season-long competition will only be a positive for Toronto come playoff time.
1. Defence is shaky
The entire Leafs defence corps has question marks. Off the top: Who will be Dion Phaneuf’s defence partner? If it’s Carl Gunnarsson (who saw a lot of time next to Phaneuf last season), will he be able to be a top-pair blue-liner for a full season? If it’s Cody Franson (still an unsigned RFA), is he capable of filling that role?
Another unknown on the back end is talented 23-year-old Jake Gardiner. The Minnesota native battled injuries last season and played only 12 games, but he performed well in the playoffs. Can he take the next step and become a consistent player in all phases of the game?
Toronto’s defence also features the likes of Mark Fraser, John-Michael Liles and T.J. Brennan. A first-round pick in 2012, Morgan Rielly is expected to compete for a roster spot, but he’s too young to make a noticeable impact at the NHL level.
As a unit, the defence is the weak point of this Leafs roster.
2. They kept the wrong centre
Buying out Mikhail Grabovski was one of the worst moves of the NHL off-season. Subsequently signing Bozak to a five-year, $21-million contract only compounded matters.
If the Leafs had let Bozak walk in free agency and kept Grabovski, they would be looking at a centre trio of Grabovski, Kadri and Bolland. Not too shabby. If Kadri takes a step back, Grabovski is a good enough centre to hold down a first line. If both play well, the top six is dynamic and dangerous. Now, as the team’s only high-ceiling offensive centre, Kadri has added pressure to replicate his breakout season from a year ago.
Keeping Bozak is somewhat justified given his faceoff numbers and chemistry with Kessel. But Grabovski’s talent should’ve outweighed those factors when deciding to keep one or the other. Though Grabovski was making $1.3 million more than Bozak’s new cap hit and had a down offensive showing in 2012-13, Nonis kept the wrong centre – and it will be a costly decision in the end.
3. Game 7 loss could linger
The Leafs say the Game 7 nightmare is in the rearview mirror, no longer something that keeps them up at night. But there will be constant reminders – anywhere from the media to the guy at grocery store.
A devastating playoff loss can have different effects on different teams. The 2010 Bruins became the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead, but bounced back to win the Cup a year later. Contrarily, the Capitals just haven’t been the same since seeing a 3-1 series lead against No. 8-seeded Montreal evaporate in fascinating fashion in 2010.
For a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup going on 47 years, the last thing the Leafs needed was a sudden collapse in Game 7 to stew over for an entire off-season. It could be used as motivation, but if it has planted a seed of doubt in them, they may not recover.
Prediction: There will be times where the Leafs don’t look like a playoff team, but if the forwards can stay healthy, they should outlast their Atlantic Division cohorts to claim the No. 3 seed behind Boston and Detroit. How much playoff success they have depends on the progression of the defence and the play in net. As proven last spring, the Leafs have enough sheer talent to threaten anybody in the playoffs.