NHL preview: Can Leafs improve this year?

The Leafs look to improve on a strong 2012-13 season.

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Dave Nonis did not walk away from the biggest Game 7 implosion in NHL history thinking about the debris his Toronto Maple Leafs left scattered around TD Garden. He focused on the solid foundation that survived the detonation.

The Leafs general manager looked at Phil Kessel and Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri and thought of what the near miss against Boston meant for the future. He thought of the benefits that should emerge in the aftermath.

“I haven’t spent literally five minutes thinking about [Game 7],” says Nonis. “I spent a lot more time thinking about the fact that we proved to ourselves that we can compete with that team.”

Suddenly there are expectations in Toronto. A franchise that went nine years between playoff trips feels as though it can’t afford to slip back, can’t afford even a one-year stumble. After putting a serious scare into the eventual Stanley Cup finalists, the stakes have gone up.

The task will be tougher in a realigned Atlantic Division that welcomes Detroit to the Eastern Conference, but you won’t hear any excuses from Randy Carlyle’s team. That is not in the coach’s nature.

Besides, he’s busy. With Kadri poised to become the team’s second-line centre, a blueline that features lots of bodies but no stalwarts, and a delicate goaltending situation to manage between James Reimer and newcomer Jonathan Bernier, there is plenty to monitor, and some potential land mines to avoid.

The message coming out of training camp was clear: Every player on the roster needs to raise his game.

“We’re going to push harder,” says Carlyle. “This group has got to be prepared to give us more than they gave us last year.”

That will be the first step in proving doubters wrong—and there are reasons to be hopeful. The Leafs should fill the net again. A top-six forward group of Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson could be dynamic. As well, the team returns with the same personnel that had the league’s second-best penalty killing unit last season — a massive improvement overseen by Carlyle. The Leafs must build on those successes.

But doubt comes in the form of miserable puck possession stats. The Leafs were outshot 32.3–26.3 on average during the lockout-shortened season, which left some suggesting there was luck involved in their surprising performance.

At even strength, the defensive side of the game was a struggle. The only significant addition to the blueline is Paul Ranger, who last played in the NHL four years ago, though having the smooth-skating Gardiner for a full season should help.

But it’s the battle in goal that could be the most significant factor in the success or failure of the 2013–14 season. Reimer had the eighth-best save percentage in the NHL a year ago, but that didn’t stop Nonis from landing Bernier in a trade from Los Angeles. To further complicate matters, the GM handed the new goalie a bigger contract and, presumably, the No. 1 job—even though Reimer has more NHL experience and better career numbers. Whichever one takes the lead, he’ll need to be good. Average won’t cut it. Not anymore.

Don’t underestimate the significance of heightened expectations. That will be something new and different and it remains to be seen how the team will react to the pressure. But Nonis believes the experience of last year’s playoffs has shown that his core can handle it.

“When you’re in a position where there is no turning back, you learn a lot about people,” he said. “You learn about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to compete and if they’re people you want to keep around.”

Out of the rubble of last season the Leafs are aiming to build a more stable structure, one that is capable of withstanding the next post-season storm.

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