The Toronto Maple Leafs will not only make the playoffs again this season but will also emerge as legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Despite their devastating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, the Leafs left an impression, proving that they could play with the heavily-favoured Bruins.
In fact, they could do more than just play with them. They were in position to eliminate them as they led 4-1 with 10 minutes remaining and 4-2 with just over two minutes to play.
The Leafs also trailed 3-1 in the series and showed a lot of character to even force a seventh game.
A day after the loss, Joffrey Lupul tweeted “that hockey game will haunt me until the day I die.”
Although the loss was a bitter pill for the players to swallow, it did provide the team with valuable experience and, like many teams have learned before, sometimes it takes those character-building losses to learn how to win.
Better days are ahead for the Leafs.
During the off-season, Leafs’ GM Dave Nonis bolstered the roster with the additions of Jonathan Bernier, David Bolland, and David Clarkson who have all played on teams that have made it to the Stanley Cup finals over the last few seasons. That should give the relatively inexperienced roster a huge lift.
With the likes of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson, David Bolland, and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs are as deep as anyone upfront and can play a variety of different styles depending on who they are matched up against.
“We’re pretty happy with our top nine (forwards),” Nonis said to the Toronto Star. “I think we’ll be very competitive. Our fourth line will be hard to play against.
“Our coach [Randy Carlyle] is happy with the options we have right now.”
Bolland has won two cups with the Chicago Blackhawks and last season scored the game-winning goal that won the Hawks the Stanley Cup.
In 2012, David Clarkson scored 30 goals and helped the New Jersey Devils reach the cup finals against Bernier’s Los Angeles Kings.
Bernier did not play during the Kings’ cup run, but he was still able to gain valuable experience that will serve him well with his new team.
The Leafs will also have Jake Gardiner for a full season and his presence will surely help the Leafs’ power-play that ranked 14th in the NHL, while 2012 first round pick Morgan Rielly appears to have made the team and will also bring some offence to the back end.
Paul Ranger who signed as a free agent during the off-season could find also find himself playing top four minutes.
After missing the playoffs for nine-straight seasons, it has been suggested that the Leafs might not have participated in the Stanley Cup playoffs had the league played a full 82-game schedule.
Last season’s 48-game run could have been a blessing in disguise for the Leafs who failed to put together a full year’s effort during the 2011-2012 campaign.
As former GM Brian Burke put it, “I’ve never had a team fall off a cliff like this before, but this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff” during a press conference when he introduced Carlyle as the club’s new head coach towards the end of that season.
The Maple Leafs had held a playoff position for the majority of the year before dropping 10 of 11 games during the second half, falling all the way to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
The new realignment is another potential roadblock for the Leafs.
The Detroit Red Wings and the up-and-coming Columbus Blue Jackets are now in the Eastern Conference with the former now in the same division as Toronto, making another trip to the postseason and beyond that much more difficult.
Despite those concerns, this still is a much-improved roster that, with the much-needed experience that they gained last season, will be ready to bounce back and fight for a playoff spot.
Kadri and Cody Franson were key contributors for the club last season and have both been signed after there was some speculation if one or both would hold out for better contracts.
Kadri broke out with 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) and played in all 48 games for the Leafs.
The former first round pick was easily one of the better Leaf forwards last season placing second to only Phil Kessel in team scoring and his plus-15 rating trailed only Mark Fraser’s plus-18.
Franson also played a large roll with the team, finishing fourth in scoring with 29 points (4 goals and 25 assists) one point ahead of No. 1 defenceman Dion Phaneuf.
He took his game to the next level in the playoffs as he averaged almost 23 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and also made a significant contribution offensively scoring three goals and three assists in seven games.
Toronto could get out of the gate slowly after Clarkson was suspended for the first 10 games of the season for leaving the bench during a line brawl against the Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 22.
The Leafs are a much better team now than the team that lost to the Bruins in the playoffs last season and have added players that know what it takes to win. Having Gardiner for a full season and Rielly will add offense from the defense and that is never a bad thing.
Nonis has built a roster that is very capable of a long postseason run.