Toronto Maple Leafs: What They Need to Do to Ensure a Playoff Run
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a flair for theatrics.
This should come as no surprise to those whose optimism remained steadfast during their 24-15-7 record from January to the end of the 2010-11 NHL season.
After all, keeping us on the edge of our seats is what the Maple Leafs do best.
Others might argue that the bit of success the Leafs did have last year was just torturous, given the fact they still managed to miss the postseason for a sixth consecutive year.
There are reasons to be genuinely optimistic this season, but the last thing Leafs fans need is more false hope.
Now past the midway point, the Leafs are right on the edge in the Eastern Conference, currently sitting at No. 9. At the very least, they need to duplicate their results in the first half to consider being in a playoff position.
In the meantime, these blue and white "bubble boys" have their work cut out for them. What do they need to do between now and April 7 to make their playoff picture a little clearer?
It's easier said than done, but in order for the Leafs to realistically have playoff expectations, they need to shake off the injury bug.
The Maple Leafs' youth have stepped in admirably when its core group has fallen into IR status.
Not to take anything away from the kids, but to foster the right environment to gear up for a run into the postseason, they need veteran leadership and the support of their top players.
Colby Armstrong has been smitten with injuries for practically the entire season and can't seem to catch a break this year (bad play on words, I suppose).
Mike Brown has finally returned after having back surgery and missing 22 games. He represents that fast and furious type of player the Leafs have been lacking for a significant portion of the year.
Whether or not Tyler Bozak or Tim Connolly fit the description of that long-desired No. 1 centre is irrelevant.
Both of them have centred the Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul line well, and to their credit, the Leafs need both of them healthy to be successful.
PRODUCE SECONDARY SCORING
What happened to having three dangerous scoring lines?
The Leafs have seen flashes of brilliance at times, but have otherwise been unable to sustain more than one effective scoring line for any great length of time.
The "Mac and the USSR" line has struggled to find the same consistency and chemistry they enjoyed last year.
Mikhail Grabovski might be the only exception as he has started playing some of his best hockey of the season just recently, earning seven points in his last eight games.
With Kessel and Lupul coming off their first real scoring slump of the season—both without points in the home-and-home against the Buffalo Sabres, and then again versus the New York Rangers—the burden of offensive production hasn't exactly been distributed well over the rest of the team.
In order to ensure the Leafs are getting a taste of playoff hockey this year, the unsung heroes must also shoulder some of the responsibility.
PLAY AS A TEAM
One of the biggest pet peeves I have with the Maple Leafs is their tendency to turnover the puck at very inopportune times.
Case in point: When the Leafs fell behind 3-2 early in the third period against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 17, they panicked.
Instead of making smart passes to gain the offensive zone and control the puck, they made too many individual efforts that failed miserably.
This created turnovers all over the ice, making it seem as though the Leafs were playing in quicksand.
PLAY A CLEAN GAME
In order for the Leafs to be successful, they have to use their speed to draw penalties and avoid taking them at all costs.
The Maple Leafs' penalty kill is brutal—a topic that definitely deserves its own spotlight—but a simple way to get around this shortcoming is by playing a clean game.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a big open-ice hit as much as the next guy, and love seeing them play with a chip on their shoulder, but if you don't have the means to kill penalties more than 74.4 percent of the time, you have to stop taking them.
For the love of the game, Leafs—stay out of the box!
Do the Toronto Maple Leafs need to make a big move before the NHL trade deadline to ensure a playoff run in 2012?
SHAKE UP THE ROSTER
Part of why I believe the Maple Leafs play their best hockey when their backs are against the wall is because it becomes more apparent to the players that their jobs are at stake.
Brian Burke may need to light a fire under the team by moving some pieces out.
Changing the culture and dynamics of the team late in the season doesn't always have a positive effect, but the timing might be right for the Leafs to cash in on a high-impact player while shedding some of the fat.
Burke may end up having to move bodies out of town to make way for a big, skilled forward who can get the job done.
Making a big move could be the catalyst to another strong second half and a very hopeful playoff berth.
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