Toronto Maple Leafs: Changes That Need to Be Made for a Playoff Run

Steve WolosewichContributor IIIJanuary 26, 2012

Toronto Maple Leafs: Changes That Need to Be Made for a Playoff Run

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have their work cut out for them.

    Winston Churchill once said, "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

    If this is indeed the case, the Leafs may be successful right now, according to the definition.

    After all, they have battled back on numerous occasions to halt losing streaks, recently enjoyed four consecutive wins to start 2012 off with a bang and stayed above .500 all season.

    Unfortunately, being truly successful at the NHL level is ultimately measured by a team's ability to reach the postseason and compete for the Stanley Cup.

    Once again, reality has set in on Leafs Nation, which suggests that there is plenty of hockey yet to be played that will determine whether they end up as successful as some are expecting them to be.

    The Leafs have had trouble with consistency and have thus suffered a lack of confidence as a result. 

    After a bit of a wake up call and a trip to the school of hard knocks, are there any lessons to be learned? 

    Absolutely.

    So what do the Maple Leafs need to change to attempt a run into the playoffs?

Right the Wrongs

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    One of the biggest issues that has to be addressed before the Toronto Maple Leafs can make some noise in the postseason is their losing record against divisional and Eastern Conference teams.

    Although the Maple Leafs won their home-and-home series versus the New York Islanders, they have also dropped four of their last seven games.

    They currently sit ninth overall in the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the eighth-place New Jersey Devils and seventh-place Florida Panthers—which is an accomplishment on its own, to be sure—but are still obviously in fierce competition to keep a spot in the top eight.

    The bottom line is the Leafs have 18 wins and 19 losses against the teams that matter most.

    This has to change.

    They have unfortunately squandered these very important points and are thus, positioning themselves for an uphill battle for the rest of the 2011-12 season.

    These points would most definitely come in handy down the stretch—and if I'm a Leafs fan, I pray this stat doesn't resonate throughout a very sad and empty Air Canada Centre, should the Buds not make through to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Looking at the bright side, there is clear evidence to suggest the Leafs' dressing room is comprised of passionate and competitive players who want to win—and although they may have dropped the ball at times, they're not about to call it quits.

    The fact that a heated battled between defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and forward Joey Crabb broke out into full-fledged fisticuffs at a recent Leafs practice is a great sign that this group takes great exception to losing.

    Seeing that kind of pressure, intensity and tension overflow at practice is encouraging to say the least—especially because of how the team responded afterward, with back-to-back wins against the Islanders.

Spark the Offense

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs need to stop relying on Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel to shoulder all of the offensive burdens of the team.

    Prior to the Jan. 23 game against the New York Islanders, the Leafs had scored only nine goals while losing four of five games.

    Lupul and Kessel clearly don't have as much room to work with these days as their reputation for being All-Star-calibre offensive talents now precedes them.

    They attract way more attention than they did during the first half of the season—but such is the price one pays for being in an elite class of player.

    Although this duo's high-octane scoring will be counted on after the All-Star break, it's unfair to rely so heavily on Kessel and Lupul night in and night out. It's time Toronto's secondary players to step up and own their role.

    For the most part Matthew Lombardi has been allowed to take his time to recover back to full form after some unfortunate setbacks due to injury. With four goals in his last five games, he his exactly the kind of player that needs to get and stay hot to help change the culture of this team.

    Speaking of players stepping up, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur tapped into that potential we have all seen in the past during Toronto's 4-3 win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 24.

    Grabovski finished with one goal and three assists, while MacArthur had three-point night with two goals, including the overtime winner.

    There needs to be more offensive consistency coming from these second and third lines if the Maple Leafs are expecting to enjoy playoff action come April. 

    When you put on the Maple Leafs jersey, you're putting on nearly 100 years of history and tradition as well as the hopes and dreams of millions of fans.

    These secondary players need to make the most of their chances in the limelight because to miss an opportunity to shine on such a grand scale is a little more than disappointing.

Keep Doing What Works

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs need to keep the penalty kill going!

    Okay—perhaps that might not qualify as a "change" that needs to be made, but the Maple Leafs' recent success on the penalty kill is still so unfamiliar that it warrants some attention.

    As odd as it may seem, the Leafs have been perfect on the penalty kill for 11 consecutive games. The statistic also includes games where they have stayed out of the penalty box entirely.

    This trend absolutely must continue for the team to make a legitimate playoff run.

    The fact of the matter is that they are still in dead last overall and achieving success on the PK only 75 percent of the time.

    What the Leafs need to do is stay aggressive when they are a man short and take space away from the opposition.

    Much has been said about how fast this Toronto team can be with respect to their transition game—but where does this speed go on the penalty kill?

    Even if the fastest Maple Leafs aren't the ones killing penalties, there is no excuse for the lack of poise and confidence that is evident at times when they are down a man.

    If anything, it's the confidence issue that needs to be addressed immediately. 

Plan B Goaltending Deserves an "A"

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs need to deploy Plan B—Jonas Gustavsson.

    After a bit of a slow start to the 2011-12 season, Gustavsson looks like he's becoming exactly the kind of player Brian Burke envisioned when he personally travelled to Sweden in 2009 to woo him to the Blue and White.

    Known as "the most interesting man in the world" by his peers and teammates, Gustavsson has come a long way as a Maple Leaf.

    He has overcome the loss of his mother and father, battled through two heart ablation surgeries, multiple groin-strains and inconsistency which had many wondering how long his time in Toronto would last.

    This kind of adversity seems to have helped motivate him to claim what may be his destiny in Toronto—the Maple Leafs' rightful No. 1 goaltender.

    In his last 10 starts he has seven wins—three of them shutouts.

    The mentality of Leafs Nation has to change now as the Monster has proven that he can be the answer in net for Toronto.

    James Reimer is and will continue to be an incredible goaltender for the Maple Leafs, but right now, it's not his time to shine.

    Gustavsson has taken the baton from Reimer and run with it—much to the relief of Leafs' management and fans alike.

    To take a run at the playoffs this year, the Maple Leafs will need to rely heavily on Gustavsson to play as big as his nickname would suggest he is.

    What is certain is that—at least for the time being—the big Swede from Danderyd has been scary good for the Leafs and the No. 1 spot is now his to lose.

Big Trade

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have been involved in trade speculation surrounding various players for several weeks now.

    After stewing in this speculation for so long, Leafs Nation is getting anxious.

    The only reason Brian Burke or any other general manager would want to make a trade of any kind is to improve their team.

    The situation in Toronto seems to be that in order to acquire the calibre player that will make the Maple Leafs dangerous for years to come, they will have to part ways with similar talent.

    Luke Schenn and Nazem Kadri seem to be likely candidates should Burke be involved in a blockbuster deal, but in all likelihood he doesn`t want to part ways with either of them.

    Any deal that would see Schenn or Kadri traded out of Toronto would have to be so obviously beneficial to the Maple Leafs organization that any doubts about losing such talented assets would be erased by the return investment.

    The bottom line is that if the Leafs want to be a lock for the playoffs this year and perennial cup contenders for many years to come, they need a legitimate No. 1 centerman in the worst way.

    Whether or not Brian Burke can make this happen before the Feb. 27 trade deadline remains to be seen.

    So in the interest of putting us hardcore Leafs fans out of our misery—the anticipation and speculation is killing me!—and moving on to greener pastures, it might be time for Burke to *blank* or get off the pot...