There is just over a month of play left in the regular season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs currently occupy the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference; just three points behind the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets.
After a hot start this season, the Maple Leafs have returned back to their usual standard of mediocrity, and once again find themselves on the outside looking in heading in on the stretch run of the season.
There are many issues and concerns with this club right now, and they will need to address several of them if they hope to make the playoffs when April rolls around.
With the trade deadline looming, as well as a below-average race for the final playoff spot, the Leafs have a good chance of making the postseason if they can generate some momentum over their remaining games.
However, if they are to turn this season into a success, they must come together as a team and solve what has been ailing them for most of the year.
Here are five crucial adjustments the Maple Leafs must make if they hope to reach the playoffs this season.
This is the biggest obstacle the Toronto Maple Leafs will need to overcome if they have any desire of playing in the postseason.
Both James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson have been terribly inconsistent this season, and it is still not clear who the undisputed No. 1 choice is.
It seems the goaltending play has even caused head coach Ron Wilson to publicly criticize his netminders—especially after recent embarrassing defeats to the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals on Hockey Night in Canada.
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be many options out there in free agency for the Maple Leafs to pounce on. Perhaps the best alternative is Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, but even he is unlikely to solve their dire goalie problems.
Anyone who is a fan of hockey knows that solid goaltending is imperative in order to have any sort of success. Without stable play in the crease, Toronto will struggle to capture the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
General manager Brian Burke has attempted to bring in star talent before but has given up questionable draft picks in the process.
With a few quality players on the trading block for Monday’s deadline, the Leafs could use a big name once again to energize both the team and the fans.
Rick Nash’s name seems to be swirling around Toronto rumour sites, and it will be interesting to see whether or not they make a play for him.
With the New York Rangers seemingly backing out of the Nash buzz, Toronto has the opportunity to grab him if they are willing to pay the right price.
Even picking up a player such as Dustin Brown from the Los Angeles Kings will give the team a boost that it desperately needs.
This may be their second-biggest Achilles’ heel.
Their penalty kill ranks second from the bottom in the entire league at just 76.8 percent.
With the inability to shut down an opponent with a man advantage, they deserve to be where they are in the standings.
Much of this stems from their noticeable lack of speed and quickness.
They always seem a step behind their counterparts and often lose out on the short-range races for the puck.
If they were to pick up a quick defenseman during Monday’s trade deadline with a proven history of being an effective penalty-killer, it would pay huge dividends.
With the Anaheim Ducks as potential sellers, the Maple Leafs should consider pursuing Lubomir Visnovsky. He is a proven defenseman and would help out on the blue line, as well as improve the awful penalty kill.
If they can solve the issue of speed in the same day, it will give Toronto a chance to play solid defensive hockey for the home stretch of the season.
The one bright spot for Toronto this year has been the stellar play of the top line—most specifically from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
However, their scoring depth has simply not been good enough to sustain a viable offense.
If they are to make a run at the playoffs this year, they must start getting production from all their lines.
Their top players will continue to put up points, but when they go on a cold streak, there must be some secondary scoring.
This one will not be solved by a last-minute trade or acquisition.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs have any aspirations of extending their season, let alone going anywhere in the playoffs, they must start playing with a more competitive edge.
I am not sure if it's nerves or the heavy weight of expectations put on by the Canadian media, but this team just has not played with much emotion or toughness all season.
Hockey is a momentum game, and the Leafs have struggled creating any.
This is the responsibility of Ron Wilson, Dion Phaneuf and the other leaders on the team.
The Eastern Conference is not all that strong outside the top five spots, and not many teams fighting for a playoff spot are playing with any real desperation.
The Maple Leafs must get their heads in the right place as a starting point if they wish to make the postseason.