Around the halfway point of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were still poised to make the playoffs. After a solid performance through October and most of November, the Leafs looked more like the hungry team they had been at the end of last season.
When February began, the team continued on until a couple of tough losses soon saw them plummeting to the basement of the East.
Brian Burke has a number of changes to make in the offseason, and much of that will ride on the overall performance of the team. Some players may be packaged in trades to bring in the key components Toronto lacks.
All is not lost, however, there are a few pieces that Toronto already has in place.
From the Marlies players who are ready for their break to Kessel still managing to being fifth overall in goals this season, we look at the eight pieces the Leafs already have in place for next season.
Why would he be here you ask? It's simple.
Steckel was traded for a fourth round pick, and was brought in to win faceoffs in the bottom six—a job he does admirably. He is currently ranked fifth overall in faceoffs.
Lately, Carlyle has played him with Connolly and Crabb as a somewhat effective shutdown line. I'll admit not always, but Steckel is doing his job. He's winning crucial faceoffs against the big lines.
Crabb as one of his wingers seems to be a good fit as well. It seems like Connolly may be the odd man out.
I've grouped the Marlies as one simply because the sheer number of players who are ready, or near ready to come up.
With names like Kadri and Hamilton up front, and Holzer, Mikus and Lashoff on defence, the Marlies are a farm system that has been properly cultivated. Their upcoming Calder Cup run has shown the Marlies have talent.
The ability to move some players up or package them in deals with the older, less desirable players makes it possible for Toronto to obtain what they need in the offseason.
The Maple Leafs shouldn't sell the farm and ship a ton of these guys out—there are quite a few who are ready to move up—meaning other talent that isn't working can be traded out to allow room for some of younger players to get their shot.
Ben Scrivens has shown serious potential this year, sometimes reminding me of Tim Thomas' reactionary style.
I don't think he's a No. 1 goalie yet, but I don't think James Reimer is, either.
Reimer has not played well since his return from injury. He still has trade value, if offered to the right team or as part of a package.
This would place Scrivens on the active roster where he can learn what he needs to become a starter.
Gardiner was picked up in the trade that brought Joffrey Lupul to Toronto. At the beginning of the season, with six experienced defencemen on the roster, it was assumed Gardiner would spend at least one more year with the Marlies.
We all know what happens when you assume.
His rookie season has placed him 10th on the Leafs' team in points, and has the third most points of all the defencemen.
Gardiner is only 21, meaning he still has a long career in front of him. Hopefully, his game matures as he does, and doesn't fall into a similar slump as Luke Schenn did.
Having him learn from defencemen like Phaneuf and Liles, who are veteran defencemen on the team, could only help his game.
MacArthur currently sits fourth on the Leafs with 41 points.
While this may be shy of his career-high 62 point season, he's still providing much needed offence for the Leafs. Mainly paired with Grabovski, these two work well together and simply need some more support from Kulemin.
The trio blazed through the last portion of the season as they attempted to make the postseason. All three on that line posted career high stats during that run.
MacArthur had nearly double the amount of assists last season compared to this one. Kulemin returning to form, or replacing him with one of the younger players ready to make the NHL, could be all MacArthur needs to return to optimal production.
The Leafs recently re-signed him until 2017, meaning Grabovski is in for the long haul. With two, back-to-back 20-plus goal seasons, and three in his tenure, he is showing his worth.
Having great chemistry with line mate Clarke MacArthur has helped Grabovski's game. He may not be the first line center we need, but having his scoring ability on the second line adds another threat for opposing teams.
While watching Grabovski, he seems to be one of the hardest working players on the ice. With him being here for another few years, Burke needs to assess who would best fit on his right wing.
Brian Burke picked up Lupul after a few seasons plagued by injury. He played 28 games with the Leafs last season, garnering 18 points as a Leaf and 31 for the season.
This year, on the top line with Kessel, Lupul exploded earlier in the year, scoring 25 goals this season for a career-high 67 points, showing he's a threat near the net both with assists and goals.
As seen in the accompanying video, off a one-timer his shot broke the camera. Now he may not have the hardest shot in the league, but a shot like that is a powerful tool.
Having a big center on the first line could only help to bolster Lupul's numbers.
There are still some obvious problems with Phil Kessel, but overall he is still one of the best scorers in the league. The fact that he remains in the top 5 even after the Maple Leafs slide late this season is a testament to his ability.
Kessel and Lupul connected well at the beginning of this season, while Burke and Wilson stumbled trying to find a center that could play with them, the two went on to have great personal season.
This year marks four straight seasons with 30 or more goals. There are only a handful of players who can boast that accolade.
Kessel needs to pull out of his slumps faster, and do what he does best—score.
There are some players who were left off the list, not because they were undeserving but in deciding the final eight there were some players who needed to be left off.
Matt Frattin: He's looking to play a huge role with the Leafs in seasons to come.
Joey Crabb: Seems to have finally found his place, if he can improve his play expect to see him as a fixture as well.
Tyler Bozak: He's played well this season, though he may not be the big center the Leafs need on their first line, Bozak has proved that he can play well with the top line.
While the Leafs season may have fallen apart to a point of no repair, the fact still remains there are players and talent who are ready and able to take Toronto out of the basement and into playoff contention.