10 Cracks in the Maple Leafs Armor That Must Be Sealed by Next Season

Brad LeClairCorrespondent IApril 4, 2012

10 Cracks in the Maple Leafs Armor That Must Be Sealed by Next Season

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    What began as a great start for the Toronto Maple Leafs has evolved into a hot mess, with the entire fanbase of Leafs Nation beginning to question anything and everything that has to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    From the players to the coach and lastly, GM Brian Burke, nobody has escaped the scrutiny of the fans and media alike.

    At the All-Star break, the Leafs were 25-19-5 after an overtime loss to the lowly New York Islanders. However, once they returned from the break, the Leafs caved into the pressure of trying to make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

    Whether it was better competition or a lack of commitment and focus from the Leaf players, something went wrong this season, and many critics are quick to point the fingers.

    To put it quite simply, I think the Leafs' easy first-half schedule helped them to the record they had. Did they deserve to be in the playoffs despite having one of the worst goals against in the NHL? Absolutely not.

    Here are 10 parts of the Leafs attack they must improve to make the playoffs next season.

The Horrendous Penalty Kill

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    Whether it was a lack of effort, focus or a reliable goaltender, early this season, the Leafs had one of the worst penalty killing teams ever in the NHL.

    As the season progressed and the newer players got more accustomed to each other, the penalty kill began to get marginally better; actually, quite a bit better.

    Most of the improvement came from taking less penalties in the new year, but the Leafs managed to take an under 70 percent effective penalty kill and drive it up to over 87 percent effective.

    The marked improvement should've spelled more wins, but save for the month of January, the Leafs managed to win less because of a better penalty kill.

    Sadly, as their penalty kill improved, their even-strength play got worse.

    Phil Kessel was near a plus-10 at one point this season, and even at the All-Star break, but since, he's a minus-10 and has scored a lot less since the injury to linemate and everyone's favorite Leaf palindrome, Joffrey Lupul.

    Personally, I think the penalty kill will be decent next season. Nothing groundbreaking, but it will be sufficient for the Leafs to win regularly. What will make the difference is if the Leafs start out well and keep it up rather than start out terribly and fight to get back to respectability.

Finally Landing a 1st-Line Center

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    It's been long discussed since the departure of Mats Sundin, and that's the club's need for a first-line center.

    It's funny looking back on it today, because back when Sundin was the captain and leading the Leafs almost by himself offensively to the playoffs, we often complained he had nobody to play with. No good scoring wingers.

    Gone are the days of Jonas Hoglund, Mikael Renberg and Lonny Bohonos; enter Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel.

    I salivate anytime I think of what Sundin in his prime could do with linemates like Kessel and Lupul, but I digress.

    Whether its via trade or free-agent signing, the Leafs will need to address this ever-present hole in their attack.

    They brought in Tim Connolly to hopefully fill that void last season, but it appears he's better suited in a third-line checking role with the club instead of feeding Kessel and Lupul pucks.

    Who is available? And at what cost? That really remains to be seen, but right now, getting someone to take over for Tyler Bozak and lead the team as the first-line center should be a top priority. Will it be? I highly doubt it.

Increase the Veteran Leadership; Possibly Name a New Captain?

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    One major hole in the Leafs game right now is a real lack of veteran leadership. It seems as though when the levee breaks, it's Hurricane Katrina all over again in Leaf Land.

    What I mean by that is when the Leafs face adversity, they fold like a cheap suit. A three-goal deficit once thought to be insurmountable is a reachable goal for most NHL clubs against the Leafs.

    Whether it's a soft goal that drains the club's confidence or a Luke Schenn epic cough-up that results in a goal, the Leafs manage to just snowball everything and the game turns into a mess.

    The Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL right now. Maybe a goal for management should be to increase the veterans and look to move some redundant pieces first and foremost.

    Also, captain Dion Phaneuf's leadership has been questioned really since he was named captain. A brash, no-nonsense kind of guy, Phaneuf isn't the most approachable person in the locker room and may need a lesser role to decrease the pressure on him. Playing over 25 minutes a night, Phaneuf has been decent this year, but his mistakes often leave me scratching my head.

    Would naming a new captain make sense right now? Not really, but you never know what can happen in five months.

Get the Defence Sorted out and Playing to Their Capabilities

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    Coming into the season, the Leafs supposedly boasted one of the deepest defences in the league.

    A defence that featured Canadians Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie, Swede Carl Gunnarsson and Americans Mike Komisarek, Matt Lashoff, John Michael Liles and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs' strength was supposed to be defence.

    However, it appears their leaky defence is one of the main reasons for the Leafs' collapse this season.

    Pictured here is the game-winning goal by Derek Roy, a screened shot that eluded goaltender Ben Scrivens. Also in the picture, and doing most of the screening is defenceman Luke Schenn, who not only screened the goalie and caused the goal, but he has been doing that for most of the season.

    Rather than clearing the front of the net, not only Schenn, but nearly all the defencemen elect to try and play goalie, and in effect, double-screen the Leafs goaltender.

    No wonder they can't stop screened pucks.

    Anyways, late into the season, the Leafs have been playing seven defencemen, and to be honest, it should never be like that. With overpaid defencemen like Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek still on the roster, one of them will have to go if the Leafs hope to add anything up front.

Find a No. 1 Goaltender

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    Another hole in the Leafs game ever since the lockout has been a real lack of a No. 1goaltender. Gone are the days of Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph stealing games for the Leafs.

    Back when the Leafs had Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and honestly slow-skating, cement hand scrubs like Aki Berg, Ken Klee, Cory Cross and Alex Khavanov on the back end, it was their goaltending that helped mask a terrible defensive unit.

    What we have now is an underachieving defensive unit whose shortcomings and errors usually end up in the back of the net because of an inconsistent goaltender.

    The free-agent market this offseason is again pretty bare when it comes to No. 1 goalies, so the Leafs may have to look to trade for one.

    I would like to see them explore a trade with the Hurricanes for Eric Staal and Cam Ward if at all possible, but again, it's just hearsay for the time being.

Secondary Scoring Needs to Be Addressed

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    Another hole in the Leafs attack is a real lack of secondary scoring outside of the Phil Kessel line.

    Other than Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, no other member of another line has over 35 points on the Leafs team.

    This needs to be addressed because good teams will just put their best defensive units on the ice and shut down the Leafs' only means of scoring, thus relying on a shoddy defence and goaltender to win them a game.

    This is one of the big reasons why the Boston Bruins continually dominate the Leafs.

    Like I like to say, when the Leafs can manage to tie or possibly take a season series against the Bruins, you'll see them back in the playoffs.

Carlyle: Adapt to Roster or Force Feed Them Despite Being Allergic to Contact

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    This roster is in no way, shape or form the same as what Carlyle had in Anaheim.

    Anaheim's roster featured a larger forward group, a more veteran team and also a slower team. What that meant was that the Ducks could hang back and almost, in essence, play a trap style of game.

    What happened when Carlyle arrived in Toronto? He tried to improve the club's defence by making them play a style of game most of the players can't play. The style was simply a rough, tough, mean, trap-style of game.

    The Leafs are a team built on skill and speed, and since Carlyle arrived, the Leafs have shown not very much speed in their attack.

    Whether the Leafs overhaul the roster or Carlyle loosens the screws, something's got to give so the Leafs can play a style of game everyone is on board with.

Move the Large Contracts out of Town

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    Colby Armstrong, Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi and Luke Schenn.

    Answer: Who are all the overpaid Leafs making more than $3 million a season?

    The Leafs, as it stands right now, have the most expensive fourth line in hockey. Along with Jay Rosehill, Lombardi and Amstrong total the Leafs fourth line at over $7 million dollars for a line that plays only five minutes a night.

    Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn on good nights may play 18-20 minutes a night; meanwhile, rookie defencemen Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarsson, who are paid a fraction of the other two's cost, play over 23 minutes a night.

    On paper, it looks like the Leafs are paying far too much for depth players.

    Going forward, the depth players should be manageable contracts rather than contracts that hinder the team going forward.

    Will they get rid of all of them? Likely not, but at least exploring trades to acquire some draft picks would suffice.

Some Marlies Make the Move Up to the NHL

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    The Marlies won themselves a division this year led by some homegrown talent. Kingston native Mike Zigomanis helped lead a revamped Marlies squad.

    The team played an amazing defensive game and eventually led the entire AHL in goals against. Led by goalies Mark Owuya, Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas, the Marlies were a feared defensive club this year.

    Offensively, they were led by youngsters Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Marcel Mueller, as well as Zigomanis.

    There are plenty of players on that team that deserve time in the NHL. Kadri, Colborne and penalty-killer extraordinaire Zigomanis should all be locks to make the Leafs next year regardless. Zigomanis is an unrestricted free agent, but I believe he should be resigned.

Next Season Should Be Less About Brian Burke and More About the Team

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    This season started out with Brian Burke claiming this version of the Leafs was poised for the first playoff berth since the lockout. However, the season ended on a very sour note.

    Along with his debacle with Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, Burke remained quiet at the trade deadline minus a few minor league moves that resulted in the club trading Dale Mitchell and Keith Aulie in separate deals for Carter Ashton and Mark Fraser, respectively.

    The club needed a goaltender, they needed another top-four defenceman with playoff experience and lastly, they needed a first line center.

    What Burke did was accomplish nothing, and in turn, turned the media focus onto him. The latter half of the season, it was all about Brian Burke and his failures.

    Next season at this time, hopefully it will all be about winning hockey games and put the bickering and nonsense behind us.

    Next up, the draft. Let's hope Burke doesn't screw that up as well.