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Toronto Maple Leafs: 1 Thing Each of Their Top 10 Players Must Improve On

Nicholas GossCorrespondent ISeptember 11, 2012

Toronto Maple Leafs: 1 Thing Each of Their Top 10 Players Must Improve On

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    For the Toronto Maple Leafs to become a playoff team as currently constructed, several of their players must continue to improve at both ends of the ice.

    For a number of players on the Leafs, the 2012-13 season will prove to general manager Brian Burke that they are going to be a vital part of the team's future or have no role at all.

    Let's look at one thing each of the team's 10 best players need to improve on during the upcoming season.

Dion Phaneuf: Decision Making in Defensive Zone

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    Dion Phaneuf is relied on to move the puck, help the power play and provide consistent offense from the blue line in Toronto. When he tries to do too much offensively, his defense sometimes struggles.

    As the team's No. 1 defenseman and most physical blueliner, Phaneuf can't make the same mistakes he made in the defensive zone last season. Phaneuf cannot turn the puck over too often, and he must make smarter decisions in his own end.

    The Leafs need him to be a shutdown defenseman to help out whoever is between the pipes for Toronto next season.

Phil Kessel: Toughness

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    Phil Kessel can score goals as well as almost anyone in the NHL, and he could reach the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career next season.

    However, he doesn't play with enough of an edge on the ice. He's a tough kid, and he showed that in his college hockey career at Minnesota. Right now, though, Kessel is a bit too easy for teams like the Boston Bruins to defend because of his lack of size.

    If he added some more truculence to his game, Kessel could become one of most complete wingers in hockey and harder to shut down.

Joffrey Lupul: Durability

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    Durability is something Joffrey Lupul has to improve on this season if the Leafs are going to make the playoffs.

    He's the second-best forward on the team and, when healthy, Lupul and Kessel make the Toronto first line very dangerous offensively. If he can play a full season, Lupul could score 35 goals for the Leafs next year.

    Over the last five years, Lupul has missed 132 games, so keeping himself healthy and physically prepared for each game will be important.

Tim Connolly: Playmaking

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    If Tim Connolly can be the playmaker that Brian Burke signed him to be last summer, he will greatly improve the Leafs offense.

    Despite playing in 70 games last season, Connolly only scored 13 goals, adding 23 assists. He has the talent to be a top-six center, but 23 assists isn't going to help the Leafs take the next step.

    If Connolly can be a more productive playmaker next season and make the players around him better, the Leafs will be one of the 10 highest-scoring teams in the league in 2012-13.

Nikolai Kulemin: Better 2nd Half of Season

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    A breakout 30-goal season in 2010-11 raised expectations for Nikolai Kulemin last season, but he had a horrible 2011-12 season, scoring just 28 points in 70 games.

    Kulemin needs to be a more productive player in the second half of the season for the Leafs to avoid another late-year meltdown.

    He scored 19 of his 28 points before the All-Star break and was a non-factor in the Toronto offense for most of the season's final months.

    Kulemin needs to prove that he can be a consistent player for an entire season and rediscover his impressive goal-scoring form from 2010-11 if he wants a long-term future in Toronto.

James van Riemsdyk: More Physicality in His Game

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    For James van Riemsdyk to make the biggest impact possible in Toronto, he must play more physical than he did with the Philadelphia Flyers.

    At 6'3" and about 200 pounds, van Riemsdyk has plenty of size, but he needs to be tougher along the boards and when battling for the puck anywhere on the ice.

    One of the biggest ways he can improve the Leafs is by impacting games physically while also scoring 25-30 goals per season.

    His offensive skills are impressive, but JVR has an opportunity to become an elite power forward if he plays the game with an edge.

James Reimer: Durability

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    James Reimer was one of the better goalies in the NHL a week into the 2011-12 season, but then a concussion derailed what promised to be a strong year.

    If Reimer can keep himself healthy and play in the majority of the games next season, he will prove to fans that he's the goalie of the future.

    Reimer will get a chance to shine this season, but the expectations will be huge, especially since Brian Burke believes he can be the goaltender of the future in Toronto.

Tyler Bozak: Better Two-Way Game

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    In each of his first three seasons in the NHL, Tyler Bozak has improved his goal-scoring totals. He will be expected to do that again next season since he's likely to feature in a top-six role throughout the year.

    Bozak was fourth on the Leafs in assists and points last season, and he could certainly reach the 60-point mark next year.

    Where Bozak could really improve next season is defensively. Giving a stronger effort in the defensive zone, winning more puck battles and blocking shots would really help him become a more complete center.

    Head coach Randy Carlyle will need a strong two-way game from Bozak next season.

Mikail Grabovski: Power-Play Effectiveness

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    For the Leafs power play to improve next season, Mikhail Grabovski needs to be more productive as a goal scorer and a playmaker.

    He scored only five power-play goals last season, and he was on the ice for only 15 power-play goals (compared to 26 the season before).

    Grabovski also needs to raise the game of his linemates. If Kulemin is going to become a 30-goal scorer again, he needs Grabovski to provide more scoring opportunities for him.

    There's no excuse if he doesn't reach 35 assists next season. Grabovski is a talented playmaker, and he should be able to score 20 goals and add about 30-35 assists per season.

    As the highest-paid forward on the team and an alternate captain, Grabovski needs to be one of the Leafs' best players next year.

Jake Gardiner: Defense

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    Jake Gardiner isn't a terrible defensive player, but with Luke Schenn no longer on the Leafs blue line after being traded, Toronto needs a player to replace Schenn as the physical force on the blue line.

    Somebody is going to have to block more shots and be more physical in the defensive zone, and Gardiner can definitely be one of the players who replaces Schenn's toughness on the blue line.

    Gardiner did have the second-best plus/minus among Leafs defensemen last year, so he has shown that he can be responsible in his own end and not turn the puck over too much.

    If Gardiner can maintain or improve his offensive numbers from last season and become a better player defensively, he could become an All-Star defenseman next year.

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