6 Biggest Keys to Toronto Maple Leafs Being a Contender This Season

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 25, 2012

6 Biggest Keys to Toronto Maple Leafs Being a Contender This Season

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    Maybe it was the 2004-05 lockout that turned the Toronto Maple Leafs into pretenders.

    The year before that non-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were a playoff team. They beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round in six games, before dropping a second-round series against the Ottawa Senators in seven games.

    But since returning, the Leafs have not been back to the playoffs.

    Perhaps nothing was worse than last year's collapse. For the first two-thirds of the season, the Leafs looked like a sure postseason entrant, but a brutal late-season slide kept them on the outside once again.

    General manager Brian Burke fired head coach Ron Wilson at the height of the carnage and replaced him with Randy Carlyle for the final 18 games.

    When the lockout comes to an end, the Leafs are going to have to show significant improvement in several areas. Here are six keys to the Leafs making the playoffs in 2012-13.

Goaltending

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    No surprise here.

    The Leafs goaltending has ranged from average to awful in recent seasons and if they are going to make a serious run at the postseason, Toronto is going to have to get much better goaltending.

    While they have designs on acquiring a top goaltender like Roberto Luongo, the Leafs don't have him yet. Perhaps they will shortly after the lockout ends.

    Right now they have to go with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. Reimer was 14-14-4 last year with a 3.10 goals against average and a .900 save percentage. Scrivens was 4-5-2 with a 3.12 GAA and a .903 save percentage.

    While Luongo has his issues, he would represent a major upgrade in net for the Maple Leafs.

Coaching

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    There's every reason to believe that Randy Carlyle will be a better head coach for the Leafs than predecessor Ron Wilson.

    Carlyle has a Stanley Cup on his resume, and during his six full seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, his team went to the playoffs five times.

    Carlyle lost his magic with the Ducks last season and he was fired in midseason. However, when Brian Burke decided to dismiss Wilson, he didn't hesitate to go to Carlyle.

    There's nothing fancy about Carlyle. He will emphasize defense and accountability. His system is not complicated.

    However, he is going to have to figure out what makes this team tick and he is going to have to come up with an answer when the team goes into a dip. Wilson could not stop a few losses from turning into a freefall and that cost this team a playoff spot in 2011-12.

Improved Overall Defensive Play

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    The Leafs had plenty of problems on the defensive end last year. It was not just about poor play by the goaltenders.

    It would be nice for Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek to point their fingers at the goaltending as the biggest Leafs problem, but it would not be fair. The Leafs were not responsible or consistent in the defensive end.

    They must make a commitment to punish opposing forwards and maintain their positioning throughout the game. The Leafs defense often made life very easy for opposing forwards.

    The Boston Bruins dominated the Leafs last year, largely because they skated without fear in the Toronto defensive zone.

    That has to change immediately if this team is going to play postseason hockey.

Stamina

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    The Leafs fell apart after the all-star break last year and they can't let that happen again.

    Things got so bad that the team's ownership sent a letter of apology to its fans after the Leafs finished with a 35-37-10 record.

    When you fall apart in the second half of the season and you make life so much easier for your opponents by failing to come close to them in the defensive zone, you have to look at conditioning and stamina.

    The Leafs have to be in better shape in order to make a better effort on the ice. If they don't address conditioning, this could be another disastrous season for them.

Penalty Killing

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    This ties in with goaltending, defense and coaching, but the Leafs have to make improvements in their penalty kill if they are going to have any success in 2012-13.

    Last year, the Leafs stopped 77.3 percent of their opponents' power plays. Toronto ranked 28th in the league in its penalty killing.

    When the opponent knows that the Leafs don't move quickly enough or get in the right position, they will load up on the power play because they know it's just a matter of time before they breakthrough against the generous Leafs.

Secondary Scoring

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    The Leafs traded young defenseman Luke Schenn for a potential star in James van Riemsdyk.

    Van Riemsdyk is a highly skilled player who will use his size to establish position in the offensive zone and then use his hands to score goals.

    Van Riemsdyk was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft. He scored 21 goals in 2010-11, but injuries limited him to 43 games last year and he only scored 11 goals.

    The Leafs have solid scoring from Phil Kessel (37 goals), Joffrey Lupul (25 goals) and Mikhail Grabovski (23 goals), but they need more scoring and van Riemsdyk could be a big addition if he can stay healthy.