When the NHL lockout does reach its end and the season gets started, the Toronto Maple Leafs should finally be able to make that jump into playoff contention. Leafs fans have been waiting quite a while and are ready to enjoy playoff hockey once again.
To do so, this extremely young—but talented—team will no doubt need to improve in a few areas that have hindered its performance in recent seasons.
Here are the three biggest keys to the Toronto Maple Leafs becoming a contender this season.
The Leafs will need a much better penalty kill this season.
While the Leafs' power play performed well in the 2011-12 season, finishing in the NHL's Top 10 in efficiency, the penalty kill did not.
After a horrible start to the season in this category, the beginning of the second half saw quite a bit of a turnaround, but it is still the overall number that stands out.
Ranked 28th in the NHL, the Leafs' penalty-killing unit held teams scoreless just 77.3 percent of the time. Despite the fact that the Leafs were not a team to take a lot of penalties, this number is still much lower than it needs to be.
Whether the issue is one of personnel, the strategy employed or a combination of both, coach Randy Carlyle will have the chance to figure it out in his first full season as head coach.
Either way, one thing is for certain. If the Leafs have plans of getting back into the playoff picture, finishing near the bottom of the league in penalty kill is not a way to do it.
The Leafs' top unit was among the NHL's best in 2011-12.
The Leafs' top line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak was among the most productive in the NHL last season. They were responsible for the vast majority of the Leafs' scoring and will likely be relied upon for a similar performance this season.
For that to happen, they need to stay healthy. When Joffrey Lupul went down with the shoulder injury that forced him to miss the team's final 15 games, the production of Kessel and Bozak dropped off accordingly.
While one would assume that a line experiencing this much success would stick together the following season, there is also speculation that the Leafs' new addition, James Van Riemsdyk, could end up playing center.
If that indeed proves to be the case, he could very well unseat Bozak on the top line and add even more scoring ability to that unit.
Whichever way the center position shakes out, the top unit will be counted on for a good portion of the team's offensive output, so they will need to stay on the ice consistently over the course of the season.
Goaltending has been an issue for the Leafs for several years.
It has been no secret that the Leafs have wanted and needed to address the goaltending issue. With Jonas Gustavsson now a Detroit Red Wing, the unquestioned starter is James Reimer.
The lack of competition between the pipes could do well for Reimer's confidence, and he could very well become that goalie that many have hoped for.
At the same time, rumors of the Leafs' interest in Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo just do not seem to go away. Some believe that once the lockout ends, it is just a matter of time before he is wearing the Maple Leafs' blue and white.
If the Leafs were indeed to acquire Roberto Luongo, they would not only instantly become favorites for a playoff spot, but a spot much higher than the eighth seed that has eluded them in recent years. This kind of addition would certainly address their goaltending concerns and likely fix most of their penalty-kill issues.
At a time where GM Brian Burke could be on the hot seat if the team does not improve and do so quickly, expect him to do everything possible to make that move. Doing so would immediately put the Leafs back where they should be—playing playoff hockey.