Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Reasons Toronto Is a Playoff Caliber Team

Jon ReidCorrespondent IIMarch 4, 2013

Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Reasons Toronto Is a Playoff Caliber Team

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    Coming into the shortened 2013 NHL regular season, the main concern surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs was in goaltending.

    In what has been a nice surprise, the duo of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in the blue paint has actually been Toronto's most consistent position, with both netminders having strong starts to the season.

    That would lead some to believe that this team may be ready to make the plunge and play in their first postseason since the installation of the salary cap following the last NHL lockout.

    At this point, I'd agree with the optimistic portion of Leafs Nation.

    This Toronto Maple Leafs squad may seem like a very similar club on paper to the team that imploded just a season ago, but there are differences between the two teams.

    Here are five reasons the Toronto Maple Leafs are playoff-bound in 2013.

Randy Carlyle

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    Probably the most notable and most important difference between this edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the 2011-12 version is head coach Randy Carlyle.

    Where former head coach Ron Wilson was more of a run-and-gun offensive-minded head coach, Randy Carlyle prefers to have big bodies with grit and the ability to play defensive hockey.

    Looking up and down the Leafs' roster, it's clear that this team is much more geared towards Carlyle's style. A more defensive game will also help when it comes to conserving energy and not burning out down the stretch.

    For me, the system that this team is playing and the fact that a burnout is much less likely under said system is the difference between last year's collapse and this year's team returning to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade.

Developing Young Guns

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    The other difference between head coach Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson is that Carlyle has been more willing to let the young guns develop at the NHL level.

    Guys like Cody Franson, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin simply weren't allowed to develop.

    In fact, the way Nazem Kadri was handled has led to well-known rants from one of Canada's favorite commentators in Don Cherry.

    Yet with all three of the youngsters being allowed to work through their problems and play consistent minutes, it appears as though all three are turning a corner.

    Cody Franson is among the NHL's best defenseman in assists, points and player rating, Nazem Kadri has 21 points in 22 games (while playing third line minutes for most of the season) and Matt Frattin notched seven goals and 10 points in 10 games before suffering a knee injury.

    Then there is the newly acquired James van Riemsdyk, who has shown why he was selected second overall in 2007 with 12 goals in his first 22 contests as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    With Frattin and Franson being the oldest of those four players at just 25 years old, Toronto's future, along with their 2013 season, is looking bright.

Returning Injured Players

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    Another reason to believe that this team can make the postseason is the fact that they've been playing solid hockey, even without some of their better players.

    When James Reimer was out, Ben Scrivens stepped in admirably.

    Yet two of Toronto's key players are still sidelined with injury.

    Joffrey Lupul, who was second in scoring last season for the Maple Leafs, and Matt Frattin, who has scored seven goals in 10 games in 2013, have both been out for over 10 games (a considerable amount in a shortened 48-game season).

    Yet both are just about ready to return.

    In fact, Frattin could return for Monday night's matchup with the New Jersey Devils and will be a game-time decision, while Lupul has been skating for over a week now and could return this week.

Newfound Stability in Net

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    Despite his shaky return against the New York Islanders last Thursday night, James Reimer has been very impressive so far in 2013.

    Even when the Leafs were without Reimer, goaltending concerns weren't running rampant with Ben Scrivens playing extremely well, with the exception of his last start against the Montreal Canadiens.

    While it may only be 20 games into the season, and it is far from certain that either of the young netminders will keep up this pace, there is reason to believe in James Reimer, who, when 100 percent healthy, has always had success at the NHL level.

    Other than last season when he returned from a concussion, Reimer has been more than an adequate starting goaltender.

    So long as he can stay healthy and Scrivens remains a serviceable backup, Toronto shouldn't worry about their goaltending letting them down again in 2013.

Improved Penalty Kill

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    Other than goaltending, Toronto's inability to kill penalties was probably the club's biggest concern going forward.

    With new head coach Randy Carlyle and his focus on defense, along with the signing of Jay McClement, a penalty killing specialist, Toronto has seen their penalty kill improve dramatically this season.

    Since the 2007-08 season, Toronto hasn't managed to kill more than 78.1 percent of their penalties in any season and hasn't finished outside of the bottom five in the league in that category.

    In 2013, however, the Leafs have killed nearly 82 percent of their penalties and sit 15th in the league.

    Better penalty killers, as well as more pressure on team's trying to enter their zone, has helped turn one of the league's worst penalty killing units into a respectable one.

    Having special teams improve goes a long way to locking up one of the Eastern Conference's coveted eight playoff spots.