Leafs fans are hoping that the team is not going through another epic meltdown like the one last season that caused the team to fall from sixth place all the way down to 14th by the end of the year.
This Toronto team is much improved from last year's edition, but making the playoffs is no guarantee. The New York Rangers and the New York Islanders, who sit in eighth and ninth place in the standings, respectively, are both capable of getting into the postseason, and each of these teams has beaten the Leafs already this season.
Let's look at three moves that general manager Dave Nonis should make to help the Leafs remain in the playoff race and end their seven-year postseason drought in 2013.
Trade for Chris Stewart
St. Louis Blues winger Chris Stewart would be a perfect fit in Toronto because of his ability to score goals and impact games physically with his great size and strength (6'2", 232 pounds).
On Thursday, Darren Dreger of TSN talked about Stewart's future before the trade deadline spoke on NHL Network
"The St. Louis Blues are a team that thought they would be better than what they are, and they are willing to consider a lot of different options and Stewart's name is out there," said Dreger.
"When a name like that surfaces based on how well he's played this year and he continues to produce, then you know there's an expected high level of return....I know they at least had some interest in forward Nikolai Kulemin from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who is not really a strong offensive threat, he does have some offensive ability, more of a defensive-minded player that would fit nicely into Ken Hitchcock's philosophy as well and depth up front..."
Stewart is a tremendous young player who would thrive in Randy Carlyle's defensive-minded system because of his brilliant two-way game.
He scored 15 points with 15 assists in 79 games last season, and in just 27 games this year, he has already scored 13 goals with 13 assists. Stewart is playing the best hockey of his career and looks more focused and motivated to perform at a high level than he has throughout his career.
The Blues forward has a salary cap hit of $3 million and is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. If he continues to produce offensively on a consistent basis, he will receive a very good raise in the offseason.
The Leafs' defensive depth at the NHL and AHL levels make them a good trade partner for the Blues if they are fully willing to part with Stewart.
Even though the 2013 draft class has a ton of high-end talent, Stewart is the type of player you could give up a first round pick for and not regret the decision. He's still a young player entering the prime of his career whose best days are still ahead of him.
The return of top line winger Joffrey Lupul, who has been injured for most of the season, will certainly give Carlyle more scoring depth. However, given Lupul's injury history and the Leafs' lack of secondary scoring, a trade for a goal scorer as talented as Stewart makes sense.
Call up Jake Gardiner From AHL
Last year's breakout star has spent most of the first half of the season in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, and to the surprise of many, Gardiner has not yet made his way back to the NHL after being sent back down in late January.
Gardiner played in two games for the Leafs in early January and failed to impress. Since Carlyle had more than enough defensemen on the NHL roster because of the improved play of Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser, the Leafs had no choice but to send Gardiner down and scratch the struggling John-Michael Liles. Through 41 games with the Marlies, Gardiner has scored 10 goals with 21 assists.
At this point in the season, the Leafs need Gardiner back in the NHL. His offensive skills (playmaking, vision, high hockey IQ, powerful point shot) would be a tremendous addition to the Toronto blue line, which has contributed just one goal during the team's current losing streak. Gardiner would also help the Leafs' transition game with his ability to evade the forecheck and make a good first pass out of the defensive zone.
The Leafs power-play, which has converted on just four of its last 24 opportunities, could also use another offensive defenseman because Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson are the only Leafs blueliners who have scored with the man advantage this season. Kostka and Liles have both averaged over 2:40 of power-play time on ice per game, but neither player has made much of an impact.
Puck-moving defensemen are hard to acquire in the trade market because the number of teams looking for these players is high, and the asking prices are substantial. But luckily for the Leafs, they have a young star in the minors who is ready to resume his NHL career on a permanent basis and provide the team's blue line with some much-needed scoring.
Gardiner proved last season (30 points in 75 games as a rookie) that he's capable of being productive offensively at the NHL level, and keeping him in the minors is not going to help him improve or gain confidence.
Acquire a Defenseman
The Leafs need to get stronger and add another physical presence to the blue line for the final stages of the playoff race.
Toronto turns the puck over way too much (ranked No. 1 in giveaways), and it's no surprise that three of the five players with the most giveaways on the team are defensemen.
Finding a defensive-minded blueliner who can keep calm when teams forecheck aggressively, log 20-plus minutes each game and play important minutes against the other team's top forwards should be a priority for Nonis before the deadline.
One player who the Leafs should target for this role is Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ladislav Smid, who is in the final year of his contract with a $2.952 salary cap hit. The 27-year-old defenseman has impressive size (6'3", 210 pounds) and would excel in a top-four role with the Leafs.
Smid leads Edmonton with 80 hits, and his 70 blocked shots are the fourth-highest total in the league.
If the Oilers fall out of the playoff race over the next few weeks, which is likely, they will not want to lose Smid for nothing in free agency, which means trading him at the deadline is a real possibility.
If the Leafs qualify for the playoffs, they will be knocked out in the first round unless they strengthen their blue line with another physical player who will also contribute to the penalty kill. Smid would be a great fit on the Toronto blue line, and is a player that Nonis should consider signing in the summer as a free agent if he's unable to acquire him before April 3.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. All salary information courtesy of Capgeek.
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