3 Players Most Capable of Being Postseason X-Factors for Toronto Maple Leafs
For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's been a long time coming.
The Leafs haven't made the postseason in a decade, and may finally be punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in the shootout era.
But once the gauntlet does arrive, things won't be easy for the Leafs.
They'll be playing against some of the Eastern Conference's top talent and could match up with the Boston Bruins, a team that has given them nightmares over the past few seasons.
In order for the Leafs to achieve playoff success, they'll need to receive contributions from more than just the usual cast.
Here are three Leafs that could be "X-Factors" for the team this postseason.
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Since returning to the lineup a few games ago, Jake Gardiner has earned the respect and praise of Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle.
Gardiner has tightened up his game defensively, giving the Leafs nearly 21:30 minutes of ice time on average in his last two outings.
Though he hasn't registered a point since coming back, he's been a plus-one and his ability to handle the puck and clear the zone is something the Leafs were clearly lacking with the less-skilled Mike Kostka in the defensive rotation.
If the Leafs want to succeed in the playoffs, Gardiner's ability to make plays from the back end, clear his zone and handle the puck will be essential. But the youngster has to also ensure that he doesn't let his offensive prowess come at the cost of his defensive game.
Should he continue to hold his own end and provide the Leafs with another option on the attack, Gardiner could be a game-changer for Toronto in the postseason.
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Perhaps one of the most undervalued Toronto Maple Leafs this season, Nikolai Kulemin has had a quiet, though excellent turnaround campaign.
While he hasn't returned to being the sniper who netted 30 goals just a few seasons ago, Kulemin has matched his dismal goal total of seven from last season and sits fifth among the team's forwards in points with 22 (he's seventh on the team overall).
Offensively Kulemin has been decent, providing the kind of depth scoring the team has asked of him.
He has also been a fantastic penalty killer, tag-teaming with Jay McClement as one of the team's primary go-to forwards on the first penalty-killing unit.
Kulemin sits fifth on the team in hits (a very physical team, no less) with 109 and second among all forwards, behind only Leo Komarov.
There is no doubt that Randy Carlyle loves guys like Nikolai Kulemin on his team.
He has the ability to contribute offensively, kill penalties and play the tough, gritty style Carlyle so loves to implement.
In the playoffs, that is a recipe for success.
Nikolai Kulemin definitely has the ability to be one of the team's X-Factors.
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Of all the players that will need to really step up their game in the postseason, Mikhail Grabovski has to top the list.
Thanks to the sensational play of Nazem Kadri this season, Grabovski's lack of production hasn't been as concerning as it normally would be for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It's true he's been put in tough situations most of this season (per James Mirtle):
I count only 25 forwards that have had as difficult minutes as Grabovski/Kulemin in the last six seasons bit.ly/10U5MlG— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 11, 2013
However, Grabovski still needs to produce more offensively for his $5.5 million per season salary.
We all know he's capable of putting up top-six-forward-like numbers, it's just about putting him in situations where he can succeed offensively.
If Randy Carlyle is more willing to do that come the postseason, Grabovski could very well surprise hockey fans this May.