Where the Toronto Maple Leafs Must Make Changes to Improve Next Season
I'm still rattled. Reeling from that third-period breakdown and a heartbreaking overtime goal, all I can think is that Toronto did what they were supposed to do. Heading into this season, analysts everywhere were saying Toronto was a playoff team. Heck, even Sidney Crosby called Toronto a playoff team during a home-and-home. I love the Leafs and every year want them to win the Cup, but the most I expected from them this year was a first-round Game 7.
Unfortunately, Toronto needs to look ahead to the offseason. This was a great year for them, but now it's clear that some changes need to be made. I'm gonna go through the Leafs roster to highlight where changes need to be made and what needs to be done.
The Leafs learned so much this year. Now they just need to grow from it.
1st Line: James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel
Toronto already has players capable of filling its top line. The Leafs had a very successful season offensively, so trading away too many assets or signing players to huge contracts wouldn't be productive. The Leafs have great offensive tools. I think Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk will be a very effective line next year.
Phil Kessel doesn't need to change anything he's doing offensively. Sure, he may not be physical or go into the corners much, but that's just the player he is. He's very effective on the rush has has developed a complete offensive game. Playing him with Kadri gives him a creative center who can make small plays and create more open space. I think they are an ideal fit for each other.
Defensively, Kessel needs to work on positioning and taking away passing lanes. I think that small change will help make him a much more effective player.
Nazem Kadri really showed what he can do this year but still needs to work on a number of things. Faceoffs is the first thing he needs to improve to be an effective NHL center. He also needs to hit the gym and add more strength. As great as he's been, there were still a lot of moments in the Boston series where he was out-muscled.
James Van Riemsdyk seems like a logical fit for the first line. He has plenty of speed to keep up with Kadri and Kessel and has the size to to go hard in the corners and in front of the net. He also needs to add more strength to be more effective. So many times he would get pushed out from the front of the net. If he can stay immovable, I think he could be a better player than Milan Lucic.
2nd Line: Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin
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Offensively, the Leafs have the right tools to compete with any team. I want them to stick with what they have on the second line with Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin.
Mikhail Grabovski is much better than we saw this year. During the playoffs, he was one of Toronto's best players but just couldn't solve Tuukka Rask. I expect Grabovski to have a bounce-back year and be a much more effective second-line player.
Joffrey Lupul has been a revelation since coming to Toronto. In 110 career games with the Leafs, Lupul has 103 points. Those are numbers worthy of a top-six forward and I think Lupul will continue with his consistent offensive production. When he broke his hand, he said that his conditioning had never been better. Since Lupul won't have to rehab an injury this offseason, I expect his conditioning to be top notch.
The reason I picked Matt Frattin to fill out the top six is because he's had success at every level he's played. He has the potential to be a game-breaker and that overtime goal hurt him more than anyone else. Right now, Frattin will be thinking about the great breakaway chance he had to ice Game 7. Hopefully that drives him to be even better for next season.
Bottom 6: More Leadership
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More than anything, what the Leafs lacked most during the playoffs was experience and leadership.
When things started to go south, they didn't have anyone who could step up and help right the ship. Toronto's bottom six was very inconsistent, and that was the difference-maker against Boston. The Bruins have refined their lineup over the years and have some of the best bottom-six players in the league. Toronto needs to add more leadership and experienced players to its lineup in order to consistently compete night in and night out.
I think Toronto will re-sign Tyler Bozak and he will be the third-line center. Along with him, I think Nikolai Kulemin will remain while Clarke MacArthur leaves during free agency. Toronto has a lot of key players to re-sign and there are many more experienced players available on the open market.
Potential free agents they can sign who would really help them include Pascal Dupuis, Ruslan Fedotenko, Daniel Cleary, David Clarkson, Valterri Filppula, Dustin Penner, Ryane Clowe and Brenden Morrow. Any one of these players would be a huge addition for the Leafs. Two would be even better.
The Leafs have a great third/fourth-line player in Jay McClement. I like the way Randy Carlyle played him this season. He single-handedly turned Toronto's penalty kill around, but I would like to see him primarily as a center next season. Leo Komarov has also been a pleasant surprise. His gritty style fits very well in Carlyle's system. However, the Leafs need an upgrade from Colton Orr through trade or free agency if they want to compete consistently. Frazer McLaren would be a good 13th forward.
I want Toronto to follow Boston's mold and have four fully functional lines that can play in multiple situations. If they can add one or two more players with added playoff experience, it would really make a difference in the long run.
1st Defensive Pairing: Find Dion Phaneuf a New Partner
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Dion Phaneuf is only human.
So much is expected of him on a regular basis that people often forget that. While in an ideal world, I would like Phaneuf to be capable of 25-30 minutes a game, he's not. If he works on his conditioning (quitting smoking would be a good start), he may be capable of it next season. I don't want to see Toronto rely on that too much. Dion was at his best when he played 20-25 minutes a game and that's what they should aim for him to play.
Carl Gunnarsson did well at times, but it became clear that Phaneuf needs someone more capable in order to perform. Gunnarsson is still a good player in his own right, but Toronto need's a veteran player who can help Phaneuf run the back end. Potential free agents the Leafs could sign include Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi, but I think they're more likely to go the trade route.
2nd Defensive Pairing: Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner
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Even though they were forced together in the playoffs, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson complemented each other well. Franson plays a sound defensive game with great instincts in the offensive end and Jake Gardiner is a pure offensive defenseman who really showed he improved defensively.
Gardiner will make the Leafs out of training camp next season—that's a guarantee—and I expect Franson to build upon what he did this year. Toronto has this first-round playoff experience to guide and motivate them next season. Gardiner and Franson both played huge parts and I know they can expand upon that down the road.
3rd Defensive Pairing: Best of the Rest
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The Leafs have an abundance of players who could fill out their final pairing. John-Michael Liles is the only other defenseman signed beyond this season. Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser and Ryan O'Byrne are all free agents. Fraser is definitely someone who earned his spot with the Leafs and should be kept around. Kostka and O'Byrne did play well at times, but I don't think they're that high on the priority list right now. And if you take Morgan Rielly into account and whether he might be ready, those are the least likely to be back.
Liles could also be an attractive trade piece along with Gunnarsson. He's a good, veteran puck-moving defenseman, but whether he stays or goes depends on Rielly's progression this offseason.
Goalies: Veteran Backup Needed
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James Reimer is Toronto's guy. I don't care what people say, he showed what he is capable of, and with the right guidance, I truly believe he could be the goalie this city has been waiting for.
He was able to steal two key games against Boston, which is incredible in itself. Two things he needs to work on are his rebound control and puck-handling. Puck-handling is essential for goalies and it was very apparent how much better Rask was compared to Reimer.
While Ben Scrivens had a great season with the Leafs, Reimer stole the show. What would really help him in his progression would be some veteran leadership. I don't want to see Toronto trade to get a solid veteran backup when the club could find one by going through free agency. Potential free agents include Niklas Backstrom, Nikolai Khabibulin, Chris Mason and Jose Theodore. Any one of them would be a great veteran backup for Reimer and the Leafs.
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Going into their playoff series with Boston, a big storyline was the gap in experience. Well, now this young Toronto Maple Leafs team has had their first taste of playoff experience and have something to learn from. Adding more veteran players will really help the development of this team's core and turn them into a perennial playoff team.
I am so proud of what this team managed to do this year. Sure, they made some mistakes along the way, but that's what happens when you're the league's youngest team. Now they are just a few pieces away from not only being a playoff contender year in and year out but a Stanley Cup contender down the road.
GO LEAFS GO!!