The Toronto Maple Leafs' season started with a surprising decision to fire general manager Brian Burke a couple weeks prior to the season opener. But once play began, the Leafs were a completely different team than in 2011-12 by playing a more physical, responsible game opponents hated facing.
Head coach Randy Carlyle's two-way system that requires gritty play and strong defense resulted in Toronto leading the league in hits and blocked shots, and ranking seventh in takeaways. The team's penalty kill greatly improved from 28th-best in 2011-12 to second-best this season.
Perhaps the most important development for the Leafs was the progress of some of the team's young stars, including former first-round pick Nazem Kadri. The young center was getting close to being labeled a bust, but he enjoyed a breakout year, finishing second on the team with 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in 48 games.
Newly acquired winger James van Riemsdyk calmed some concerns about his durability and excelled with 32 points in 48 games.
Toronto accomplished its goal of making the playoffs (ending its nine-year postseason drought) by earning the fifth seed in the East. They took the Boston Bruins to seven games in Round 1, despite trailing 3-1 in the series. The Leafs ultimately became the first team to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, losing 5-4 in overtime.
But the future is very bright in Toronto, with a good mixture of veteran players (Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, JVR, etc.) and young talent (Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier and Kadri) that have laid a solid foundation for success over the next few years.