The Toronto Maple Leafs are primed to have a very good 2013-14 season. While they did not hit any home runs in the offseason, they are a better hockey club than they were last spring.
The Leafs have some key players—think Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson—that are on the verge of being not just stars, but superstars. Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel are established stars that should have great seasons with a lot to motivate both of them.
With all of these key players driving each other to be better, better team results are likely.
With the regular season just days away, here are five bold predictions for the Leafs for the 2013-14 regular season.
All regular stats are from NHL.com.
Advanced stats can be found at Behind the Net.
Some believe that the offseason acquisition of former Los Angeles King Jonathan Bernier spells the end of James Reimer in Toronto.
However, goaltending tandems—particularly when made up of two younger, relatively unproven goaltenders—can work well. Additionally, this compressed season due to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in means that it will be the rare goaltender that can play more than 60 to 65 games.
Bernier is also coming over to a new conference and it will take some time for him to adjust to these shooters. He's going to see a number of high-powered offenses in short order.
Remember, Bernier did not see one of these players last year as he toiled with the Kings in the Western Conference. Only the Chicago Blackhawks faced an Eastern Conference opponent last year with no inter-conference play until the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Leafs will have to get off to a fast start and expect Reimer to be sharp right from the start with how prepared he has looked to date. Randy Carlyle is all about winning, as are all NHL coaches.
It's not that Bernier won't be successful; it's that Reimer will win more games based on the progress he made last season with his .924 save percentage and his ever-improving fundamentals.
Dion Phaneuf is going to be as driven as he as ever been this year. The Leafs have a real chance to make some noise this season, and he has a legitimate chance to play in the Olympics.
Phaneuf will have some great talent to play with on the power play, and the Leafs should score a lot of goals this year with their offensive players growing together. Expect Phaneuf to be a key producer as some other defencemen pick up some of the challenging minutes that Phaneuf has been expected to handle.
The Leafs defence core will be one year older and therefore more mature. This will ease the burden on Phaneuf.
Phaneuf produced 28 points in 48 games last year and that would have translated to 48 points over the full 82-game schedule. He also had 44 points in 2011-12, so it's not a stretch to see him getting over that 50-point hump given the overall roster improvements that the Leafs have made.
Nazem Kadri made a huge leap forward last year, and there is every reason to believe that he will only build on that this year. Kadri is one of the more skilled players in the NHL, and while Carlyle demands accountability in the defensive zone, he will continue to allow Kadri to be creative and attacking in the offensive zone.
Kadri should see his ice time increase significantly this year, and while his shot percentage of 16.8 will be difficult to maintain, he should get a lot more scoring opportunities this year given his increased ice time and general confidence. He is a great puck pursuer when he does lose possession, which helps his advanced statistics a great deal.
Kadri had an excellent Relative Corsi number last year of 11.3. He was well behind team leader Jake Gardiner, who achieved a whopping 30.5, but that was a small sample size for Gardiner as he did not play a full season. Gardiner will also face some better competition this year as his game matures.
Expect Kadri to nose out Phil Kessel for the scoring title with at least 85 points, and he should have a Relative Corsi number over 20. These two numbers will will lead the team.
This year's version of the Leafs should feature scoring on at least two lines, sometimes three, and there are at least three defencemen that will score goals on a regular basis. While some teams struggle to have more than two or three 20-goal scorers, the Leafs have a legitimate shot at having seven this season.
Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf will all break the 20-goal barrier.
All of them will have to stay healthy, but it's not as big a stretch as some might think. Based on an 82-game schedule, only Phaneuf wouldn't have achieved this last year based on the same production on a game-by-game basis.
If the Leafs achieve this collectively, expect it to be a very good year for Leaf fans.
The Atlantic Division will be hotly contested this year. There are some strong teams with balanced attacks, good defence cores and some marquee goalies. Regardless of these strengths, the Leafs can play with any of the top teams, and expect them to do so.
While it would be a stretch to predict them to win the division with the Bruins still being the odds-on favourite, the Leafs will battle the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings for one of the highly coveted top-three spots in the division.
The Leafs will need to stay healthy, and they will need excellent goaltending from both Bernier and Reimer. If they get that, with a little luck thrown in, we see the Leafs finishing near the top of the Atlantic Division.