What the Toronto Maple Leafs Must Do to Climb Back Into Playoff Contention

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIJanuary 14, 2014

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 12:  Tyler Bozak #42 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his first period goal with teammates during NHL game action against the New Jersey Devils January 12, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

After a very good start to the 2013-14 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs now find themselves out of a playoff spot. Trends such as giving up far too many shots, taking far too few shots themselves and relying on their goaltending duo to sustain very high save percentages have begun to catch up with them.

Calls to fire Randy Carlyle have become rampant from media and fans. Discussion has been more heated in recent weeks as the Leafs have faltered.

The Leafs are currently in ninth place in the East. The standings are so tight, however, that 49 points puts them two points out of fifth, or two points out of thirteenth, depending on your view.

Firing Carlyle might result in a slight bump in the standings, but coaching does not appear to be the primary issue in this current swoon. He's a proven winner, and while he might not be a media darling, he has worked well with young players in his coaching career.

The bottom line is that Carlyle knows how to win at the professional level. It's possible that he doesn't have the personnel to employ his systems, but there are other, more important issues for the Leafs.

The first thing that has to happen for the Leafs to get back into a playoff spot is for them to get healthy. Centre Dave Bolland has missed the better part of the year and his return, likely right around the corner, will be a big addition. Trevor Smith has also been out with a broken hand since early December and he has been missed as a depth player.

Tyler Bozak appears to be healthy again while defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and winger David Clarkson have had injuries recently as well. An extended period with all key players in the lineup will allow Carlyle to truly see what he has in this year's club.

The Leafs have to develop a fourth line. Obviously a healthy lineup will help here, but Carlyle needs to find three skaters that can play more than two or three minutes in a game.

Peter Holland has been recalled and he needs to become a fixture on that fourth line once Bolland is healthy. The Caledon, Ontario native has nine points in 22 games and is plus-one in those games.

Furthermore, having two bruising wingers on the fourth line is fine, but they have to be able to play hockey. Players that can do nothing more than fight are rapidly becoming extinct in today's NHL.

Whether or not some fans and critics agree with this, it's a fact of life in the game. Carlyle does not have final control over his roster, so he's played the players he has had available.

Also, the Leafs must give Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly the opportunity to play most nights. The team needs puck-moving defenders who do not spend the bulk of their time chasing in the defensive zone. Sure there are warts on these two, but their upside is undeniable.

Mark Fraser appears to be labouring on many nights, and his relative Corsi of -6.8 compared to Gardiner's 8.9 is significant. Fraser is also minus-eight in 19 games while Gardiner is a much better minus-two in 45 contests.

Rielly has posted a 0.8 relative Corsi number, but is minus-12. He continues to struggle defensively but this is to be expected as a 19-year-old rookie.

The big difference is that Rielly and Gardiner have 12 points and 13 points respectively. Fraser has one point this year.

Trading Rielly, Gardiner or Nazem Kadri has been suggested, but unless the club can get a top-pairing defender back, this seems to make little sense. While not all young players improve, these three seem destined to become very good pros.

A playoff berth is important on a few levels for the Leafs, but it cannot be at the expense of emptying the organization's cupboard of promising young talent for short-term gain.

Acquiring a veteran defensive-minded blueliner would be great, but they are in short supply. General manager Dave Nonis will be doing everything in his power to improve his team, but he needs them to be even better next year.

Upper management always needs to be taking the long view. Being a perennial playoff contender depends on it.

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Basic stats are from hockeydb.com.