Like many young teams, the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs can look like world-beaters on some nights and just this side of an AHL squad on others.
More than their youth has contributed to this, but one important element has been the play of some key skaters. Defensive play, mainly from the blue line, has been the Leafs' biggest concern. The list includes three defenders.
We'll count down the five Leafs that need to improve the most in the second half of the 2013-14 season. If they don't, expect the Leafs to struggle to make the playoffs in April.
Honorable mention goes to Nazem Kadri.
Cody Franson has been something better than average, but much less than great this season. The Leafs need great from the talented native of Sicamous, British Columbia.
Franson has great size, mobility and hockey sense. Now in his mid-20s, he has all the makings of a top-pairing defender. He has yet to grow into this role on a nightly basis, though.
While the 6'5" rearguard has 21 points and leads the Leafs defencemen in this category, he is minus-12 in 47 games. His 21:38 minutes played per game are actually third in average to young Jake Gardiner and captain Dion Phaneuf. This is despite getting a lot of power-play time, during which he's been average at best.
The Leafs need greater intensity and defensive awareness from Franson. Better defensive play from him in the second half of the season will solidify a playoff spot.
Morgan Rielly is a 19-year-old rookie who has the potential to be an exceptional NHL defenceman. This will not happen overnight, but Rielly can get better in the second half of the season.
Because the Leafs don't have a lot of veterans capable of playing big minutes, Rielly has had to assume a heavy workload. It is debatable whether or not this is too much, too soon, but it is what Randy Carlyle has to deal with this season.
Rielly is incredibly mobile, with great speed and agility. He has that rare ability to lead the rush and then get back to defend most times. He continues to learn how to play in the defensive zone, as he's often on the wrong side of his man and gets outmuscled in the corners.
Rielly has 13 points in his rookie season, but he's minus-12. His relative Corsi of 1.0 shows promise, but with his attacking ability, he needs to take charge even more. Playing in the opposition's end will alleviate the pressure he is experiencing while defending.
It might be easier said than done, but Rielly has the skills and talent to take charge more often as the season wears on. The future success of the team depends on it.
David Clarkson was expected to be a difference-maker in 2013-14. This has not been the case on many nights, as Clarkson has dealt with a suspension and injuries in the first half of the season.
The Leafs need much more from him. Clarkson can help influence a game with his ability to forecheck, take the body and create turnovers. He also has enough skill to turn these takeaways into scoring chances.
Clarkson has just eight points in 36 games. Only three of these are goals. That number has to be much higher in the second half of the season. While 20 goals seems unreasonable now, the Leafs need at least 10 to 15 from him going forward.
Depth scoring has been an issue all year for the Leafs. If Clarkson can click with some other like-minded linemates, the Leafs will have a third line that can turn the tide in games.
While some critics want to give up on Jake Gardiner, it would be a huge mistake for the Leafs to do so. Gardiner has all the tools to be a top-four defender.
While he can be inconsistent and at times appear disengaged, Gardiner can influence a game with his speed and puck-moving ability. He does the turn the puck over at inopportune times, but he can make plays that can't be taught with his agility.
Gardiner sees plays developing that others cannot. He is third in Toronto's defenceman scoring race with 14 points. He's a respectable minus-two on a defensively challenged team.
Gardiner has to cut down on his giveaways and prove that he can play against top forwards on a consistent basis. If he plays at or near his best on a nightly basis, the Leafs will not have to look outside the organization for another top-four defenceman.
Joffrey Lupul was in the discussion for Team Canada's Olympic team as the season began. That talk was muted within a few weeks, as Lupul has not had a good 2013-14.
Lupul should be at a point-per-game pace, but with just 25 points in 40 games, he's nowhere near that. He's also minus-12, which is a reflection of Nazem Kadri's poor defensive play along with his own. The Leafs' second line has not been synchronized at all this year.
Randy Carlyle may have to move Lupul around to get him going in the second half. Unless Kadri starts playing better, Peter Holland's inspired play may have earned him the opportunity to be paired with Lupul until David Bolland returns from injury.
The talented winger can win games single-handedly and the Leafs will need him to do so in their anticipated run to the Stanley Cup playoffs.