Toronto Maple Leafs' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
Love them or hate them, and in Canada there is not much middle ground, the Toronto Maple Leafs are poised to make another playoff appearance this spring. Expectations should be higher than last year when the organization was likely happy with simply making an appearance in the NHL's second season.
General manager Dave Nonis has made some changes at key positions, and while his work remains unfinished, the team could make some noise against its Eastern Conference opponents.
While there is a lot to like about this young squad, questions remain. Here are five of the biggest ones that the team faces in the final month of the 2013-14 season.
5. Can Rookie Morgan Rielly Continue to Handle the Rigorous NHL Season?
Morgan Rielly has been excellent in his first NHL season. He has a lot to learn, but in most respects, he has more than exceeded what can be expected from a 20-year-old defenceman right out of junior hockey.
The schedule is compressed this year due to the Olympics, and the wear and tear on players is higher than usual.
Rielly has logged more than 20 minutes on several nights and has never played more than 65 games in a regular season at the junior level. It is a big request of the young defender to keep performing at such a high level of play.
Don't be surprised if head coach Randy Carlyle gives him the odd night off down the stretch.
4. Can the Leafs Secure a Top-4 Playoff Spot?
The club needs to secure one of the top four spots in the conference to avoid one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. It would also get the Leafs home-ice advantage in the first round. They are 10 games over .500 at home, and the Toronto crowd would provide a huge boost to the young team.
They will have to play well on the road in the final month and defeat some veteran-laden teams like the Red Wings to finish as high as possible in the standings. Confidence needs to be built up, and facing a team like the Bruins in the first round needs to be avoided at all costs.
3. Can Phil Kessel Continue His Exceptional Play?
Winger Phil Kessel has had an exceptional season. He signed a lucrative extension earlier this season, which will make him a wealthy man for many years to come.
He is now second in the league in points and tied for third in goals. An argument could be made that he should be included in the Hart Trophy conversation based on his outstanding play.
The American was very good at the Sochi Olympics, and his play has not fallen off since. He's been operating in high gear all year, and the Leafs need him to play at this high level if they want to continue their winning ways.
With Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, Kessel's line has been one of the best offensive units in the NHL.
2. What Will David Bolland's Return Mean to the Leafs?
Centre David Bolland remains on the sidelines, and this has left a hole for the Leafs at the position. While he has been skating for a number of weeks now, the Toronto Star reports that his return is not easy to predict.
Without Bolland, the Leafs have been overmatched down the middle at times. His return, provided he's healthy, would have a positive effect on the team.
He provides some great NHL experience, the ability to play strong two-way hockey and some additional secondary scoring. All of this is predicated on him feeling mentally strong as well. This is never a sure thing when returning from serious injury.
1. Will Jonathan Bernier Keep Playing at Such a High Level?
Jonathan Bernier's play has been nothing short of brilliant this season. He has been one of the best netminders in the league and has kept the Leafs in games they had no business being in.
He has won some games single-handedly.
His .926 save percentage has him tied for fourth in the NHL. The Leafs need him to continue to operate at this high level of play if they hope to have ongoing success.
Bernier is in some unfamiliar territory at the NHL level, as he's never played more than 25 games in a single season prior to this year. He has now appeared in 49 games for the Leafs.
While James Reimer has been good for much of the year, Bernier has been the unquestioned leader in goal for a few months. If he falters down the stretch, the Leafs would not be in a good place.
All stats can be found on NHL.com unless otherwise noted.