The 5 Most Promising Signs for Toronto Maple Leafs' Future
The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to battle for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference in what has turned into a true dogfight.
In the past few weeks the Leafs have moved from the coveted second spot in their division to one of the two wild-card spots.
The Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, so the growing pains, particularly on the defensive side of the game, are unsurprising.
The youthfulness of the team is promising, in and of itself, but let's take a look at the five most promising signs for the future of the Hogtown heroes.
5. Toronto Marlies Are a Good Team
Success breeds success. It is not coincidental that the Leafs have begun to cultivate their winning ways with their AHL team, the Toronto Marlies.
The Marlies lead their division this year, won it last season and battled for the Calder Cup in 2012. It is the rare NHL club that enjoys long-term success without a good minor league system behind it.
Players that join the big club bring their winning ways with them, and systems are often used across an entire organization. Homegrown talent is a must in the salary-cap era.
4. Morgan Rielly Is Only Getting Better
It is the rare 19-year-old that can make the NHL as a rookie defenceman. Rielly did just that this year.
Has he looked out of place at times? Yes, he has. But more often than not, he has been poised beyond his years. His skating ability and skill with the puck makes him extremely valuable in today's game. While size still matters in all levels of competitive hockey, if you cannot play the game at the highest speed, you are not long for the NHL.
While there are likely to be setbacks along the way for Rielly, it seems clear that the former Moose Jaw Warrior has a bright future in Toronto.
3. Handful of Young, Hungry Forwards
The Leafs are beginning to develop some young players, especially at the forward position, that are having an impact on their NHL roster. As mentioned earlier, the Marlies have had a very good run of success over the past few seasons.
Some of these players are developing good habits in a winning environment as a result of this. The most promising young players are Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland, Carter Ashton, Jerry D'Amigo, Josh Leivo and David Broll.
An added bonus is that several of these players are Ontario-born youngsters who are living out their childhood dreams of playing for the Leafs. That extra motivation is difficult to quantify but it can't hurt.
2. One of the Top Lines in Hockey
They don't get the fanfare of some other lines, but there is no question that Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak form one of the top trios in the league.
Kessel has been among the top scorers in the NHL all year and JVR sits sixth among left wingers in the NHL. Many see Bozak as the weak link, but with 40 points in 46 games, he's been very productive. He's also earned a plus-three rating this season, which is one indicator of his solid two-way play.
This line is young, fast and skilled. There is every reason to believe that they will continue to grow as individuals and as a unit. They are just entering their prime years and this bodes well for the Leafs.
1. Jonathan Bernier Is the Real Deal
Jonathan Bernier has been outstanding this season. He's handled the pressures of playing in the biggest NHL market in Canada very well.
Bernier's .925 save percentage is one of the better ones among starters in the NHL. He has given the Leafs an opportunity to win on most nights.
He is relatively young at 25 years old, and the Leafs might have a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate in their fold for years to come.
He's easily the brightest light in the Leafs universe for the next decade.
All stats can be found on nhl.com unless otherwise noted.