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5 Keys for Toronto Maple Leafs to Finish Strong in 2013-14 NHL Regular Season

James OnuskoContributor IIIApril 11, 2014

5 Keys for Toronto Maple Leafs to Finish Strong in 2013-14 NHL Regular Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are not playoff bound this season thanks to a late-season swoon that saw them win just two games in twelve contests since March 16. This record was heading into April 10 action.

    The Leafs' inability to defend in their own end, a devastating injury to starter Jonathan Bernier and the top line not producing at previous levels were three of the biggest reasons for the losing ways.

    There could be changes on the way as a result of the club missing the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons. 

    While these final games of the 2013-14 season will be challenging to play, here are five key reasons why the team—and some individual players—should finish strong.

5. Assessing Drew MacIntyre

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Drew MacIntyre has never been given an opportunity to shine in the NHL. He may get that chance as the season closes.

    He was scheduled to start for the Leafs against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.

    It seems probable that James Reimer will be playing elsewhere next year. The Leafs do not have a lot of options in their system to replace him as Jonathan Bernier's backup.

    If MacIntyre can play some solid hockey, if given the opportunity down the stretch, he may get a longer look next fall.

4. Test of Professionalism for the Team

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    The Leafs were unable to play well when it counted the most. It is always challenging to focus when there is little to play for, which will be the case as the season ends.

    If the team can muster some good play over the final week, it may convince some of the most cynical fans that collectively, the team cares. 

    Players are professionals and continue to get paid a lot of money regardless of the standings. They need to play well to restore even just an ounce of faith from many in their loyal fan base.

3. Randy Carlyle's Job Could Be on the Line

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    Randy Carlyle's job could very well be on the line as a result of the Leafs missing the playoffs this season.

    The Leafs have often appeared unstructured, undisciplined and scattered. While much of this was likely due to inexperience at the NHL level, a head coach and his staff must bear some responsibility.

    Carlyle is not a foolish man nor a bad coach. Whether or not he is the right fit for this young team may be the most important question that management must explore in the offseason.

    If the players show little life as the season ends, it could be decisive in deciding Carlyle's fate.

2. Players Are Auditioning for the World Championships

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There is no question that the NHL playoffs offer opportunities for young players to gain experience that cannot be simulated.

    However, the IIHF World Hockey Championships can allow some of the Leafs' most talented players the chance to play some important games this spring. Players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner could be heading overseas.

    Olympic veterans are unlikely to play this spring, but young players could benefit immensely from the experience that high-caliber international hockey offers.

1. The NHL's Sheriff Is Riding into Town as the New Sheriff

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    USA TODAY Sports

    According to Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, Brendan Shanahan will be joining the organization in a prominent management role very soon.

    It is likely that Shanahan has been assessing the team for weeks now, but everyone is likely to be assessed to an even greater extent by the Hall of Fame winger in the final games.

    It would be in everyone's best interests, including general manager Dave Nonis, for the Leafs to finish strong. Jobs just might depend on it.

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