Predicting If Toronto Maple Leafs' Top Stars Improve or Decline in 2014-15
On a nightly basis this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs lived the old adage that "your best players need to be your best players" to win hockey games.
This was not a deep hockey team in the sense that when the top stars were sputtering, the team had little chance of winning.
Depth is a key issue for the Leafs as they head into next season.
Let's take a look at Toronto's top stars and predict whether or not they will improve in 2014-15.
Dion Phaneuf, Defenseman
Dion Phaneuf's numbers were quite solid this year. Part of the issue with him in Toronto is that he's never achieved his earlier offensive numbers from Calgary.
This is coupled with the fact that he's not always amicable when facing the media. He doesn't get the benefit of the doubt with many fans, and as the highly paid captain, many would argue that he needs to be better in this regard.
Also, he was paired with Carl Gunnarsson, who is stretched as a top-pairing NHL defender.
Phaneuf did manage 31 points, which tied him for second on the team among defenders. He also posted 144 penalty minutes and averaged 23 minutes, 33 seconds of ice time. He was easily the most physical Leafs blueliner.
The Leafs need to upgrade their defense over the offseason and take some of the pressure off their captain. Generating more offense from the back end is important, but making sure the ice tilts more in Toronto's favour is even more important. The Leafs have to get better in their own end.
With Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner only getting better with age and the hopes that the team will add an NHL-ready defenseman or two, expect Phaneuf's numbers to improve in 2014-15 with the help.
Prediction: Slight Improvement in 2014-15
James Van Riemsdyk, Winger
James van Riemsdyk had a great offensive year. The talented American winger scored 30 goals and tallied 31 assists.
His 61 points were more than 20 points better than his next best season total.
He excelled alongside Phil Kessel, who also had an exceptional offensive season. Van Riemsdyk's shooting percentage was 10.8 percent over the entire season, so these numbers seem sustainable moving forward.
His Corsi For at five-on-five was 44.2 percent this year. League-wide, that isn't great, but on this club, it was adequate. If Kessel and JVR had an elite centre, this number would likely improve a lot more.
The Middletown, New Jersey, native will turn 25 in a few short days, and all indicators are that his game is on the upswing.
Toronto's success will hinge on him improving next season. Topping 70 points seems very reasonable.
Prediction: Significant Improvement in 2014-15
Phil Kessel, Winger
Phil Kessel had a great year offensively. While his 80 points were not a career best, they did earn him the sixth spot in the NHL in scoring.
He is one of the most dynamic wingers off the rush in the game today. This was on full display at the Sochi Olympics, where he flourished with elite teammates.
While Tyler Bozak has been serviceable as a centre for the Leafs, he's not a No. 1 pivot.
If the Leafs can add a quality first-line centre in the offseason, there is further room for Kessel's numbers to improve. He's entering his prime years and nearing the apex of his skill set.
With a PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) of 102.5, Kessel's offensive numbers may not be sustainable.
However, that number is not out of line with his historical PDO numbers. The benchmark for PDO is 100, and being above that number over a long period of time is questionable.
With all things staying the same, his play is likely to decline slightly next season only because he had such a great year in 2013-14.
Prediction: Slight Decline in 2014-15
Jonathan Bernier, Goaltender
Jonathan Bernier had the best year of his career. Night after night, he was the biggest reason that the Leafs were competitive when they had no business being so.
He played behind a suspect defensive group, and yet he posted a .923 save percentage. That tied him with last year's Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Additionally, Bernier logged more than 3,000 minutes in net and proved that he can shoulder the load as a No. 1 netminder.
He was scheduled to have sports hernia surgery in April, but the recovery time is short.
It is unlikely that the Leafs will be dominated on the shot clock in 2014-15 to the same extent as they were this year. Even if they tried, it would be difficult to be that bad in shot-differential metrics.
If the Leafs can bolster their defense corps, expect Bernier's numbers to improve as his confidence rises.
If the team makes the playoffs, expect him to be in the conversation for the Vezina as well.
Prediction: Slight Improvement in 2014-15