Ranking the 5 Most Important Players on the Toronto Maple Leafs Roster

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIAugust 28, 2014

Ranking the 5 Most Important Players on the Toronto Maple Leafs Roster

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a revamped roster entering the 2014-15 season, although the core players remain unchanged.

    The Leafs added a number of depth forwards along with a pair of veteran defensemen who should be steadying influences in Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak.

    The top Maple Leafs are all under 30 years of age, so expecting them to continue to improve this season is not unreasonable.

    Let's take a look at the five most important players for Leafs as they prepare for the 2014-15 campaign.

5. Tyler Bozak, Center

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    Tyler Bozak, 28, is one of those NHL centres who is just below elite No. 1 status. But based on recent years, he has elevated his play to being something more than a No. 2 pivot.

    While a lot of this is owed to his talented linemates, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, his two-way game has improved. Unless Nazem Kadri really steps up his game this fall, Bozak is the team's No. 1 centre.

    Bozak is not spectacular at any one thing, but the Regina, Saskatchewan, native and former University of Denver star did post 49 points (19 goals) in 58 games last year.

    Over an 82-game schedule that projects to 69 points, which would rank him higher than a lot of good NHL centres.

    If Bozak can continue to put up these offensive numbers and at least maintain his plus-two rating from last year, his play will be pivotal in the Leafs making a push to the playoffs.

4. Jake Gardiner, Defenseman

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    Jake Gardiner has all the makings of being a top-pairing defender. This year may just be the one that it happens on a regular basis.

    The 24-year-old Gardiner's 21 minutes and five seconds average time on ice were second only to captain Dion Phaneuf's (23:04) last season. Don't expect that to change in 2014-15 as Gardiner is likely to get a lot of first-pairing minutes and increased power-play time.

    He's an effortless skater who could log in the 25-minute range of ice time if he can cut down on his defensive-zone errors. Gardiner's Corsi percentage of 46.5 was not great on the macro level, but it was a very good number when compared to his Leafs teammates. 

    The former Anaheim Ducks draft pick (No. 17 overall in 2008) had 10 goals last season. Don't be surprised if that number increases to at least 15 in 2014-15.

3. Dion Phaneuf, Defenseman

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    The much-maligned Phaneuf remains one of the most important Leafs. He played more minutes than any teammate in 2013-14, and he inevitably ends up playing against other team's top players, shift after shift.

    The 29-year-old rearguard has seen his offensive averages drop as a result, but he still managed to produce 31 points last year. He was also plus-three on a team that did not fare well in the defensive zone very often.

    Phaneuf remains a ferocious hitter. He can intimidate smaller forwards with his 6'3", 214-pound frame.

    He remains a dangerous weapon on the power play with a lethal point shot. He also has softer hands than the casual fan knows.

    If Phaneuf has a very good 2014-15 season, the Leafs are likely to be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Winger

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    Kessel has all-world talent. He's a proven NHL scorer who has developed into one of the top scorers in the game over the past three seasons. 

    Kessel is not a dedicated two-way player at times, but he's not being paid to keep the puck out of his net. His focus must remain on the attacking zone. Generating offensive chances is his most important asset.

    The trio of Kessel, Bozak and Van Riemsdyk has developed into one of the better lines in the Eastern Conference. 

    With Kessel hitting the 80-point mark last season, it still wasn't enough to help propel the Leafs to the playoffs. Look for Kessel to approach 90 points this season if Bozak and Van Riemsdyk remain healthy.

    If the secondary scoring, particularly in the bottom six also improves (how can it not), Kessel could have a career year offensively with teams unable to focus so squarely on his line.

    Expect a lot from the talented American in 2014-15.

1. Jonathan Bernier, Goaltender

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    It is the rare team that has an MVP other than its goaltender. Night in and night out, goalies prove their worth myriad times over the course of an NHL season.

    Jonathan Bernier became that guy for the Leafs last season. The Laval, Quebec, native earned 26 wins last year and provided great value with his .922 save percentage.

    He wasn't a Vezina Trophy nominee as one of the league's best goalies, but if the Leafs had made the playoffs, he would have been in that mix.

    Bernier is athletic, fundamentally sound and has the confidence to be a top-tier NHL goalie for the foreseeable future. With Gardiner and 20-year-old defenseman Morgan Rielly only getting better—and if new additions Robidas and Polak can help shore up the defense—Bernier should have a great season.

    In 2014-15, Bernier's play will dictate whether or not the Leafs are a playoff pretender or contender.


    All stats are from NHL.com unless otherwise noted.