Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Keys to a Playoff Berth
With the NHL season (slowly) approaching, not much has been set in stone. Nobody really has a Stanley Cup prediction quite yet, or the slightest clue to who will emerge as the breakout star of the year. One thing that is inevitable, however, is the often unrealistic optimism by fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, myself included.
Without a single playoff appearance since the lockout, fans in Toronto are getting impatient, and the pressure is on Brian Burke and the rest of the Maple Leafs organization as a whole to finally break the playoff barrier. Fans and media often called for coach Ron Wilson's head last season, and if the Leafs begin the season poorly or fail to make the playoffs again this upcoming season, he will without a doubt be fired.
All in all, there is a lot of pressure on everyone from the GM to the players of the Maple Leafs to at the very least make the playoffs this 2011/2012 season. Here are the five keys (in no particular order) for a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff berth in 2011/2012.
1. Breakout Season for Nazem Kadri
Nazem Kadri arrived in Toronto with a whole lot of hype surrounding him after being drafted 7th overall in 2009. He was however considered to small to make an immediate impact on the big club, and has spent most of his time since being drafted with the OHL's London Knights and AHL's Toronto Marlies.
Kadri's play with the Marlies was stellar last season, with 41 points in 44 games. But when called up to play with the Leafs, he still looked somewhat invisible and got pushed around quite a bit by bigger, more experienced NHL-proven opponents. Fans and management have been patient with Kadri, but the fact of the matter is that the patience is running out, and Kadri has to have a big year to prove he was worth that 7th overall selection. A big year from him alone could be the push the Maple Leafs need.
2. Big Improvements on the Penalty Kill
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If you watched any Leafs games the past couple seasons, you may have noticed one consistent theme: awful penalty killing. In fact, the Buds PK% has been in the bottom five in the NHL for the past three seasons. I don't care how good a team is five on five, if you cannot kill a penalty, you are not going to be winning a lot of games.
The Maple Leafs had a 77.4% PK percentage last season. They need to improve that to about 82%, at the very least, if they hope to have a shot a the playoffs in 2012. Brian Burke added Philippe Dupuis over the summer, a fourth-liner who is great defensively and can really make an impact on the penalty kill. And lets face it, this is a team that can use all the help it can get on the PK.
3. James Reimer Must Be the Real Deal
Jonas 'The Monster' Gustavsson was supposed to be the goaltending savior when he was signed by Burke in 2009, but his inconsistent play proved to be a blessing in disguise when James Reimer emerged as the Maple Leafs new hope between the pipes.
In 37 games with the Leafs, the rookie Reimer won 20 games, boasted a .921 save percentage along with a 2.60 goals against average. He was a major piece in the Leafs impressive late-season playoff push, but people are still skeptical that his success may have been a fluke and that the hype Toronto media has thrown his way may be too overwhelming, just like so many before him.
I personally believe Reimer is the real deal; he came up big in important games, has a great attitude and genuine passion for hockey, as well as a great work ethic. But he will have to turn critics into believers in 2011/2012 if he wants his sophomore season in the NHL to be one that includes a playoff berth.
4. More Offensive Production from Kessel and Phaneuf
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The big trades in 2009 for Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf added excitement, but even more expectations that the two would be saviors in a city hungry for a winning team. Unfortunately, although both have shown they are among the best in the league, they still have a lot to prove.
Phaneuf has been strong defensively for the Leafs, but he has not come close to his numbers in 2007/2008 when he put up 60 points. The Leafs need more offensive production from their defense, which means Dion needs to put that monster shot of his on net a lot more often. The additions of Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles will surely help, but Toronto needs its leader more than anything.
Kessel, on the other hand, has been impressive when you look at who his "top line" centers have been. Tyler Bozak is a nice guy, but not quite the first line center needed to compliment Kessel's talent. With Tim Connolly likely to take over the top spot, Phil has a great opportunity to put up monster numbers. When Kessel is firing on all cylinders, it is a scary thing.
All in all, the hotter Kessel and Phaneuf are offensively, the better the Maple Leafs chances are of making the playoffs.
5. The Second Line Has To Be One of the Best in the NHL
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It is no secret that in 2010/2011, the Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur line was one of the most effective second units in the entire NHL. It is hard to even call them the "second line" when the trio were clearly the difference in close games, and seemed to have more chemistry together than anybody on the ice.
With Kulemin posting 57 points, Grabovski 58 and MacArthur 62, the bar has been set relatively high for this upcoming season. If the Maple Leafs are to make the playoffs, their production cannot drop the slightest bit. There is very little margin for error on this squad, and that means the teams best line from a year ago has to continue to play like they have something to prove.
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It's hard to be too optimistic when a team is light-years away from success. The Toronto Maple Leafs, on the other hand, are on the right track.
With a lot of pieces to the puzzle in place, it's really up to the players to play to their potential and execute the game plan. As I mentioned, there is very little margin for error on this squad. A rough start could mean the end for Ron Wilson, and a great start could have fans counting their chickens before they hatch, or in other words, planning the parade in October.
The 2011/2012 Toronto Maple Leafs are a team with a lot of potential, as well as expectations. It will be interesting year to say the least, and everyone should be excited to see what they can do this upcoming season.