The 5 Biggest Keys to the Toronto Maple Leafs Being a Contender

Ryan FulfordContributor IIIOctober 24, 2012

The 5 Biggest Keys to the Toronto Maple Leafs Being a Contender

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    To be clear, the usage of the term "contender" in this particular slideshow isn't to suggest the Leafs will be Stanley Cup contenders in the traditional sense once the lockout is resolved.

    Instead, it's usage relates to the Leafs contending for a playoff position, which is all they can hope for with the current incarnation of the team, since it's clear they're a long way from being legitimate Stanley Cup hopefuls.

    With the league and its union finding themselves at a stalemate once again, player movement has been halted (save for players making the move to the Europe), so the Leafs roster as it stands today is the one that will likely be tasked with breaking Toronto's playoff drought.

    Of course, if the lockout were to last a full season the Leafs might look mighty different when the puck drops once again, with six players eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2013.

    Nonetheless, with General Manager Brian Burke tinkering with his squad throughout the off-season rather than overhauling it, there are specific issues with the potential to make, or break, the Leafs' season once again.

Improved Defensive Coverage

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    Surely it becomes tiresome hearing coaches, analysts and fans continually harp on the same issue, but when a team hasn't finished in the top-20 in goals against in the seven years since the previous lockout, it's obviously an issue that needs to be addressed.

    Defensive coverage has been the Leafs' Achilles heel in recent years, and playing sound defense requires a commitment from all positions.

    Forwards need to back-check and remain defensively aware, defensemen need to refrain from making bad pinches at the blue line and running around in their own end and naturally, the goaltender needs to be there to bail out his team when circumstance requires it.

    Those three requirements haven't been fulfilled simultaneously in the past, but rest assured defensive-minded coach Randy Carlyle will attempt to rectify that issue.

    Whether or not the team buys in to the defensive concept that will surely be espoused by Carlyle remains to be seen, but the Leafs would be wise to adhere to it, since their style of play hasn't netted them any success recently.

    In order for the Leafs to successfully improve their defensive play, their forwards will need to play a bigger role. A quick, athletic group up front, the Leafs forwards have the tools to play a tight-checking game. Their commitment to doing so would be beneficial for a defense corps with a tendency to run around in their own end, as well as take some pressure off their two young, untested net-minders.

Consistent Goaltending

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    Goaltending. Is there a bigger issue for the Leafs right now than their play between the pipes? Certainly not. The Leafs haven't had a legitimate goaltender since Ed Belfour departed after the 2006 campaign.

    Is this slide suggesting James Reimer, or even Ben Scrivens, can't become a consistent starting goalie one day? No, but the fact remains that inconsistent goaltending has proven costly for Toronto for an extended period of time now.

    Can the goaltending issues be fixed via trade? Possibly, but one man can only make so much of a difference, especially when the team in front of you has a penchant for sloppy play.

    With James Reimer and Ben Scrivens appearing to be entrenched as the goaltending duo once the puck drops, the pressure will be on for one of them to step up and perform. The slightly more experienced Reimer would appear to have the inside track at this point.

    After battling an early-season injury last year, Reimer never found his bearings once he returned, but if he's healthy, his continued improvement would be a boon for Toronto. Reimer doesn't have to steal every game for the Leafs, but if he can provide stability in net, the likelihood of the playoffs becomes more realistic.

    As stated, one man can only do so much given that hockey is a team game, but a goalie's job is to bail his team out every now and then, as well as to mask some of the defensive deficiencies that may ail his team. Toronto hasn't had that luxury in a long time, and if they don't find consistent goaltending in Reimer, Scrivens or someone else, history will continue to repeat itself.

Addressing the Penalty Kill

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    Just as the Leafs haven't cracked the top-20 in goals against since the previous lockout, they haven't fared better than 24th overall in penalty killing during that tenure.

    The addition of Jay McClement, a speedy, responsible, defensive-minded forward with plenty of penalty killing experience, will help. So too will coach Carlye's insistence on attention to detail when it comes to playing without the puck.

    However, just as one man in net can only do so much, one forward and one coach can only help the penalty kill so much. Don't forget, Ron Wilson's special teams prowess was a hallmark of his tenure in San Jose, yet the Leafs penalty kill remained horrid under his watch.

    Great penalty killing requires heady defensive play, clogging away passing lanes, the willingness to block shots and of course, solid goaltending. For the Leafs to improve in this area, a lot of variables have to turn out in their favor, but it's important they achieve a modicum of consistency with the man down.

    Considering that not since the 2008-09 campaign has a team with a penalty kill percentage under 80 (Detroit) during the season advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, it's clear the Leafs need refinement in this area if they have any hope of playing in the NHL's second seasons anytime soon.

    Furthermore, a poor penalty kill has residual effects. For a team looking to play a tight-checking, in-your-face type of game, penalties are bound to happen. If a team can't play at a disadvantage, their poor penalty kill acts as a deterrent, and as such, they stray from playing the type of five-on-five game they need to in order to be successful.

Jake Gardiner's Ascension

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    After a rookie season in which Jake Gardiner showed he's capable of contributing offensively from the back-end, the sky has become the limit for the smooth-skating rearguard.

    As a young defenseman whose game is predicated mostly on offense, he will need to learn to fine-tune his defensive play, but playing in the AHL under Dallas Eakins as of right now, and under the tutelage of Randy Carlyle, that will surely improve.

    What Gardiner gives the Leafs is a dynamic, young puck-mover on the blue line capable of making crisp outlet passes and skating the puck out of trouble areas. Furthermore, his offensive instincts and skating ability make him a threat to join the rush, as well as an ideal power play quarterback.

    Being that Gardiner has plenty of potential, his ascension to one of the better offensive defensemen in the league is important for the Leafs. He doesn't have to follow Erik Karlsson's path and put up 78 points in the coming years, but he will need to be an offensive catalyst on a blue line currently lacking in high-end talent, save for Dion Phaneuf.

    Gardiner's skill set allows him to control the game when the puck is on his stick, and his continued development will help the Leafs influence the tempo of the game, as well as enable them to impose their playing style upon the opposition by playing a puck-possession system.

    It's not hard to look around the league and take note of what players like Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty bring to their respective teams, and if Gardiner can come close to mirroring their contributions, the Leafs will have an added dimension that will make them more difficult to defend against.

Firm Resolve

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    Much has been made about the Leafs' monumental collapse, a tailspin so bad it prompted polarizing General Manager Brian Burke to apologize for the team's performance.

    Not to rehash old memories, but the collapse of the Leafs last season needs to be viewed as a learning experience. The Leafs are a young team and obviously didn't know how to work through the issues they faced when they found themselves floundering last year.

    However, dwelling on their past misfortunes won't benefit them moving forward. Rather, they need to understand that their mettle was tested, and although they couldn't right the ship, they now know how much it takes in order to stay the course throughout the season.

    In the game of hockey, injuries, inconsistency and other unforeseen circumstances can wreak havoc on a team. When they do, it's up to the players to do everything they can to maintain the confidence needed to work through them. While intestinal fortitude was lacking last season, the realization that complacency helps you achieve nothing but failure in the NHL should serve as a wake-up call for the Leafs.

    If it doesn't, well, I'm sure Leafs fans get the idea by now.