Toronto Maple Leafs Still One Piece Short of Contention – 30 in 30

Toronto Maple Leafs 30 in 30 NHLDaily
With the start of hockey’s regular season less than a week away, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto seems to be one of those teams that falls just short of threatening. They have some really talented players on their roster, but for whatever reason, that talent has never translated into anything significant on the ice. The same appears to be true for 2014-2015. The Leafs made a few changes to their roster and to their management, but appear to be one piece short of a true Cup Contender.

Last Season – Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs showed why the NHL season is a marathon and not a sprint. The team was in playoff position for most of the season, even going as high as 3rd in the Eastern Conference in mid-March. However, disaster struck soon after, when the Leafs lost goaltender Jonathan Bernier to injury, leaving James Reimer to carry the team between the pipes.

Reimer did not necessarily play poorly at the end of the season, as he posted an average .911 save percentage in the remaining games, but deflating goals and the growing sense of dread doomed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite being well in playoff position, the Leafs finished the season with a terrible 2-14-0 record, with each loss ending up as one more dagger to the heart of the Toronto faithful. The final result at the end of season saw the Leafs drop from 3rd in the conference to 12th, well out of playoff position.

If there was one bright spot to Toronto’s season, it was the play of James Van Riemsdyk. JVR posted the first 30-goal season of his career, becoming the player that the Toronto Maple Leafs knew he could be when they traded for him in 2012. Though much of his production likely has to do with playing with Phil Kessel, there is no reason Toronto fans should not expect similar production from the young winger from here on out.

The Offseason – Usually, an organization will panic when a season ends the way Toronto’s did last year. The first instinct is to make sweeping changes to the roster, to ensure that nothing happens like that again. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs kept their roster relatively the same, instead changing the management and changing their outlook on the sport.

One of the first moves made by the organization was hiring former NHL Disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has the new team president. Shanahan would oversee all operations within the organization. Shortly after, it was announced that head coach Randy Carlyle accepted a contract extension that would keep him with the team until the 2016-2017 season. However, Carlyle’s assistant coaching staff was not being retained. With the collapse of last year fresh on their minds, both Carlyle and general manager David Nonis have to feel that their margin for error this year is rather short.

The Maple Leafs were once an organization on the forefront of the anti-analytical movement. They argued that some of the teams in the past have found success, despite the analytical experts claiming their play was not sustainable. However, as the years have passed, Toronto has changed their views. The organization has formed an analytics department, and bolstered it by hiring Darryl Metcalf, Rob Pettapiece, and Cam Charron to keep the Toronto Maple Leafs at the forefront of statistical analysis.

The Leafs did make a few changes to their roster, mostly to fix their leaky defense, which gave up the most shots in the league last year by a significant amount. The organization traded for St. Louis Blues defenseman Roman Polak, and signed former Anaheim defenseman Stephane Robidas to a three-year, $9 million deal. Puck possession was the biggest issue for Toronto last year, and while these defensemen are not going to fix that issue on their own, they should improve the team’s defense as a whole.

What to Watch for This Season – In a difficult Atlantic division, the Toronto Maple Leafs will need a similar effort that they put forth last year…without the embarrassing collapse. This may be a tall task to ask for, as it essentially is asking for a repeat of career years for many of their core players.

Though it was not all his fault, Riemer had the misfortune of being in net for last season’s 2-14 run. This has no doubt left a sour taste in the mouth of many Toronto fans, and has likely led to Bernier as the undisputed starter of the club. He played in 55 games in his first season with the Leafs, but he will likely play the full starter’s load this season. Whether he can maintain the above average numbers he had last year will play a big factor in getting the Toronto Maple Leafs back into the playoffs.

Toronto’s captain, Dion Phaneuf, would do well to take a more consistent approach to the game. The physical defenseman has been criticized in the past for making questionable decisions on the ice, especially in key moments of a game, often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A reduction of ice time might help the 29-year-old play a more consistent game.

Recent 1st round draft pick William Nylander has had an impressive camp, and his bloodlines speak for themselves. It is unlikely that he will make the big club, but his play this year with either the Toronto Marlies, the Leaf’s AHL affiliate, or overseas with the Swedish Hockey League could determine whether he finds himself wearing a Maple Leafs’ uniform next year or not.

The Leafs have a talented roster. They have proven that over the past couple of years, making the playoffs in 2013 and playing much of last season near the top of the conference. However, they need to stop shooting themselves in the foot. The team cannot collapse when things do not go their way. They may not be Cup contenders yet, but if Toronto can stay out of their own way and add a significant piece at the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs could be in the hunt to bring the Cup back to Canada.

Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will examine the disarrayed Vancouver Canucks. Also check out yesterday’s article about how the Tampa Bay Lightning will move on without Marty St. Louis.

Commentary by Jonathan Gardner

Photo Courtesy of Bridget Samuels – License
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