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2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

James Reimer Maple Leafs

The following is a guest post from JP Nikota who currently covers the Leafs for PensionPlanPuppets.com.

Toronto Maple Leafs Season Preview: Eager To Respond

It seems that it wouldn’t be September if there weren’t a multitude of questions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. Leafs fans, at least, can take heart in the fact that this time around, the questions are quite different than the ones that Brian Burke’s teams faced so regularly. In other words, instead of questions about whether this will be the year the team pulls together and finally makes the playoffs, the Leafs now have to rise to the challenge of doing it all again.

In Goal

It was perhaps strange that Dave Nonis set out to find another goalie after James Reimer had such a strong showing this past season, but given that 2013 was the first time the Leafs had decent goaltending since the days of Ed Belfour, it’s perhaps understandable that Nonis just wanted to be certain of his team’s puck-stopping abilities. It’s just that Jonathan Bernier, the man Nonis acquired to push the “Reiminister of Defence”, has barely a better track record than Ben Scrivens.

Both Bernier and Scrivens have less than 100 games of NHL experience, and aren’t separated by much in the way of save percentage, either. Bernier has a career .912 and Scrivens a .910. So although Bernier comes with all the hype and shine of a first round pick, he has yet to walk the walk in the NHL as a starter. Was “barely better than Ben Scrivens” worth Matt Frattin, half a million dollars in cap space, and two draft picks? It’s entirely possible Bernier is still going to develop into a bona fide NHL starter, but as of yet, that job appears to be Reimer’s to lose. Bernier will, without a doubt, get every opportunity to prove himself.

Defence

The Leafs’ defence easily provides the most intrigue going into the regular season. Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, and John-Michael Liles are locks to make the team, while Cody Franson is another lock, if and when he signs. So the Leafs have one, but temporarily two, job vacancies.

Paul Ranger looks to be as close to a lock as you can get, though there is nothing set in stone until the start of the season. Ranger’s numbers while he played in Tampa Bay were quite strong, and he can probably be called Nonis’ safest acquisition of the summer. He has top-4 upside, and a short contract with a low cap hit if things don’t work out as planned.

Mark Fraser impressed the Leafs’ brass enough last year to earn himself a 1-way contract, and can also be considered close to clinching a spot. His new salary of $1.25M can’t be entirely buried in the minor leagues, so fans should take it as a sign that he’ll probably spend much of this upcoming season as a 6th or 7th defenceman.

Set to make things really interesting is prospect Morgan Rielly, who definitely has a shot at making the bigs. The wrinkle for Rielly is that if he does not play for the Leafs, he has to be sent back to his CHL club for the year, which may not provide the level of difficulty necessary to make the most of his development.

Knowing when to push a player to the next level is always a tough decision, and even hindsight can be less than 20/20. There is still plenty of debate, for example, about whether or not Luke Schenn should have played in the NHL in the season immediately following his draft year. At the time, the Leafs’ handling of Schenn’s development was even compared to former Leaf Luke Richardson, whose career trajectory was considered by some to be stunted by a rush to the NHL. Long story short, Randy Carlyle is faced with a tough choice: keep Rielly on the roster (and force Dave Nonis to trade someone to make room under the salary cap), or send Rielly down to junior, taking the safer developmental route, but miss out on his potential impact on the Leafs this season.

Overall, defence is the area in which the Leafs need the most improvement. Last season, the team was 27th in the league in shots against, and relied on Reimer to do a lot of bailing out (the team was only 17th in goals against). There remains a lot of work to be done on this group by Nonis, particularly if he can’t re-sign Franson.

Forwards

The Leafs’ forward ranks have seen a lot of upheaval over this off-season, and much of it is controversial. Using an amnesty buy-out for Mikhail Grabovksi and letting Clarke MacArthur leave via free agency (despite MacArthur’s willingness to stay) are likely to hurt the Leafs’ puck possession game. Moreover, replacing Clarke MacArthur on the wing with new free agency acquisition David Clarkson means that similar point production will cost substantially more. And all that money the Leafs saved on Grabovski? Most of it was simply handed to Tyler Bozak, who will no doubt continue to be the luckiest 3rd line center in the league, getting to play once again between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel.

Other depth forwards have left the fold as well, with Matt Frattin being sent to Los Angeles in the Bernier trade and Leo Komarov finding work back in the KHL. For now, it appears that the Leafs have lost some depth on wing, but the team is going to be banking on one or two youngsters who may be ready to step up.

It’s time for Joe Colborne to show the Leafs what he can do, and he will almost certainly see some time with the Leafs this season, either right out of camp or as an injury replacement. Since his entry-level contract expires at the end of this season, he should be especially motivated to make a difference.

Mason Raymond has signed a tryout contract with the Leafs, and could probably be had for cheap if the Leafs need some extra help on wing, but with the team right up against the cap and Cody Franson remaining unsigned, it’s not clear how the Leafs could make room for him. Expect him to get as long a look as possible before Nonis makes any trade.

On the minds of many fans is the health of winger Joffrey Lupul, who has been plagued by back problems for years. At the moment, he sits on the injured reserve, but if Lupul could remain healthy for even 60 or 70 games, he could be a significant boost for the Leafs’ offence. Last season, he only managed to participate in 16 contests but is hoping to play a bigger role this time around.

Outlook

With such high turnover at every position, it’s difficult to say exactly how well the Leafs will fare this season. To the disciples of advanced stats, the Leafs don’t look much better or worse than they did last year at this time, but that doesn’t mean the team is likely to make the playoffs. Certain indicators, such as elevated shooting percentages (both at the individual level and that of the team) suggest that the team may actually regress quite a bit in the standings if the bounces stop going their way.

Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, and even Phil Kessel lead the pack of candidates expected to drop off somewhat in scoring next year, which could mean exposing the Leafs’ inability to keep the puck out of their own end. Potentially balancing that out is Paul Ranger, a more prominently-used Jake Gardiner, and maybe even Morgan Rielly. Of course, the whole ship is sunk of James Reimer can’t repeat what he did last season and Bernier fails to rise to the challenge, but so far, fans have no reason to believe that will be the case.

The new playoff seeding system doesn’t bode well for the Leafs, in that their new Atlantic division is a strong one, and competing for playoff spots with the likes of Detroit, Boston, a suddenly high-octane Ottawa, and a resurgent Montréal could be difficult. Don’t go making any big bets on the Leafs making the playoffs again this year. Instead, be pleasantly surprised if they do.

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