Toronto Maple Leafs

Are Toronto Maple Leafs a Contender or a Pretender After Free Agency Moves?

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2013

Just a few months after ending the NHL's longest playoff drought, the Toronto Maple Leafs are taking aim at the sport's longest championship drought.

It's been 46 years since Lord Stanley's Cup has been celebrated in the streets of Toronto, but after coming within a minute of reaching the second round of the postseason last year, the Leafs are closer (although plenty of work remains) to accomplishing this goal than they have been in quite some time.

While championship success is an unrealistic goal for this club in the 2013-14 season, no one can fault upper management for having confidence. According to the Washington Post, some future championship plans are finished.

Tim Leiweke, the new chief of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., is so confident the Toronto Maple Leafs will soon end a 46-year Stanley Cup drought that he’s mapped a victory-parade route for the hockey team

“I have it planned out and it’s going to be fantastic,” Leiweke said yesterday in his first interview since taking over the Toronto-based sports group...

While having part of the championship celebration planned is a bit premature at this point, there's plenty of reason for optimism in Toronto because it's clear that the franchise is headed in the right direction after so many years of failure.

Former general manager Brian Burke put the building blocks in place for his successor Dave Nonis, who has made a few notable upgrades to the roster in free agency over the last few weeks.

He signed the top winger on the free-agent market in David Clarkson, re-signed top-six center Tyler Bozak and came to terms on newly-acquired goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Bernier gives the Leafs a formidable duo in net with last year's starter James Reimer. The 24-year-old was 9-3-1 for the Los Angeles Kings last season with a 1.88 GAA and a .920 save percentage. You could argue he was Los Angeles' best goalie during the regular season given Jonathan Quick's struggles until the playoffs.

After searching for many years to find a legitimate No. 1 goalie, Toronto has finally amassed the proper depth and talent at the sport's most important position. Without a reliable goalie, teams don't have any chance of consistent playoff success, which makes Bernier a huge addition to the Leafs.

Another reason for Leafs Nation to be optimistic about next year is the team's transformation into a physical team that's tough to play against. The Ron Wilson-led Leafs were soft and easily pushed around by stronger teams, but that's no longer the case under gritty head coach Randy Carlyle.

Carlyle's system helped Toronto finish sixth in goals scored last year, while also helping the team improve defensively and play more physical.

YearGAABSHitsPK%
2011-1229th11th4th28th
201317th1st1st2nd

After finding a system that works and adding players to the roster this offseason who are capable of excelling under Carlyle (including Clarkson), the Leafs will maintain their status as a playoff team next season despite playing in a division that will add the Detroit Red Wings as part of realignment.

It's unlikely that Toronto will reach the conference finals, but winning a round is certainly a realistic goal for this team.

Last year's heartbreaking playoff loss to Boston, which veteran forward Joffrey Lupul said will "haunt me until the day I die," will serve as motivation for next year to prove that Toronto is not a pretender in the East.

After upgrading between the pipes, adding a goal-scoring power forward in free agency and re-signing key players from last year's team, Toronto is well positioned to take another step toward perennial success and make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2004.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.

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