The Toronto Maple Leafs clearly made a move in the right direction last year.
They showed the kind of pluck, talent, speed and quickness to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season. The Maple Leafs showed that they could put the puck in the net during the lockout-shortened season. They averaged 3.02 goals per game, the sixth best figure in the NHL.
They did a lot of things right. They played an aggressive game throughout the season and they led the league in hits with 1,626, 180 more than the Los Angeles Kings, who ranked second in that category.
Maple Leafs' Leading Returning Hitters
But a strange thing happened to the Maple Leafs when they got into their first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. The top-rated Maple Leafs stopped hitting effectively. They may have gone after the Bruins and tried to check them by putting body on body, but they could not knock them out of the crease and keep them from blocking goalie James Reimer's view.
For example, when the Bruins found themselves down by three goals with slightly over 10 minutes to go in the third period, the Maple Leafs were unable to keep the Bruins out of the prime scoring areas.
As a result, Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron were able to score goals and push the game into overtime before Bergeron scored the winner in the extra session. The Bruins went just where they wanted to in the Toronto zone and the Maple Leafs did very little about it.
That includes captain Dion Phaneuf, who did little to keep Lucic or massive Zdeno Chara from setting up shop in front of the net when the playoff series was on the line.
If Phaneuf is not going to do anything to keep opponents from taking up prime scoring real estate, then who is?
That's one of the questions that head coach Randy Carlyle and general manager Dave Nonis have been asking themselves as the Leafs prepare for the 2013-14 season. The Leafs are highly skilled and one of the best skating teams in the league, and clearly one of the hungriest. However, if the Leafs are going to become legitimate contenders in a harsh division that includes the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, the Bruins and now the Detroit Red Wings, they cannot have any holes in their game.
The Maple Leafs have addressed this issue to a degree in the offseason with the signing of free agent forward Dave Clarkson. Having the former Devil in the lineup will give the Leafs a player who can anchor himself in front of opposing goalies and maintain his position.
Clarkson's ability to do that will serve as an example to teammates who came close but were not able to hold their own position on a regular basis.
The Leafs also brought in Dave Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks. All Bolland did last year was score the Stanley Cup winning goal against the Boston Bruins, a feat that is likely to earn him quite a bit of status in the Toronto locker room.
Bolland is more of a hard-nosed checker than a goal scorer, and he will get a piece of anyone who tries to cause havoc in front of the Toronto net.
Those additions are important, but the players that the Leafs parted company with in the offseason may mean even more.
Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur all had varying degrees of skill, but none of them have the kind of toughness and defensive presence that will keep an opponent out of a dirty area when the game is on the line. General manager Dave Nonis' decision to keep them out of Toronto uniforms should help this team assert itself more in crunch situations.
The Leafs have plenty of offensive firepower with Phil Kessel (20 goals, team-high 52 points), Nazem Kadri (44 points, plus-15), James van Riemsdyk (18 goals) and Tyler Bozak (28 points). Defensemen Mark Fraser, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and Phaneuf have the defensive skills to blunt opposing offenses.
The addition of former Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier significantly addresses a previous concern for the Maple Leafs. The goaltending improved last year as a result of James Reimer's (2.46 goals against average, .924 save percentage) solid year, but Bernier should help them get even better.
The Leafs have a solid, well-rounded team that improved enough to push the Bruins to seven games in their playoff series.
But it can't stop there. In order to reward the team's hungry fan base with a much longer playoff run, they must play with toughness at all times.
It's not enough to lead the league in hits. It's making sure those hits are impactful and they come against the toughest opponents.
If that change can be affected, the Leafs have a chance to fly higher than they have in decades and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
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