Top 5 Things the Toronto Maple Leafs Can Build on for 2014-15 Season

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIApril 17, 2014

Top 5 Things the Toronto Maple Leafs Can Build on for 2014-15 Season

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    Paul Sancya

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are once again facing a long offseason that will see them make preparations for the 2014-15 NHL season.

    The team defied the Corsi and Fenwick numbers for the better part of the 2013-14 season but could not sustain their winning ways when it counted most.

    With Brendan Shanahan at the helm, big changes could be coming this spring and summer. While some change is necessary and inevitable, there are some positives moving forward in Leafland.

    Here are the five top things, in no particular order, that the organization can build on for next year.

     

    All stats can be found on NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

     

5. Jake Gardiner's Improving Play

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jake Gardiner is just 23 years of age and has played 167 NHL games in his young career. His 31 points this season represented his highest point total at the NHL level, but this tells only some of the story.

    In terms of Corsi-for percentage in five-on-five situations, Gardiner compared favorably to his teammates. In other words, the Leafs were better with him on the ice.

    While some would argue that's not a great accomplishment on the defensively challenged Leafs, it is significant, as Gardiner should only get better as his defensive play continues to improve.

    He's a great skater with strong offensive awareness. He's a building block for the Leafs, and look for him to be a star at the upcoming IIHF World Championships for Team USA.

4. Phil Kessel and JVR as Offensive Leaders

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This duo has become one of the best in the NHL, and the Sochi Olympics highlighted this more than once.

    Kessel was a force in almost every game this year, and while he won't be up for the Selke Trophy any time soon, few players can match his ability to create on the rush. The American was third in shots, fifth in goal scoring and sixth in points in the NHL this season.

    While James van Riemsdyk wasn't quite at that elite level, he did tally 61 points and finished ninth in NHL scoring among left wingers.

    If an elite offensive centre joined this duo, they could become one of the top offensive units in the league for many years to come.

3. Dion Phaneuf's Relatively Steady Play Despite Little Help

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    Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    Love him or hate him, and a lot of NHL fans love to hate him, Dion Phaneuf faced the toughest quality of competition among defensemen that played a minimum of 62 games.

    He also managed a plus-two rating on a Toronto team that was badly outplayed on many nights. 

    Without question, Phaneuf can make some big gaffes. Yet if he had some better support, he wouldn't have to play almost all of the tough minutes that Leaf defenders face.

    Phaneuf has good offensive awareness and a booming shot from the point. If he is freed up to play a more offensive game, his defensive numbers would also improve as he'll spend more time in the offensive zone with more offensive-zone starts.

    If the Leafs can add another veteran, defensive-minded rearguard for next season, he and Phaneuf could be a formidable shutdown duo for the Buds.

     

2. Nazem Kadri's Maturing Play

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Nazem Kadri is going to get an opportunity to play a leading offensive role for Team Canada at the upcoming IIHF World Championships.

    The gifted centre should get a lot of play in all game situations, and this will only benefit the Leafs next season. Kadri has all the tools to be one of the better second-line centres in the game. 

    The London, Ontario native won't turn 24 until October, so he's just beginning to hit his offensive stride at the NHL level. While defensive play continues to be a concern, Kadri should improve in this area as his minutes increase and he matures more.

    Kadri's potential is sky-high, and Leafs fans need to embrace him as one of the most promising young centres in the Eastern Conference.

1. Jonathan Bernier Was Outstanding in 2013-14

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If the Leafs had made the playoffs, Jonathan Bernier might have garnered some real attention for the Hart Trophy in 2013-14. 

    Bernier was the Leafs' MVP for the better part of the season. His offseason acquisition may buy general manager Dave Nonis another year to improve the Leafs and get them back to the playoffs.

    Bernier had a sparkling .923 save percentage and made over 1,600 saves over the entire season.

    If the Leafs can improve their defensive play next season, and Bernier can continue his superlative play, expect the club to be difficult to score on most nights.