After making the playoffs for the first time in what seemed to be forever, the Toronto Maple Leafs carried a large amount of expectation with them into the 2014 season, especially after making a deal for Jonathan Bernier, trying to shore up their goaltending.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The Leafs didn't get better, rather the team failed to find some consistency, another team dogged by a few more key injuries and then some real flat spells from their scoring contingency.
You could argue that the Leafs have the pieces in place and I think for an 82-game schedule, they do, but they are in the middle of the hockey hotbed that is Toronto and I think it also takes some special teams in Canada to overcome that hotbed, as the expectations that fans and media have of these teams, get force fed down the players throats, which has to affect their play in one way or another.
Another change that will hopefully help guide the team forward in the 2015 season was the appointment of Brendan Shanahan to an upstairs job as the President of Hockey Operations, overseeing what General Manager Dave Nonis and company get up to. A little bit more credibility in the league may help the team find their winning ways again.
The marquee player for the Maple Leafs continues to be Phil Kessel, somewhat justifying that polarizing deal that brought him to Toronto from Boston. In all 82 games in 2014, Kessel had 37 goals and 43 assists for 80 points, ranking him 12th overall in pool scoring, also justifying him as a possible 1st round pick in the hockey pools. In October, Kessel signed an 8-year contract extension, worth $64 million, which will keep their best player in town for days well past when he will not be the team's best player anymore.
The Maple Leafs were able to score goals this year, tied for 7th in the East with 231 goals for, which meant Kessel had some help up front. James Van Riemsdyk offered a hand with 61 points, including 30 goals in 80 games this year, while Nazem Kadri didn't look too bad, offering 50 points in 78 games. Tyler Bozak, Mason Raymond and Joffrey Lupul all helped out as well, with 49, 45 and 44 points respectively.
One of the big reasons why the Leafs didn't make the playoffs this year was they couldn't keep the puck out of their own net, ranking 13th in the East in goals against, with 256 pucks coming out, a -25 goal difference on the year. This begins with the defense, which is still reasonably young and still learning. Offensively, the blueline saw good years from Cody Franson (33 points in 79 games), Jake Gardiner (31 points in 80 games) and Dion Phaneuf (31 points in 80 games), but Franson and Gardiner were both minuses on the season, while Phaneuf was only a +2.
Goaltending for the Leafs was supposed to improve, but while the coaching staff was trying to figure out who would be number one, a battle between Bernier and James Reimer, the Leafs lost that consistency in the nets, which forced some longer outings and some harsher conclusions. In the shortened 2013 season, Reimer finished 28th in pool scoring, which helped get Toronto into the playoffs, but when Bernier finally won the job and took over, all he could manage was a 85th place finish in pool scoring, which is a huge difference. I would assume that Bernier will get the job on a more consistent basis in 2015, more on the merits of what it's worth to the team to have that consistent number one in place.
2015 Pool Outlook
Okay, I've touched on it a bit here already... Kessel is the team's best player, the blueline needs to find a way to keep the puck out of their own net and they need a more consistent presence in net for next season. Two out of those three things could very well happen, the defense got a crash course for some experience and Bernier should have walked out of last season with the number one job, so I think there is a good chance that the Leafs will be a team to reckon with. They managed to score lots of goals, thanks to their speed game and that shouldn't necessarily go away, so I think their outlook is quite positive.
Over looking what the Leafs have in the coffers for young talent and there isn't really many names that jump out and say, "hey, pick me!" Fredrik Gauthier is the team's 1st round pick last Summer and isn't coming out with a ton of buzz, but there could very well be a spot in the team's structure next season, if he can make a push. There is also a little bit of talk surrounding defenseman Petter Granberg on the blueline, but I am not sure if he'll be the guy to bet on in the hockey pool draft in September.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Unrestricted free agency is going to be a hot topic for the Maple Leafs, as there are a number of key players on the list, who will get some long looks going ahead of July 1st. Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement and Paul Ranger will all get some discussion time between Toronto management types.
The restricted free agents get even more interesting, as Cody Franson will go through another negotiation, not long after a small holdout before the 2014 season. James Reimer will likely get qualified, but isn't expected to be back after the long goalie battle this past season, while Peter Holland, Carter Ashton and Jake Gardiner will also make for some interesting news bytes in the Summer.
I have the current core of the Toronto group in at 13 players, eight forwards, four defensemen and Bernier in net, which come in at a cool $49.4 million against a $71.1 million salary cap ceiling. The Leafs have all kinds of bargaining power for new free agents, so they may be really big players, come July 1st, unless they go out and make some blockbuster deals around the draft.
The Maple Leafs will be picking in the number eight position in the 2014 Entry Draft in Philadelphia and there isn't position that they are necessarily strong in, youth-wise, so if we were to look at some of the things Toronto was lacking in the 2014 season, some more defense, as a whole, we may look for the best two-way kind of player, who can do it in both ends of the ice. Trying to find that player that you could have in the 2nd line or 3rd line positions and give a little more defensive credibility to his line. The top-ranked player, from what I've read, leads me to believe that Kasperi Kapanen may be the best pick in this position. The Finns love their two-way game and if Kapanen has the same offensive touch as his former NHL'er father, Sami, he could be a great fit to this Leafs organization.
It may not be a popular sentiment outside of the "centre of the universe" to think that the Maple Leafs are finally going the right way in building their franchise, but I think that is the case. In going over the team's assets and possibilities, one thing is very apparent and that is a questionable leadership core, which may go back to the argument that they may not have enough to deal with the hockey hotbed that they are in. Skill-wise, the Leafs do have plenty of that and it looks like they have a number one goalie, so I will say that they are going in the right direction.
As for a prediction, I don't see the Maple Leafs challenging for a division title just yet and all of their shortcomings that I have mentioned would be the reason why. I do see them in the middle of the Wild Card fight, with the core group that I had mentioned earlier. If the Leafs are able to sort out some reasonable free agents, control some of their neutral zone issues and continue to press the puck as much as they can, I can see the Leafs making the playoffs again. Yes, they will also be a pretty good team to pick hockey pool players from, which is the main focus of these posts, so we'll leave it at that.