It’s been almost a week now since the Toronto Maple Leafs made a disastrous exit from the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Although the wounds have surely not yet healed for fans, hopefully the sting is at least not quite as bad. As difficult as blowing a three-goal lead with just over 10 minutes to play was to handle, that small stretch shouldn’t define the entire season for Toronto. Now that we have had a little time to digest everything that has transpired in this lockout shortened season, let’s look at what we’ve learned.
Can we please stop worrying about James Reimer now?
If Reimer didn’t silence his critics after his first round performance against the Boston Bruins, he probably never will. He just about won games 5 and 6 on his own, and was spectacular through most of the series. Sure his rebound control was suspect at times, but that means he’s at least making the first save more often than not. Reimer had a .924 save percentage this season and has a career record of 53-32-14. For some reason the expectations for Leaf goalies seems to be astronomical these days, but based on the play between the pipes in recent years, fans and everyone in the organization should gladly take Reimer’s numbers any day.
Kessel, Lupul, and JVR are bona fide point producers
Phil Kessel finished in the top 10 in National Hockey League scoring for the second straight season and showed he is more than just a scorer. He had 32 assists in 48 games and proved he has some slick passing ability. After a strong playoff against his former team, the Tyler Seguin nonsense and comparisons should be a non-issue.
Joffrey Lupul proved he can be a consistent producer and emotional leader if he could only stay healthy. His 18 points in 16 games would have equated to a 92-campaign over 82 contests, which would have led the squad. Not only did Lupul put up points, but he was able to score on some great individual rushes that changed the momentum in games.
As for James van Riemsdyk, his 18 goals made just about everybody forget about Luke Schenn. With JVR’s skill set and hands, something tells me that trade is just going to get better over time.
Leafs have found a solid top four on the blue line
If the last few games of the Bruins series taught us anything, it’s that Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, and Cody Franson make up a solid top four. Phaneuf has his critics and one of them has been me on a regular basis, but there aren’t too many defenders who could have done what he did this season. He and Franson both finished in the top 10 in defensive scoring, and Phaneuf averaged over 25 minutes a game playing against the opponent’s best forward group every night. Everyone remembers that bad pinch that cost Toronto Game 4, but overall his play had more of an impact in 2013. If only he wasn’t making $6.5M a year.
Gardiner showed what he can do with increased playing time during the playoffs, so hopefully Randy Carlyle sees that once and for all. Then again it is Carlyle, and it felt like he thought Mike Kostka was the second coming of Chris Pronger this season. Who knows what he will have up his sleeve next year.
Nazem Kadri has a chance to be great
Kadri had a breakout year with 44 points and showed signs that he can be one of the NHL’s best, but he isn’t there yet. He has the skill set to be a top 10 player in this league and if he keeps on developing at this pace, he soon will be. What was perhaps more impressive than his points in 2013, was they way he improved his defensive game. He averaged less than a giveaway per game this year and finished second on the Leafs with a rating of plus-15. These are things that kept him out of the lineup at points of last season and if he can better his face-off percentage, Kadri will be a force to be reckoned with.
Need another top six forward
The Leafs have some nice depth to build on, but they just didn’t do enough in the way of producing in 2013. Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin are hard workers; however, they go for long stretches without scoring. It’s going to be difficult to re-sign Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur for financial reasons, so bringing in someone who is not flashy, but can contribute points on a fairly consistent basis is crucial.
A couple of guys to keep an eye on are Ryan Hamilton and Joe Colborne, who played most of the year with the Marlies. Hamilton had a 30-goal season down in the AHL, and both he and Colborne looked reliable in limited opportunities with the Leafs. Giving them more of a chance in 2013-14 would be a wise move.
Still work to be done
As much as fans should be excited that the Leafs finally returned to the playoffs for the first time in nine years, there are still lots of improvements to be made. Losing in the fashion that they did should be ample evidence of that. The way they were beaten by the Bruins should show the Leafs just what it takes to win in the playoffs. The only way to erase the pain of that defeat is to use it as motivation and make sure it doesn’t happen again.