Last season saw the Leafs end an unanticipated seven-game series with the Bruins in a heart-breaking fashion (to put it lightly), blowing a three-goal lead in the third period before losing in overtime. Still, this showed that the Leafs can compete with the best, and give even the Stanley Cup finalists a run for their money. I apologize for bringing this game up again as it is certainly a sensitive topic for Leaf fans, but the series, and the entire season in general, has set a foundation for a Toronto team that will need to live up to new expectations set by fans. They’ll need to demonstrate that their first post-season appearance in eight years was not a fluke, giving every player on the team something to prove. However, certain players also have their own situations that give them something to prove, and in my opinion, here are the top three:
1. Jake Gardiner – The young, offensive defenseman had a tough 2012-2013 season, spending the majority of it playing for the Toronto Marlies. His NHL play through 12 games was inconsistent, and coach Randy Carlyle commented that his defensive game was too weak for him to be given a spot on the Leafs’ roster. Gardiner was given a chance in the playoffs to show that he wasn’t the player that struggled to crack the lineup in the regular season, and could instead be the strong-skating offensive threat that fans had seen in the 2011-2012 season. Gardiner showed the latter in the 6 playoff games he played, generating one goal and four assists. With the upcoming season, Gardiner will need to build on his post-season performance and prove that his play during those six games is what he can bring to the Leafs’ blue line on a nightly basis.
2. Nazem Kadri (assuming he is re-signed) – The Leafs’ 2009 seventh-overall pick struggled to live up to high expectations in his first few seasons, usually playing a small number of games with the Leafs before being sent down to the Marlies. However, last season Kadri was able to demonstrate the offensive abilities that he was drafted for, earning him a full-time spot on the Leafs. He was nearly a point-per-game player, producing an impressive 44 points through the shortened 48-game season. In the upcoming season, Kadri will need to prove that his past season’s play was far from a stroke of luck, and can be repeated in a full 82-game campaign.
3. David Clarkson – The former New Jersey Devil who signed with the Leafs over the offseason can play a hard-nosed game and also be an offensive threat, shown through his stats in previous seasons. With the Devils in the 2011-2012 season, Clarkson racked up 30 goals, proving that he knows how to put the puck in the net. Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.75-million contract with the Leafs, making him one of the highest paid players in Toronto. In the upcoming season, Clarkson will need to live up to his large contract and prove that he can be the tough and offensively skilled top-six forward that he is being paid to be.
With the regular season quickly approaching, it will certainly be interesting to see what Gardiner, Kadri and Clarkson bring to the table. For the sake of the Leafs’ success, let’s hope that these three players will fulfill the expectations of fans and the Maple Leafs organization, and play to their full potential.