Leafs look for silver lining after Game 7 heartbreak
Jonathan Bernier, Troy Bodie, Dave Bolland, T.J. Brennan, David Clarkson.
Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin, Ryan Hamilton, Leo Komarov, Mike Komisarek, Mike Kostka, Clarke MacArthur, Ryan O'Byrne, Ben Scrivens.
Last year: The shortened regular season was a sweet one for the Leafs, who responded well to Carlyle's faster, more physical style.
The team's penalty kill was amongst the NHL's best - buoyed by the addition of Jay McClement and getting responsible PK time out of Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov.
The Leafs also learned to throw their weight around, getting often-inspired play from a fourth line flanked by Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr.
Carlyle made some roster decisions early on that helped the team get out of the gates strong, including a full-time role for Mark Fraser and Cody Franson and more ice time for young players like Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri.
The playoffs, however, were a painful experience for the team and its fans.
Lining up against a Boston team that has had the Leafs' number over recent years, they fell behind 3-1 in the series on a painful gaffe by captain Dion Phaneuf in Game 4. The Leafs – for their part – refused to lay down, storming back all the way to the dying minutes of Game 7, where the team found itself up three goals with 11 minutes remaining in the third.
The rest is history, as the Bruins scored three in the third – two in the final two minutes – and finished the job with Patrice Bergeron's overtime dagger.
This Year: Nonis clearly saw a need to upgrade over the offseason and was one of the busiest execs in the NHL once the market opened.
The first move was moving Frattin, backup goalie Ben Scrivens and a draft pick to the Los Angeles Kings for Jonathan Bernier, who is expected to battle James Reimer for the starter's job. The Leafs maintained that they are happy with Reimer, but the acquisition of Bernier - one of the league's top young backups starved for playing time – suggests they seek an upgrade.
Nonis then went big on the draft floor and moved picks for Chicago Blackhawks centre Dave Bolland, who was just days removed from scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal. Nonis further shuffled his centre options by buying out Mikhail Grabovski and sinking the available cash into a long-term extension for Bozak.
Just minutes later he would make another big splash, landing David Clarkson on a huge seven-year, $36.75 million deal. Clarkson, however, will miss the first 10 games of the regular season after leaving the bench to take part in a brawl during Toronto's preseason tilt against Buffalo on Sept. 22.
Another piece of offseason business threatened to bleed into the regular season as contract negotiations between the team and Kadri dragged on. But both sides agreed on a two-year bridge contract on the eve of training camp.
The team also invited free agent Mason Raymond on a tryout contract and he made enough of an impression to get a one-year deal with the blue and white.
By going big up front and shoring up the net, have the Leafs made the moves necessary to stay competitive in the East and compete with bigger teams like the Bruins?
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Leafs' performance after a shortened season?
A shortened year in 2012-13 certainly gave the Leafs less time to "drive the 18-wheeler off a cliff," as then-GM Brian Bruke described their 2011-12 second half. Last year's leafs, however, were pretty steady, never dropping more than one game below .500 and rattling off an impressive 14-game stretch with just one regulation loss in March and April.
The Leafs still possess a young and fast core, so the team's legs should hold out over a full 82 and the veteran leadership added in Bolland and Clarkson could go far in corralling a young team with plenty of talent but still lacking experience.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Leafs make to get themselves back in cap shape?
The team ate some salary to make the Bernier deal happen and then cleared a bunch of space by using both its compliance buy-outs, sacrificing Grabovski and Komisarek in the name of the cap.
Most of those savings were immediately sunk into Bozak and Clarkson, leaving a few million left over to get key RFAs like Fraser and Carl Gunnarsson under contract.
The team still has to lock up Franson as well. He signed very late before the past season, only coming to an agreement once the lockout had ended, so it may not be much of a surprise if the two sides don’t find common ground once more until closer to puck-drop.
Another great task lies ahead at the end of this coming season when both Phaneuf (currently making $6.5 million AAV) and Phil Kessel ($5.4 million current AAV) are slated to hit unrestricted free agency.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Leafs after realignment.
The core rivalries remain for the Leafs with all its division mates staying with them in the newly-christened Atlantic, but another has been resurrected.
The Detroit Red Wings return to the Leafs' division for the first time since the last realignment moved Toronto eastward in 1998. Fans from the early 90s will not forget the epic opening-round clash the two shared in 1993 and more Original Six games are always a good thing for the League. The two will also square off in this year's Winter Classic at The Big House.
The Leafs have also inherited the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, meaning more home-away-from-home games for their snowbird fans.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Jake Gardiner, D - A brilliant skater, 23-year-old Gardiner was handled strangely last season, seemingly spending too long in the AHL after suffering a concussion in December, then spending time as a healthy scratch down the stretch in the NHL, but when he did play, Gardinder showed that he has talent that needs to be cultivated. Yes, he makes mistakes with the puck, often outskating them to get back into the play, but that skating ability is what makes Gardiner a dynamic performer who can do much more good than harm.
The strange thing is that, when he did play, Gardiner played a lot (more than 19 minutes in 10 of 12 regular-season games and more than 21 minutes in five of six playoff games), suggesting that the Maple Leafs aren't hesitant to give him a significant role and this year he should be able to continue his career ascent, despite going through last year's valley.
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Pressing Question: What will be the Leafs' response to last year's heartbreak?
The end to 2012-13 could not have been more painful for the Leafs. But, will the team learn from what they were shown by a desperate veteran team, or will the wounds linger?
An excellent example of this is the recent Chicago-Vancouver rivalry.
Drawn together three straight years, the Hawks used a 2009 playoff loss to the Red Wings to motivate a 2010 Stanley Cup and then another last season. The Canucks finally bested Chicago in 2011 but came up short in their Cup Final appearance and have won just one playoff game in the past two years.
Losing is never fun, but great teams find a way to turn the truly disappointing ones into positives.
So, how will the likes of Kessel, Lupul and Phaneuf respond if given another crack at the playoffs in 2014?
With divisional playoffs kicking in this season, it's almost assured their first round opponent will be a long-standing rival. Whether or not the Leafs can elevate their game when it matters most will depend entirely on what they learned from the Bruins … particularly what they learned in the last 12 minutes of Game 7.
- Toronto Maple Leafs Preview by Shane McNeil, TSN.ca