The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their NHL-long nine-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought last season, but they bowed out of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in heartbreaking fashion with a meltdown in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins.
After licking their wounds, the Maple Leafs got back up and had an interesting summer filled with transactions that drew praise and scorn across the NHL, but specifically in Toronto.
They want to believe they're on the right path with the type of tough, physical, no-holds-barred team Randy Carlyle loves to coach, but several questions face this team as it heads into 2013-14.
Here are six:
1. Who is the No. 1 goalie? -- The Maple Leafs actually may have two.
James Reimer was good enough last season to help get Toronto into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004. To reward Reimer, general manager Dave Nonis brought in a competitor for his job.
Jonathan Bernier long has been considered No. 1 material, but because he was playing behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, he never got the chance on a full-time basis. He'll have to earn it in Toronto, but his chances of becoming a No. 1 with the Maple Leafs are much better than they were in L.A.
Reimer was solid, but not by any means spectacular last season, with 19 wins, a 2.46 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and four shutouts. Bernier, in limited action with the Kings, won nine times in 14 games and had a 1.88 GAA and .922 save percentage.
No one is saying the Maple Leafs have to name a No. 1 goalie coming out of training camp, because it's always good to have two goalies you trust for an 82-game season. If all goes according to plan, Reimer and Bernier will push each other and perhaps have a near-even split in playing time throughout the season.
However, if the Maple Leafs want not only to make the playoffs, but do some damage once they get there, they're going to need one of their goalies to emerge as a No. 1. It should be a compelling competition to watch.
2. Will GM Dave Nonis work his magic to sign and keep Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson? -- It's a good thing Nonis got his five-year contract extension before having to make this happen, because it's a head-scratcher.
Kadri and Franson are restricted free agents who are due raises, but the Maple Leafs have a shade under $5 million in salary-cap space to work with, according to Capgeek.com. Nonis told NHL.com last week he thinks the Maple Leafs have enough room under the salary cap to get both players signed in time for training camp, but said there have been quiet periods in the negotiations and there was nothing to update.
Reports surfaced in lat July, starting with TSN's Darren Dreger, that Nonis could be looking to trade Franson. It hasn't happened yet and there has been no indicator anything is close, but Nonis has to at least be considering it.
Franson, who is 26 years old and coming off his best season (29 points in 45 games), is an intriguing option for any team.
Nonis, though, potentially could get both under contract if he can convince Kadri, who is 22 years old, to accept a bridge deal similar to what Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban signed in January. This usually is a two-year contract with a reasonable cap number (under $3 million) that incentivizes the player to play well so he can land his big contract in his next deal, when the salary cap is expected to be higher than the $64.3 million it will be this season.
3. Will David Clarkson rediscover the 30-goal touch he had in New Jersey?
Right Wing - TOR
G: 97 | A: 73 | P: 170
SHOTS: 1,033 | +/-: -32
-- Even though Nonis said Clarkson isn't expected to score 30, the GM wouldn't have signed him for seven years if he didn't think the power forward had it in him to do it.
Clarkson became a 30-goal scorer in 2011-12, and had 15 goals in 48 games last season with the New Jersey Devils. He landed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with Toronto on July 5 and immediately drew comparisons to former Maple Leafs power forward Wendel Clark, who was a four-time 30-goal scorer for Toronto, reaching a high of 46 in 1993-94.
Clarkson embraced the comparisons to Clark, his favorite player growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mimico, Ontario. Now Clarkson has to embrace the pressure that comes along with being the player who is supposed to be the new Clark in blue and white.
The plan, at least heading into camp, is to see if Clarkson can develop chemistry with Kadri.
The Maple Leafs also brought back Tyler Bozak, who likely will resume his duties as the top-line center, flanked by Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. That leaves Kadri, Clarkson and perhaps Joffrey Lupul as a second line that has the potential to be dangerous, provided Clarkson finds his scoring touch and doesn't abandon the other powerful and antagonizing areas of his game that make him the power forward he is.
4. Is Jake Gardiner ready for a regular role? -- If how the defenseman played in the playoffs is an indicator, the answer is a resounding yes.
After going through a trying season, one split between the NHL and American Hockey League that included a concussion that derailed him for longer than he anticipated, Gardiner was one of Toronto's best players during the final six games against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
He looked like a better version of the player who had 30 points in 75 games as a rookie in 2011-12. He was nothing close to the player who was inconsistent in 12 games with the Maple Leafs during the 2012-13 regular season.
Gardiner used his speed, touch, defensive acumen and strong skating ability to produce five points in six playoff games, and left Toronto after the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 with renewed confidence and a sense of belonging. Perhaps the best part about his game was that he was willing to take some risks again, something that was missing during the regular season.
It absolutely was necessary for Gardiner to end on a high note after all he went through last season. He needed a surge of positivity going into the offseason, and now he's ready to be a difference-maker with the Maple Leafs.
5. Can Dave Bolland deliver more offense, as Nonis says he can? -- Nonis made a surprising comment shortly after trading for Bolland at the 2013 NHL Draft on June 30. He said he thought Bolland, who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Chicago Blackhawks, could do more offensively if given a chance in a higher-profile role. He cited Bolland's numbers in the Ontario Hockey League, when he had 130 points in 65 games with the London Knights in 2005-06.
Maybe Nonis was choosing to overlook the fact that when healthy during the 2012-13 regular season, Bolland primarily was the Blackhawks No. 2 center, with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp on his wings, and produced seven goals and 14 points. Bolland was shifted down the lineup in the playoffs and was a more effective player.
Toronto would welcome more production from Bolland, who has scored 19 goals twice in his career and had a personal-best 46 points in 2008-09, but odds are he'll still be playing center on the third line, unless Bozak and/or Kadri stumble.
The good thing is the Maple Leafs have seen enough to believe Bolland can move up to a scoring line if necessary, but he's most effective when he's in a checking-line role. Chicago used him that way in 2010 and in the playoffs last season, and that's why he's a two-time Cup champion.
The Maple Leafs should not try to make Bolland abandon what he does best, but he's good enough to deliver a fair amount of secondary scoring, and maybe that's what Nonis was going for in the first place.
6. What is the right thing to do when it comes to Morgan Rielly? -- The right answer will depend on how Rielly performs in training camp. The only thing known for sure is the defenseman isn't old enough to start the season in the AHL with the Marlies, so it's either the NHL or back to the Western Hockey League for the 19-year-old, who was the Maple Leafs' first-round pick (No. 5) in 2012.
If Rielly impresses, the Maple Leafs likely will keep him on the NHL roster at the start of the season; they can afford to give him a nine-game tryout before the clock starts running on his entry-level contract. That should be enough time to see if he's ready for the NHL.
In addition, if Rielly is good in camp, Nonis would have to make difficult decisions on which players to keep on the blue line, and that calls into question the futures of Paul Ranger, Mark Fraser, Korbinian Holzer, T.J. Brennan and maybe John-Michael Liles.
If Rielly falters, the easy decision would be to send him back to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the WHL. It wouldn't be a terrible thing because Rielly would return as an older player on a younger team, which would give him a chance to develop leadership skills that could prove useful down the road in Toronto.
However, Maple Leafs executives aren't sure if another season in the WHL would do anything for Rielly. He was a near point-per-game player for Moose Jaw last season and they're not sure he needs more time developing at the junior level.
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