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Puck possession major starting point for Maple Leafs

by Dan Rosen continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Changes at the top of the organization, on the coaching staff, to the roster, and in the team's overall philosophy have highlighted a busy summer for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

However, to change the results on the ice the Maple Leafs will have to do almost a complete 180 from last season. They need to specifically be better in the following three areas:

1. Hold onto the puck -- The Maple Leafs can't be a one-and-done rush team. They fooled themselves into thinking they could survive that way last season. Eventually shots, even the ones from the outside, have a way of going in. Eventually your good fortune in the offensive zone runs out.

Toronto lost 12 of its final 14 games, including eight in a row from March 16-29, to tumble out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. It allowed an NHL-high 35.9 shots on goal per game.

The good news is coach Randy Carlyle seems amenable to the changes going on around him. He said the Maple Leafs need to be better at establishing a cycle and at grinding teams down with a driving forecheck. He wants them to attack and sustain, not attack and recycle back after one failed attempt.

The Maple Leafs have to cut down on the number of shots they allowed last season. They need to take pressure off their goalies, in particular Jonathan Bernier, who didn't have much left in his tank at the end of last season as he faced an average of 32.4 shots on goal per game.

2. Extend Gardiner's leash -- Defenseman Jake Gardiner is a burgeoning force as a smooth-skating, attacking defenseman. He played approximately 21 minutes per game last season, including a team-high 18:10 per game at even strength, and delivered with 31 points, 14 points in his final 18 games.

However, Gardiner, arguably the Maple Leafs' best offensive-defenseman, trailed Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson in power-play ice time and rarely played in shorthanded situations, averaging only 37 seconds per game on the penalty kill.

Carlyle said he thinks Gardiner is ready for the next step. The higher-ups in the organization clearly believe in him or they wouldn't have signed him to a five-year, $20.25 million contract this past summer. Now the Maple Leafs have to give him some more freedom and ice time.

Gardiner should play more on the power play than he did last season (2:16 per game). He should play more 5-on-5 minutes too, because at least last season the Maple Leafs had the puck more and attempted more shots when he was on the ice compared to when he was off it.

3. Find more scoring options -- Toronto had six forwards with 44 or more points last season -- only the Boston Bruins had more (seven). However, the Maple Leafs' next highest scoring forward was Nikolai Kulemin with 20 points. There was no in-between. The top six produced and the bottom six was barely a threat.

Carlyle thinks Toronto can have more scoring balance this season with a deeper group of forwards featuring Daniel Winnik, David Booth, Petri Kontiola, Mike Santorelli and Leo Komarov joining Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson.

Out of that group Carlyle wants to identify three scoring lines that can be interchangeable and productive. It'll be easier to do that if Clarkson becomes the forward the Maple Leafs thought he would be for them when he signed a seven-year, $37.25 million contract in the summer of 2013.

Kontiola is another wild card, because while he's scored in the Finnish Elite League and for Finland at international tournaments, he's never done it in the NHL. Booth hasn't been a reliable scoring threat in at least two seasons. Komarov has nine points in 42 career NHL games.


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