We could most likely spend the greater part of this coming summer lamenting the 2013-2014 Maple Leafs season and what really went wrong but in all honesty I think every traditional media outlet in Toronto has that pretty well covered. Let’s try to uncover some positive elements to this otherwise lackluster year and what we can potentially look forward to in terms of rookies and up and coming players (we really already know how Lupul and Kessel and the top nine did (or didn’t)).
Jonathan Bernier I think has proven that he can be counted upon to take starting duties for years to come and is looking more and more like a pretty savvy acquisition with all things considered. Although he still had his rough stretches, overall he appeared calm, technically sound and as we all too often hear gave the team a chance to win any given evening. There is still definite room for improvement but if his game can continue to grow this could well be the solidification in net we were all hoping would one day come. Ending the season with a GAA of 2.70 and SV% of 0.922 and top 20 in terms of save percentage is better than any of us could have hoped for.
Nazem Kadri is still just 23 years old and put up a solid 50 points this year while reaching the 20 goal plateau for the first time in his young NHL career. There were times where he looked somewhat lost in the defensive zone but that could be attributed more to the teams overall play than just the individual and is the mark of a rookie still finding his way in the league. If he was a veteran there would be room for criticism but continued NHL experience cannot but improve his overall play away from the puck.
Paul Ranger started the season with some pretty lofty expectations placed on his shoulders by fans and the media alike than he more than really deserved. Coming off three plus years away from the game and one full season in the AHL, Ranger was criticized perhaps somewhat unfairly in the first part of the season with some lackluster play and poor positioning as he continued to adjust back to the speed and skill of the NHL; something most rookies would get a mulligan for. In about the last quarter of the season, at least in my opinion we all received a glimpse of what Ranger can bring as a third pairing and defensively responsible defense-man. He has shown flashes of superb defensive acumen (active stick, body positioning and overall grit) and it is my hope that if he continues on with realistic salary expectations that the Maple Leafs should consider retaining him for next season.
Morgan Reilly. What can you say, he is but a kid coming into the league but definitely showed flashes of what could very well be at times. A pretty solid 27 points in his first full season in the league but it is definitely my hope that the organization will continue to shelter his minutes and or continue to pair him with the likes of Ranger as he continues to adjust to the pro game.
Peter Holland was acquired part of the way through the season and I definitely applaud the decision that was made to acquire him. As another relative rookie this year, the expectations may have been a little high but I thought he adjusted well to the NHL game and has continued to dominate during his time in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies. His ultimate progress for the remainder of the season and the off season along with the extent of Bolland’s injury could well determine who will be Toronto’s third line center next year. If not, at minimum I hope that he can fill in on the fourth line and gain some incredibly valuable NHL face-off experience as well as sheltered minutes; continuing his career at the AHL level would not continue to assist in his overall development.
I won’t go into it at length given my previous postings on remaking the fourth line but it really is my hopes that both Carter Ashton and Jerry D’Amigo both get to join the Marlies on an extended playoff push and are considered for a revamped fourth line with the parent club next year. I believe they have all the makings of a relatively young, quick and fast hitting fourth line that could be a potentially more effective group than what was fielded this year (no offense meant to those particular players)(oh and a lot less expensive too).
Both TJ Brennan and Spencer Abbott of the Marlies were recently named to the AHL all-star squad and that in itself expresses quite clearly the season both players had. Although Brennan has yet to be called up (to play in an actual game) to the Leafs, I would hope that the team would consider him significantly for at minimum the 7th defense-man spot so he can slowly work his way into the lineup. I still believe that defense-man take a lot longer than forwards to develop but Brennan needs to take the next step to experience firsthand the overall speed of the NHL game and what it is going to take to succeed at that level. Abbott on the other hand has proven his ability to be a significant play-maker and it would not surprise me to see him garner a lengthy look in training camp and potential spot duty next year if injuries arise. Many would discount him immediately due to his size but dominating at the AHL level should garner him a lot lengthier look than most.
Like everyone else it was a pretty rough way to end things but you cannot deny that there were some pretty exciting games played over the season. It really seemed like their run and gun riverboat gambling hockey style really caught up with them near the end and here is hoping they continue to draft and develop properly over the summer. As always, food for thought.