On to the 2014-15 NHL season.
Figuring out how to unseat the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings will be a royal pain for teams that feel they are close to being bona fide threats.
For the other teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs among them, just figuring out how to make the playoffs can be a monumental task.
After the Maple Leafs took the Boston Bruins to seven games in the opening round of the 2012-13 playoffs, some assumed Toronto would automatically take another step forward this past season. That was not the case. While the Maple Leafs enjoyed some good stretches -- they won five of their first six games and went on a six-game winning streak from Jan. 12-21 -- overall, they took a step backwards.
The Maple Leafs simply did not have enough grit to seriously compete in today's take-no-prisoners style of NHL hockey. They also didn't have quality backup goaltending to support the club for the stretches when starter Jonathan Bernier was unavailable.
So what is next for the Maple Leafs? Clearly, upgrades are required throughout the roster. There are rumours that captain Dion Phaneuf is available for trade as is young centre Nazim Kadri.
From this little corner of the hockey universe, I see only four players on the Maple Leafs who should be considered untouchables: Bernier, defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner and left-winger James van Riemsdyk.
All others should be made available to allow Toronto to become a better defensive team that is willing to pay a price for victory. That doesn't mean Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis necessarily has to clean house. But if somebody comes knocking at his door inquiring about the availability of, say, Phil Kessel or Joffrey Lupul, he must listen to offers. If somebody wants to take Phaneuf's seven-year contract that kicks in next season off his hands, Nonis should be all ears.
That said, I am not among those who believe Phaneuf must go. I feel Toronto fans are too tough on the 29-year-old veteran. He is a defenceman who logs more ice time than any other member of the Maple Leafs and plays every game against the opposition's best offensive players. In fact, Phaneuf was having a pretty good year until the final quarter, when the wheels inexplicably came off.
Is he the best choice as captain? Debate among yourselves. But keep in mind, the Maple Leafs don't have many qualified candidates for the job.
After watching this season's playoffs, it should be abundantly clear to those running the Maple Leafs that Tyler Bozak is not the guy who should be centring the top line. It doesn't matter that he is pals with Kessel and JVR and that he contributed some pretty good two-way play. The best teams -- the real Stanley Cup contenders -- have big, strong centres on their first lines. Think Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Joe Thronton, Jonathan Toews. Bozak is better suited to playing on the second or third line.
Bozak can be the No. 1 centre on a team that doesn't make the playoffs. But not on a team challenging for the Stanley Cup.
As for Kessel and Lupul, both are capable of bringing fans out of their seats with highlight-reel goals. But neither has proven he can go the distance. Lupul is injury prone, while Kessel, for all his speed, great shot and underrated passing ability, has yet to hit the 40-goal plateau.
I would never question Kessel's skill. But I often wonder if he is willing to play the price in tough games. Against physical competition, he often becomes a perimeter player. Still, it must be noted that, two years ago, in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins, he did score four goals and six points in seven games, so maybe it is simply a matter of being willing to pay the price more consistently.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what changes Nonis makes this summer. And it will also be interesting to see which young players graduate to Toronto from the AHL Marlies. Surely, there must be an opening for a grinder like Jerry D'Amigo, who played solidly during a 22-game audition with the Maple Leafs this past season. Defenceman Petter Granberg, 21, will also likely make the team, while fellow defender Stuart Percy might be a year away, though he has a decent upside.
The emphasis in today's NHL is on big and fast. Even more than that, though, teams must be physically and mentally tough.
Do the Maple Leafs seem physically and mentally tough to you?
Follow Mike Brophy on Twitter @HockeyBroph
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