(Sports Network) - By simply qualifying for the playoffs last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs assured the franchise of its best season in quite some time.
The postseason trip was the first for the Maple Leafs since the spring of 2004, ending a seven-season playoff drought that stood as the longest in the club's storied history.
Despite all of that, it's hard not to acknowledge the profoundly disappointing fashion in which Toronto's season ended.
The Leafs surprised just about everyone by pushing Boston to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs and then held a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 before suffering a monumental collapse. The Bruins would score three times in the final 10 minutes of regulation to send Game 7 into overtime and then won it 5-4 on a Patrice Bergeron goal in the extra session. Adding insult to injury, the hated Bruins went on to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance after eclipsing the Maple Leafs in the classic Game 7 battle.
No doubt spurred on by that nightmarish Game 7, the Leafs made numerous changes to their roster over the long offseason. Toronto general manager Dave Nonis not only acquired forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland and goaltender Jonathan Bernier over the summer, but he also decided to buy out the contracts of defenseman Mike Komisarek and forward Mikhail Grabovski.
As usual, the offseason moves were put under the microscope by "Leafs Nation," where the passionate fan base is still awaiting its first Stanley Cup title since 1967. Although the top of the NHL mountain still seems a long way off, there is reason to believe this team can make its way back to the playoffs in 2013-14.
One possible obstruction to returning to the playoffs is Toronto's inclusion in the newly-formed Atlantic Division. Only the top-three teams will receive an automatic bid to the postseason and with clubs like Boston, Detroit, Ottawa and possibly Montreal picked by many folks to finish ahead of the Leafs, Toronto could be forced to fight for one of the East's two wild card playoff spots.
FORWARDS - The Maple Leafs are coming off a fantastic offensive season, one in which the club ranked sixth in the NHL with an average of 3.02 goals per game.
Once again, prolific winger Phil Kessel did the heavy lifting, leading the team in both goals (20) and points (52) for the fourth time in as many seasons with the club.
Kessel also continued to score in the postseason, tallying four goals and two assists in the seven games against his former club.
With Kessel entrenched in the right wing spot on the top line, the center spot is a battle between Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri. Smart money has Bozak, who re-signed with the Leafs for five years and $21 million over the summer, manning the top spot, as Kadri anchors the second line. There is little doubt Kadri, who finished second to Kessel on the team with 44 points in 2013, is the more talented player, but head coach Randy Carlyle is expected to go with Bozak to spread out the scoring over the top-two lines.
Kadri, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, experienced a breakout season in 2013 with 18 goals and 26 assists in 48 games during the shortened campaign. Prior to 2013, the London, Ontario native had a total of 19 points in his first 51 games as an NHLer.
Bozak had 12 goals and 16 assists in 46 games last season, but with Kessel and Joffrey Lupul as his wings, the 27-year-old doesn't need to be a scoring machine.
Lupul is a dangerous offensive player when healthy, but he rarely is. Lupul had 18 points (11G, 7A) in just 16 games during the 2013 regular season and missed 16 games in 2011-12 when he posted 67 points (25G, 42A). The last time the 29-year-old managed to skate in at least 70 games was in 2008-09 with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Another former Flyer, James van Riemsdyk, enjoyed a strong first season in Toronto last season. The big winger was acquired in the summer of 2012 for defenseman Luke Schenn and recorded 18 goals and 32 points in 48 games for the Leafs. He expects to play left wing on the second line, which could feature Kadri and fellow winger Clarkson.
Clarkson earned a big payday this summer after inking a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the Leafs. The 29-year-old reached the 30-goal plateau with New Jersey in 2011-12 and had 15 goals for the Devils in the shortened season in 2013. With an annual cap hit of $5.25 million, a number that puts him in the same ballpark as Kessel and Lupul, so he is going to have to produce.
However, Clarkson's tenure with Toronto is already off to a poor start, as he will serve a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a brawl in one of his team's exhibition games against Buffalo.
Bolland, meanwhile, adds depth down the middle after coming over in a trade with Chicago. However, it did cost the Maple Leafs three draft picks -- one second-round selection and two fourth-rounders -- to acquire Bolland, who won two Stanley Cups during his time with the Blackhawks. Although, he only had seven goals and seven assists in 35 regular-season games with Chicago in 2013, Bolland had four goals and eight helpers in 18 playoff games last spring and recorded the Cup-clinching goal in the final minute of Game 6 against the Bruins.
Bolland could center a third line with left winger Mason Raymond, who was signed to a one-year deal after making the team on a professional tryout in September. Raymond offers tremendous speed and had 10 goals and 12 assists in 46 games with the Vancouver Canucks last season.
Nikolai Kulemin could also skate on the third line, but he doesn't expect to return to the goal-scoring form he displayed early on in his career. Kulemin scored a total of 61 goals in his first three seasons with the Leafs, including a 30-goal performance in 2010-11, but he has managed only seven goals in each of the past two campaigns.
Toronto's fourth line offers little more than protection for the star players, as both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren are forwards who are quick to drop the gloves.
DEFENSE - Sorry Toronto fans, but this year's defensive rotation will look eerily similar to the one that coughed up the Game 7 lead to the Bruins.
Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles are back to eat up minutes for Toronto on the blue line, while Ryan O'Byrne left to sign a contract in the KHL.
Phaneuf is the undisputed No. 1 at the back end and he led Toronto in 2013 with an average ice time of 25 minutes, 10 seconds during the regular season. He also paced Toronto with nine goals from the blue line, while finishing second to Franson with 28 points.
This is a big season for Phaneuf, who is entering the final year of his contract in 2013-14. He has said he expects to re-sign with Toronto, but he could make himself some extra money with a strong showing in the final year of his deal.
Franson led Toronto's D-men with 29 points on four goals and 25 assists last season, but he could miss the start of the season due to a contract dispute. The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent and has yet to sign a deal for the upcoming season.
Gunnarsson and Gardiner are expected to make up the second pairing, but one of them will likely move up to skate with Phaneuf if Franson's contract issue isn't resolved before the start of the season. Gardiner had four assists in 12 games last season, while Gunnarsson posted 15 points (1G, 14A) in 37 contests.
Liles has two goals and nine assists in 32 games for Toronto, but he struggled with consistency and fell out of favor with Carlyle, who could cut his playing time this season.
Mark Fraser could join Liles on the final pairing, with T.J. Brennan, Paul Ranger and Korbinian Holzer providing depth. Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall selection in the 2012 draft, also has a chance at sticking with the big club in 2013-14.
GOALTENDING - Although James Reimer turned in what was easily his best season as an NHLer in 2013, Nonis couldn't pass up on trading for Bernier, who gives the club another promising young goaltender.
Reimer, 25, was one of the biggest reasons Toronto ended its postseason drought in 2013. Although he missed some time with a knee injury, Reimer went 19-8-5 with a 2.46 goals against average and .924 save percentage last season and also managed to record four shutouts.
Although he sported a 2.87 GAA in the playoffs, Reimer also carried a solid .923 save percentage through the first seven postseason games of his career.
Bernier, meanwhile, was never able to supplant Jonathan Quick as the No. 1 guy in Los Angeles, but the 25-year-old does come with a high pedigree, having been selected by the Kings in the first round (11th overall) of the 2006 draft.
His numbers in L.A. were impressive, as Bernier went 29-20-6 with a 2.36 GAA in his career with the Kings. Last season, he saw action in 14 contests and went 9-3-1 with a 1.87 GAA and .922 save percentage.
Although Reimer may have a slight edge in the race for the No. 1 job, it seems like both players have a chance to earn the regular starting role this season.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Leafs earned some respect with their push to the postseason in 2013, but there is still a long way to go before Toronto can be taken seriously as a Stanley Cup contender. Although Nonis deserves credit for trying to build off last season's success with a busy offseason, there is no guarantee his moves will actually improve the on-ice product. Expect Toronto to be in the mix for a playoff spot, but there's a strong chance this team could take a step back over the course of a full 82-game season in 2013-14.