Toronto Maple Leafs, The Pressure Is Officially On

NHL Training Camp has finally arrived, and in one city, it’s a pretty big deal. The Toronto Maple Leafs are boss in Toronto. North America’s fifth most populous mega-city is a sea of blue and white when the Leafs are playing well. In 2012-13, the Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Quickly, fans everywhere hopped blindly back onto the bandwagon with enthusiasm, cheer, and all out insanity.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Bridget Samuels.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Bridget Samuels.

It’s been an exciting year in Leaf Land. Finally, a Leafs’ draft pick made some noise in the league – Nazem Kadri scored 44 points in 48 games, finishing tied for 12th in NHL scoring.

Maple Leaf Square finally got put to use in the 1st round of the playoffs, as the Leafs gave the eventual Stanley Cup finalists a run for their money.

The Maple Leafs became a major player in Unrestricted Free Agency for the first time since Pat Quinn called the shots. Highly coveted power forward David Clarkson chose to sign on with the Blue & White, adding to the excitement of the up-and-coming season.

The Leafs have a lot to look forward to in 2013-14. They will play in the NHL’s Winter Classic on New Years’ Day, becoming the first Canadian franchise to take the main stage. They’ll play that game against former division rival, the Detroit Red Wings, who for most Leaf fans was arguably the Buds’ biggest rival up until 1999 when Toronto switched over to the Eastern Conference. And the great part is, Leafs fans get back the Wings without losing the Habs. It’s a win-win. All that being said, the pressure is really on now.

Missing The Playoffs Is Unacceptable In Toronto

All it took was one trip back to the playoffs for the city of Toronto to expect the same and better this year from the Leafs. That’s a lot of pressure on this group, with limited experience.

It’s difficult to assess the Leafs chances as they enter a new division with a new format. The top 3 are guaranteed a playoff spot in each of the NHL’s four new divisions. After that, the two next best records per conference get in. Can the Maple Leafs finish top 3 in the Atlantic? They’ll have to outdo four teams from last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings were all good enough to qualify for the post season one year ago, along with the Maple Leafs. As you can see, the new Atlantic has some depth of quality.

How Long Will Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf Remain In Toronto?

Just as the Leafs become exciting again, their two most important players might not be around much longer, and what’s worse, if things go badly, the Leafs might not be compensated for either’s departure. At the end of the 2013-14 NHL season, both sniper Phil Kessel and Captain Dion Phaneuf will be Unrestricted Free Agents if they are not signed to new contracts beforehand. For the Leafs, watching their two most high profile players walk could spell disaster in the short term. There is no immediate replacement for the goal scoring efficiency of Phil Kessel within the Leafs organization, this is for sure. As for Phaneuf, the Buds can feel more comfortable about replacing him from within if Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly reach their potential in the near future.

The Collapse

There is no forgetting the events that led to the end of the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs playoffs. The Kessel led free wheelers battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 in Boston. They led Game 7 by a score of 4-1 in the 3rd period. Then, the young Leafs completely fell apart. It was a disaster that will hang over the heads of every player who suffered from the misfortune of being involved in that disastrous collapse. How it effects the young Buds this season is anyone’s guess. It could motivate them to never feel that way again, or it could cause them to have doubts that creep into their overall game. In the end, the Leafs success in 2013-14 may depend on how well they move on from that miserable night in Boston last May.