Originally Published: September 25, 2013

Toronto Maple Leafs: It's how you respond

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

It is perhaps a case of not seeing the forest for the trees that media and fans have focused on that Game 7 playoff collapse in Boston rather than what the Toronto Maple Leafs accomplished as a whole last season. The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, surprising many in doing so and finally showing that the seeds planted by former GM Brian Burke and delicately groomed by his replacement and former right-hand man, Dave Nonis, are showing promise. Yes, the late-game collapse in Boston was incredibly tough to stomach for the Leafs, who had the Bruins on the ropes, but that doesn't undo what was an impressive turnaround season.

"It's an easy topic for people to look at, and I understand it. But it's not a big deal for us, it's over," new GM Nonis told ESPN.com. "There's nothing we can do about it. From our standpoint, it's more about how far we came, and it was also a measuring stick about how far we need to go."

That's indeed the question on the eve of the 2013-14 season for the Maple Leafs: Where to next? What kind of growth remains in the likes of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk?

"We still have a lot of areas to improve on if we want to become one of the elite teams," Nonis said. "I think we feel we can compete with the top teams, but if we want to become a top team, there's a lot of work left for us. I don't think anyone feels any different. Our players understand it, our coaches understand it, our ownership understands it; we're further than we were 12-18 months ago, but we're still not where we need to be."

Nonis was aggressive in trying to upgrade areas he felt needed help, acquiring goalie Jonathan Bernier from the Kings, signing free-agent power forward David Clarkson and trading for checking center Dave Bolland from the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks. Former Canucks winger Mason Raymond was also signed to a one-year deal after going to camp on a tryout and expect him to play with a chip on his shoulder. Among those gone from last season's Leafs squad are Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, Mikhail Grabovski, Mike Komisarek, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Kostka and Leo Komarov. Clarkson basically replaces MacArthur, and Bolland replaces Grabovski. In both cases, the replacements are viewed as better fits under the style and game plan head coach Randy Carlyle wants to employ. The buzz, though, heading into the season is the goalie battle between newcomer Bernier and incumbent James Reimer, who was solid last year for the Leafs. The net is there for the taking. The Bernier addition was greeted by a mixed reaction from Leafs fans, some of whom felt it disrespectful of Reimer after the year he had last season. A number of NHL executives and scouts, however, told ESPN.com that they believe Bernier has franchise-goalie stuff and the Leafs were brilliant to pull this off. For Nonis, it's just about doubling down. Now he's got two young netminders with No. 1 potential instead of one. What's wrong with that, he wonders?

"In this market, people want to spin things and create discussion, I get all that," Nonis said. "There's never been a knock on James Reimer, but it was as a whole, as a group, we didn't think we were deep enough in net. We didn't think there was enough pressure on James, we didn't think there was enough depth in the organization. So bringing in another guy who is very similar to James in terms of experience to push him, and for James to push Jonathan, I fail to see where that's a negative at all. It's not a knock on James Reimer."

There isn't a clear-cut No. 1-caliber stud on the blue line like an Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban or a Shea Weber. Perhaps Gardiner can grow into that player after showing great signs in the playoffs this past spring. Captain Dion Phaneuf is a solid No. 2 man who has been asked to play a No. 1 role, which is a tall order for him at times. Still, overall, I like this group's depth. Defense is like pitching in baseball, and the Leafs stack up nicely in terms of their organizational blue-line depth when you look at Gardiner, Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser, John-Michael Liles, Paul Ranger, Morgan Rielly, Korbinian Holzer et al.

"I think one through eight we feel pretty comfortable," Nonis said. "We've got enough where we can rotate through, we can sustain injury, there's a lot of things we can get through with our D because we do have some depth. And as an organization beyond that, maybe some aren't ready to play yet, but that's probably our deepest area. We have more players coming on the back end than anywhere else."

In the bigger picture, a real strength of this franchise is what traditionally has been a real Achilles' heel: patience. Since Nonis was promoted to GM in January, he has remained steadfast in his belief that the long-term view matters most, that shortcuts and band-aid solutions -- for years the bane of this franchise -- won't be the way to go. That means no more trading of first-round draft picks for aging stars, instead meaning the desire to stockpile prospects, not trade them away. So far Nonis has held true to his initial plan.

"It's the only way we have a chance, I think it's the only way any team has a chance," Nonis said. "I wouldn't never use the word 'never,' I'm not going to tell you I would never trade a first-round pick. I would tell you that we're not planning on trading a first-round pick for an older player. When you trade one for a younger player that fits something you're missing, yes we would. But if we want to have a chance to win, you need pressure from beneath, you need to be able to fill holes with players you have developed. We've moved some picks around, but I've made sure we kept our first. I think that's important for us. If you get to a point like L.A. did where you're so deep in prospects where you can afford to trade one and your franchise isn't impacted at all, that's where you need to be. We need to get deeper, we need to add more assets, and we have to take our time doing it."

Bozak was terrific alongside Kessel last season and Kadri broke through with his first big offensive season, but it remains a reality that the Leafs don't stack up down the middle with the elite teams in this league. In a perfect world, the Leafs will find their Ryan Getzlaf-type center someday, one with size and strength to go with offensive talent. But for now, the Leafs have done a good job of surrounding what they have at center with size and skill on the wings. So as a group of forwards, the Leafs have nice balance in their top three lines, with the likes of Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, van Riesmdyk, Clarkson et al.

"Does Naz improve on his year? Does Bozak keep getting better? Down the middle is always a challenge, but I think we're getting better there," Nonis said. "I don't think that we can say we have top centers like maybe a Detroit where we can trot out [Pavel] Datsyuk or [Henrik] Zetterberg, but I think one through nine, we're comfortable we have a pretty good group. ... There's skill there, on the wing we have significant scoring, we have some grit, and it does seem now like it's a better fit. We still have to go out and do it, but our top-nine forwards I think are rounding out pretty well."

Creating another challenge is the automatic 10-game suspension Clarkson was given for leaving the bench after Sabres enforcer John Scott started a fight with the undermatched Kessel in a preseason game. Speaking of Kessel, he's entering the final year of his contract, as is the captain, Phaneuf. Both are slated to be UFAs next July. How those contract talks play out will be a topic closely monitored in Toronto all season long.

"I don't think it's a distraction," Nonis said. "I have a very good relationship with both players. Yeah, it's going to be business at the end of the day, but I think there's a solid relationship there. I really believe that throwing money at a player just to get him signed isn't what you want. You want the player to want to be with your team, and if that's the case, you need to find a way to get something done. If and when we start, I think it will be done quietly and amicably."

For the Leafs, the return of the Red Wings to their division is a significant development, the two franchises longtime rivals, including during their Norris Division years. What better way for the two Original Six franchises to get reacquainted with each other than playing the Winter Classic at the Big House on Jan. 1?

LeBrun: It's going to be nip and tuck between Montreal and Toronto for fourth place in the Atlantic. Flip a coin.

Burnside: Fourth in the Atlantic Division.

Custance: Sixth in the Atlantic Division.

Melrose: Fourth in the Atlantic Division.

Strang: Fifth in the Atlantic Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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