The Leafs begin their quest for redemption this season as the club opens their 2013-14 preseason schedule tonight in London against the Philadelphia Flyers.
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After their horrendous game seven collapse at the hands of Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins this past spring, the Leafs re-tooled and brought a new found edge to the team that was sorely lacking in some instances last year.
Gone are Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, and Leo Komorov, and they're replaced by the likes of Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, Joe Colborne, Mason Raymond, and the recently acquired Jonathan Bernier.
With all that talk about the new bodies in camp, its some members of the Leafs from the season past who could be some players to watch this preseason. Here are the top seven Leafs to watch in September.
5. Joffrey Lupul
Marred by injuries last season and a suspension, Lupul never really got into a groove last year, however he did score at a better than point per game pace with the Buds. With only 16 games played, Lupul potted 11 goals and finished with 18 points.
Lupul in the playoffs was inconsistent, but to be honest, his linemates were never the same as coach Randy Carlyle juggled his lines consistently in hopes of keeping Phil Kessel off the ice when Zdeno was off of the ice, and the other way around.
Speaking of injuries though, having not played a full season since 2008-09, Lupul is already hurting as he's suffering from a tight back early in camp. Coach Carlyle isn't that concerned, but like I say, where there's smoke, there's fire.
4. Nazem Kadri
The recent restricted free agent came to terms with the Leafs only days before camp was set to begin. With fellow RFA Cody Franson still negotiating a contract, Kadri was probably smart to get the deal done now.
Kadri began last season on a torrid pace, however, by the end of the year, things slowed down. Having signed that two-year bridge contract with the Leafs, Kadri not only has pressure on him to fulfill that contract, he also has pressure to make sure he gets a solid pay day at the end of that two-year deal.
Kadri more than likely center a line featuring Joffrey Lupul and recently acquired RW David Clarkson as the club looks to add a bigger, tougher presence to Kadri's line in order to allow the slick handed Kadri to do what he does best and that's playmake.
3. The Goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer
If I had it my way, James Reimer on the strength of a solid playoffs with the Leafs would be the Opening Night starter. However, Jonathan Bernier will likely be the starter when all is said and done.
Bernier handles the puck better, he has a better glove hand, and most of all, he's got championship experience, in a back-up role.
The Leafs acquired Bernier and then went ahead and signed him to a two-year extension worth $2.9 million a year. Couple that with having to still pay the Los Angeles Kings 500k for the acquisition of Bernier and you're looking at a goalie worth $3.4 million this season. With Reimer making roughly half that, it really makes no sense to be paying Bernier twice as much to back him up.
In the grand scheme of things, I see whoever winning the job becoming the number 1 and whoever loses the job, more than likely getting dealt.
2. Mason Raymond
The quick feet of Mason Raymond may very well land him a spot with the Maple Leafs. Having heard rumors of a potential one-year deal worth $925k out there, its no secret GM Dave Nonis likes Mason Raymond's game.
Having suffered a terrible back/neck injury due to a questionable hit from Boston Bruins defensive defenseman Johnny Boychuk in game six of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
He returned December 1st versus the Nashville Predators, but he was never the same after that hit unfortunately. The former 25 goal scorer will look to re-kindle what he lost in Vancouver as he fights for a position on the Leafs third line alongside Dave Bolland and Nikolai Kulemin.
1. The Evolution of Jake Gardiner and the Emergence of Morgan Rielly.
With question marks regarding the availability and the sign-ability of Leafs defenceman Cody Franson, the longer he remains out, the better chance Morgan Rielly has of making the Leafs Opening Night roster.
My best guess is the Leafs bring him along to start the season and give him a nine game tryout. After the nine games, I look to find Franson back in the Leafs lineup and Rielly back in Junior.
Another player who could really shine is Jake Gardiner. After seeing the press-box and riding the pine most of the year under Carlyle, Gardiner proved why he was one of the better offensive defenceman prospects in the game this past spring looking like a seasoned NHL veteran in the playoffs.
I think the evolution and the development of both of these defenceman should be the number one player(s) to watch this pre-season.
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