NHL Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Players Who Need to Step Up During Difficult Schedule

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5 Players Who Need to Step Up For the Toronto Maple Leafs

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to enter their toughest week of the schedule while dealing with multiple injuries to the lineup.

This isn’t the type of lineup General Manager Dave Nonis envisioned when he wondered what his Maple Leaf team would look like when they faced the elite teams of the league. Unfortunately, Toronto will have to overcome significant injuries and a likely suspension when they face three of the past four Stanley Cup champions and the St. Louis Blues this upcoming week.

The Maple Leafs will be without Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, while Joffrey Lupul's status with a groin strain is unclear although he could return sometime this week. Along with missing half of their top-six forwards, Toronto could be without Dion Phaneuf after a questionable hit on Kevan Miller is likely to result in suspension.

The Maple Leafs will never use injuries as an excuse, but it’s impossible to ignore Toronto’s chances of success greatly decrease with Bozak, Bolland, Lupul and Phaneuf all out of the lineup. Those four players are arguably four of the Maple Leafs’ six-best players along with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. It’d be tough for any team to find success against weak competition, let alone elite competition without their top-two centers, top defenseman and second-line left winger.

This is why Toronto desperately needs players in the lineup to step up given the major voids the team will have to endure while facing legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. On Dec. 11 the Maple Leafs will host Los Angeles Kings and then travel to St. Louis the next night. Toronto will return home on the weekend to host the Chicago Blackhawks and follow it up two days later with a visit to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Toronto hasn’t faced the Kings or Blues this season, but they did lose 3-1 to the Blackhawks on Oct. 19 in Chicago. They’ve also gone 1-0-1 against the Penguins this year, losing their most recent contest 6-5 in a shootout in Pittsburgh after giving up a 4-1 lead.

The Maple Leafs will need their goaltenders to play well, but they aren’t the players needed to step up in the next four games. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have routinely stood on their heads this season and proven they’ll be up for the challenge of facing elite competition. Kessel and van Riemsdyk are also a pair of players who have proven they’ll be playing at a high-level considering they are Toronto’s top scorers. Kessel is close to a point-per-game player with 29 points in 31 games despite struggling in November while van Riemsdyk has recorded 25 points in 29 and is on pace to set a new career-high for points in a season potentially breaking his previous total of 40 points in 75 games during the 2010-11 season.

Given that Toronto knows they’ll have strong goaltending and their top scorers playing at a high-level, here are five other players who must step up to fill the voids left in the lineup.

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5. Mason Raymond

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Mason Raymond has played well for the Maple Leafs after signing a one-year, $1 million contract in the preseason. He’s produced for the most part after a hot start to the season where he scored 11 points in October and followed it up with seven points in November. Unfortunately, despite having 19 points in 31 games, Raymond has developed a trend of not picking up a point for multiple games. Four times this season he’s gone three or more games without recording a point. Although Raymond is playing well being used in a second or third line role with Toronto, the last thing the team needs is for him to go pointless in their next four games. Even worse, Raymond is already on one of his point-less streaks having not recorded a point in his past three games. If Toronto stands any chance of surviving the next four games they need Raymond to find the score sheet.

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4. Jake Gardiner

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At this point a year ago many Maple Leaf fans believed Jake Gardiner was the future of the franchise. Fast forward a year and many of those same fans are confused over what has happened to Gardiner. The offensive-defenseman showed flashes last season of taking over games with his superb skating ability and excellent vision on the ice. If he wasn’t joining the rush to create an odd-man scoring opportunity, he was often making an impressive outlet pass that sent a teammate on the attack. However, for whatever reason Gardiner hasn’t been the same player this season that he has been the past two seasons. It’s been debated whether a confidence issue is bothering him or perhaps confusion with his role on the team, but for some reason Gardiner has struggled through 30 games despite recording a goal and eight assists.

If Phaneuf is suspended, the Maple Leafs will desperately need Gardiner to raise his level of play as a thin Toronto blue-line might not recover from the loss of their Captain. Gardiner will be looked at as one of the main players expected to help replace Phaneuf’s minutes, and if he can’t rise up to the challenge it could be a long week for the Maple Leafs.

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3. Cody Franson

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The player likely to help replace most of Phaneuf’s minutes if he’s suspended will no doubt be Cody Franson. Franson leads the team in assists with 14 despite not scoring a goal yet this season. He’s also tied for second on the team in ice-time behind only Phaneuf. Even if the Captain isn’t suspended the Maple Leafs will still need Franson to step up to help tighten the team defensively against the likes of Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Alex Steen and Sidney Crosby. Toronto gave up 50 shots twice last week, and although they won those games it’s hardly the type of strategy they want to replicate heading into this week’s set of games. Franson is the Maple Leafs’ second-best defenseman, but he must play like their best defenseman in their next four games.

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2. David Clarkson

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With David Clarkson on the books to receive $5.25 million for the next seven years it’s time he starts earning that contract by finding the back of the net. Without Lupul, Bozak and Bolland most of Toronto’s secondary scoring is out of the lineup which is why it’s crucial Clarkson starts putting some points on the board. With only six points, including two goals, along with a minus-three rating in 21 games this season, the Maple Leafs have hardly gotten an early return for their summer investment. To help take pressure off of Kessel and van Riemsdyk to produce offensively, Clarkson has to step up this week

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1. Nazem Kadri

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Nazem Kadri claimed last summer he was worthy of a big money contract similar to what Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle received. Kadri recorded 44 points in 48 games in his first full season in the league a year ago and has followed it up with 20 points in 27 games this season. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been nearly as good defensively this year and he’s also already gone to the box nearly twice as much as he did last season. In 48 games a year ago Kadri was a plus-15 and recorded only 23 penalty minutes whereas this season through 27 games he’s a minus-two with 41 penalty minutes. Given that Toronto’s penalty-kill has gone from third overall to the lower-half of the league, the last thing the team needs is somebody taking more penalties.

Kadri was red-hot to begin the year recording 13 points in October, but he’s cooled off considerably since and has only managed to produce seven points since Halloween. He also only had 12 penalty minutes in October but has recorded 29 since. With Bozak and Bolland out of the lineup, Kadri is unquestionably the best center the Maple Leafs have. If there was ever a time for Kadri to prove he’s worth the contract he was asking for in the summer it’s this upcoming week when there’s no doubt the team needs him more than ever during their next four games. This is the best opportunity of Kadri's career to prove he's an elite center in the league.