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Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs: Wednesday NHL season opener preview

Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs: Wednesday NHL season opener preview

Posted by Juan Gavasa on October 08, 2014

The poster boy for the 2014-15 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a baby-faced forward who stands 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds. He can skate and has the skill to play on the second line. He is precisely the kind of player who, in previous years, would not have been given an opportunity.

But this year is different. And the addition of Brandon Kozun is proof of that.

“I think it would be somewhat of a surprise to pretend … that a 24-year-old who spent three-quarters of the season with the Marlies is able to jump into the NHL,” said head coach Randy Carlyle. “Now the true test is going to come.”

Not just for Kozun, but also for the Leafs.

After bombing out at the end of last season, this is a much different Toronto team. The Leafs have gone all-in and embraced advanced analytics, which showed last season that the Leafs’ would be unable to maintain their early success. They enter the season without a true enforcer, have a fourth line that looks more like a third line and plan on giving more responsibility to players who can skate and carry the puck.

“We feel that we have a group that can skate. But they have to get the puck,” Carlyle said. “We have to make sure we work hard enough to take time and space from the opposition who has the puck to take it back and transition … We probably have a great number of players that fit that mold than before.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs front office have embraced analytics this season. But it's yet to be seen whether that will solve the Leafs' playoff woes. AP Photo/Gary Wiepert

Will paying attention to Corsi and zone starts change the Leafs’ fortunes? Well, you cannot end a 47-year-old championship drought overnight. But with a watered-down Eastern Conference, the Leafs should at least be competing for one of the bottom-end playoff spots.

Once again, it will come down to an offence that is built around Phil Kessel (80 points) and James van Riemsdyk (61 points), a goaltending duo that had a combined .918 save percentage and a defence that is older and more experienced. Of those three factors, the latter received the biggest upgrade.

Free-agent acquisition Stéphane Robidas provides a veteran presence (he is 37 years old) and — unlike Carl Gunnarsson — should take ease of the load of hard minutes demanded of captain Dion Phaneuf. Meanwhile, the Leafs hope that Roman Polak can become the physical, stay-at-home defenceman that Tim Gleason, Mike Komisarek, Ryan O’Byrne and Jeff Finger were not. But the biggest X-factor could come from the kids, where 20-year-old Morgan Rielly, 22-year-old Stuart Percy and 24-year-old Jake Gardiner all have the ability to play keep-away with the puck.

“If we’re able to keep teams hemmed in, that’s going to help us a lot,” Rielly said of the team’s new defensive approach. “Hold our red line and hold our blue line. That’s the goal so that teams are not able to chip it in. I think we’re going to be a lot better with that this year.”

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