When a team hasn't reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven years, there are always going to be more questions than answers surrounding the club.
That's the case for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who, thanks to the Florida Panthers qualifying for the playoffs last season, have the longest current drought in the NHL. The Leafs haven't had more than 85 points in a season since 2007-08 and enter the season coached by Randy Carlyle, who took over in March.
So far this summer, the biggest move has been to trade defenseman Luke Schenn to the Flyers for forward James van Riemsdyk. General manager Brian Burke may need to have another deal up his sleeve if the Leafs are to get to the playoffs.
Here are six questions that the Leafs will need to answer between now and the end of the 2012-13 season:
1. Who will be the Leafs' opening-night goalie?
As things stand now, James Reimer will be the man between the pipes with Ben Scrivens acting as the backup. But it's possible that not long after this paragraph is published, the Leafs could make a deal for a new No. 1 goaltender.
The Leafs are potentially interested in swinging a deal for the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who has become expendable in Vancouver with backup Cory Schneider inking a three-year, $12 million deal this summer. If Luongo comes to Toronto, he immediately becomes the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender.
Another name has been mentioned in reports involving the Leafs -- the Kings' Jonathan Bernier. The former No. 1 pick could use a new home with Jonathan Quick signing a 10-year deal and has the potential to be a starter in the NHL. But with limited experience, even if he was to join the Leafs, he may not necessarily supplant Reimer right away.
2. Will JVR fit in the middle?
There's no denying the 23-year-old and second pick of the 2007 NHL Draft has loads of potential, but how he acclimates himself to a new position will go a long way toward determining the Leafs' success this season.
Van Riemsdyk played almost exclusively on the wing with the Flyers, a team that has plenty of depth down the middle. But the Leafs could use help at center, and Carlyle said he will look at van Riemsdyk there during training camp.
If the move works, the Leafs could have a deadly top line with Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and van Riemsdyk. But if it doesn't, the Leafs will once again spend another season looking for a top-line pivot.
3. How will the young players progress?
The Leafs have plenty of youth in the organization, and now wouldn't be a bad time for those players to start realizing their potential.
Nazem Kadri, 21, was the seventh pick of the 2009 Draft, but hasn't been able to stick with the big club in two stints the past two seasons. The center has loads of talent, and if he can put it all together in training camp and win a spot with the Leafs, he could have a breakout season.
Matt Frattin, 24, had eight goals and seven assists in 51 games last season with the Leafs, his first extended time in the NHL. His name has been mentioned in the Bernier rumors, but the 24-year-old who scored 36 goals in 44 games at North Dakota in 2009-10 has a bright future.
Jake Gardiner, 21, looked like a seasoned pro as a rookie last season with seven goals and 30 points in 75 games. Sometimes defensemen regress in their second seasons after solid rookie years (examples include Tyler Myers of Buffalo and Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers) so he'll need to avoid that if the Leafs are to improve.
4. How can the PK improve?
Only two teams were worse at killing penalties last season than the Leafs -- the Blue Jackets and Sharks. Burke addressed the issue in free agency by signing forward Jay McClement, but it will take more than one forward to remedy all of the Leafs' shorthanded problems.
When the Leafs fired Ron Wilson last season and brought in Carlyle, assistant coach Dave Farrish also came from Anaheim to Toronto. The former defenseman worked primarily with the Ducks' penalty-killing units, but they never ranked higher than 19th in his final full three seasons there.
Improvement from the team's goaltenders in shorthanded situations couldn’t hurt, either. Reimer ranked 75th out of 89 eligible goaltenders in shorthanded save percentage last season at .808. Luongo posted an .870 save percentage in the same category last season.
5. Will the defense be any better?
Penalty killing wasn't the only way the Leafs were getting burned defensively -- they were also one of the worst teams at 5-on-5, too.
The Leafs allowed 182 goals at 5-on-5, the second-worst total in the League, and 189 overall at even strength. The Rangers (182), Kings (170) and Blues (155) allowed fewer overall goals last season than the Leafs allowed just at even strength.
With little roster turnover and Reimer still the team's No. 1 goaltender (for now), a defensive turnaround will likely have to stem from a change in philosophy. Kessel rededicated himself defensively last season and will need to continue to do so.
In Carlyle's 18 games as coach, the Leafs allowed 61 goals. Some of that had to do with the coach installing new system midstream, but that won't be an available excuse this season.
6. Is Brian Burke in trouble if the Leafs miss the playoffs again?
Burke arrived in November of 2008. Toronto was coming off an 83-point season and hasn't eclipsed the 85-point mark or threatened for a playoff spot under Burke's leadership.
He's had nearly four years to get the Leafs headed in the right direction, but if his moves do not bear a playoff spot for a fourth straight season, will his job be in jeopardy? The Leafs hold the longest drought in the NHL at seven years, and an eighth year without a playoff series victory would tie the franchise for the fifth-longest stretch in NHL history.
Burke reportedly signed a six-year deal when he took the job nearly four years ago. There are no indications his job is on the line heading into this season, but another one that ends without a postseason trip could change that.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Author: Dave Lozo | NHL.com Staff Writer
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