Mar 25, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle looks on from the bench against the St. Louis Blues at Air Canada Centre. The Blues beat the Maple Leafs 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs Eastern Conference Preview: Introduction

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High expectations were placed on the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the start of last season.

The previous spring the Leafs had made their first playoff appearance in eight seasons, pushing the Boston Bruins to the brink of defeat in Game 7 of their first-round matchup before they fell apart themselves in the last ten minutes of the game and suffered one of the worst comeback defeats in NHL history.

The loss was difficult to accept, but it also suggested the Leafs were finally moving in the right direction.

Things picked up from there during the 2013 off-season as the Leafs upgraded their goaltending situation with the addition of Jonathan Bernier, and newcomer Mason Raymond brought the promise of some additional offensive firepower behind frontline players Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri – all players who were expected to continue playing at high levels.

Apr 8, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing David Clarkson (71) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Add the signing of veteran forward David Clarkson and it’s fair to say many Leafs fans expected the team to improve on its 2012-2013 record of 26-17-5, which was good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference during the shortened season.

Unfortunately, things seldom work out as planned in Leafs Nation. After a strong start to the 2013-2014 season, the Leafs once again faltered down the stretch. Their claim to a bottom playoff position quickly faded away, falling to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings before the season’s end. The Leafs finished well below expectations at 38-36-8 to occupy twelfth place in the conference.

Following the season, there were immediate cries for head coach Randy Carlyle and general manager Dave Nonis to join the unemployment line. The Leafs did make some changes in the front office and behind the bench, but both Carlyle and Nonis remain on the team’s payroll today.

Feb 8, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle gestures to Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) during the second period agains the Vancouver Canucks at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Vancouver 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Having said this, the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as team president and his quick decision to add Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager pointed towards some important changes. One of the biggest areas the Leafs want to improve concerns the team’s culture: Shanahan and company want to instill a “winning culture” in Toronto.

A number of new players have joined Shanahan and Dubas, including Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas, Petri Kontiola and David Booth, but it’s not entirely clear if they’ll provide an upgrade over last season’s disappointing roster.

Mar 29, 2014; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Anaheim Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen (45) reaches across Vancouver Canucks forward David Booth (7) during the second period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

All this movement in the Leafs organization has left many fans uncertain where the team’ll finish this coming season. Are they better than last season? Worse? The same?

Over the coming weeks, we hope to answer these question by looking at the Leafs and how they stack up against the competition in the Eastern Conference. It’ll be a long, but rewarding journey through the conference landscape and we hope you’ll join us on the trek.

New posts will appear regularly in this preview series, focussing on every one of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference from the perspective of everyone’s favourite team, the Leafs. You can return here to access new posts in the series as they become available.

With that said, let’s being the journey…

Part 1: A Recap of Last Season for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Part 2: Another Look at Last Season

Part 3: A Look at the Boston Bruins Heading into Next Season

Part 4: A Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins Heading into Next Season

Part 5: A Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning Heading into Next Season

Part 6: A Look at the Montreal Canadiens Heading into Next Season

Part 7: A Look at the New York Rangers Heading into Next Season

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