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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer reacts at the final buzzer as his team loses 4-1 to Montreal Canadiens in their final game of the season in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday April 9, 2011.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Chris Young

There'll be a message of hope sold on Monday morning, as the Toronto Maple Leafs clean out their lockers at the Air Canada Centre and coach Ron Wilson delivers the eulogy on yet another playoff miss.

Hope for next season and hope for the distant future - all of it predicated on the theory that being younger is better and that games won in the final months of the season mean more than all the losses earlier in the year.

But while optimism abounds, there remains a lot of work ahead for general manager Brian Burke to get this group back into the playoffs and, down the road, into contention.

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Standing pat this summer isn't an option if the Leafs want to improve, even if this group went 18-9-6 - including Saturday's ugly 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens - to close the year.

Here are the five key areas for concern for the Leafs heading into a sixth successive five-month off-season:

1. Will career years continue?

Toronto was once again one of the lower-scoring teams in the NHL, finishing tied for 21st with 213 goals, but the situation would have been far worse without breakthrough seasons from Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

One question facing the Leafs will be if they can repeat the feat. MacArthur's 62 points were nearly double his career high, while Kulemin hit the 30-goal mark after scoring only 31 in his first two seasons.

Grabovski, meanwhile, was the biggest surprise of all and was Toronto's top skater for most of the year.

Depending on how contract negotiations go with MacArthur, that trio is pencilled in as the second line again next season and will need to continue to have success in their second season together.

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2. A thin free-agent class

Burke's record in free agency since joining the Leafs is far from stellar, with whiffs such as defencemen Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda still taking up roster spots and $6-million in cap space.

After re-signing its restricted free agents, Toronto will have $13-million to $15-million available to spend, with the two key needs being a scoring centre to play with Phil Kessel and a top four, playmaking defenceman who can offer more than Tomas Kaberle did in the role.

There isn't much to choose from among the available unrestricted free agents this summer, and Burke will have to spend wisely to add what he can.

3. The art of the deal

The other avenue to improve the Leafs will come via trade, which is how Burke will most likely be looking to land the veteran centre this team has lacked for years.

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What won't be easy will be prying the type of player away from a team that Toronto needs. Leaving Tyler Bozak or another young player in the role of No. 1 centre, however, could make for another long year.

Still only 23, Phil Kessel should be able to exceed his 32-goal, 64-point season with the right supporting centre on his line. Finding that player represents Burke's greatest challenge this summer.

4. Can Reimer keep it up?

Wilson suggested on the weekend that netminder James Reimer will get the bulk of the starts next season, but just what the Leafs can expect after a terrific 37-game showing from the rookie is difficult to project.

Will he struggle with increased expectations? And if he does, will Burke have provided him with the appropriate backup who can help shoulder the load?

"He has to plan on being a 50- to 60-game goalie in the regular season and then be mentally and physically to play another 15 to 20 if we make the playoffs," Wilson said. "He's never in his life, if you look at his career, ever played more than 40, 45 games and that's including playoffs.

"That's going to be the test for him."

5. Can they avoid the injury ward?

The Leafs' 85-point, 10th-place season came with the team fairly healthy, as their 184 man-games lost to injury ranked in the bottom third of the NHL.

Other than injuries to captain Dion Phaneuf (16 games), winger Colby Armstrong (32 games) and netminder J.S. Giguère (off and on all season), Toronto's key players missed little time.

There's little guarantee that Toronto's top six forwards will miss only one game combined next season.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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