The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t going to have it easy when their 2021-22 regular-season campaign begins a handful of weeks from now. Not only are they back in an Atlantic Division that has far fewer pushovers than the makeshift North Division had in the 2021 campaign, but they’re going to regularly face the cream of the crop in the NHL – most notably, the two teams based out of Florida.
Of course, everyone knows how good the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are going to be, even with a roster that’s had its depth cut down by the league’s salary cap. With Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman on the roster, the Bolts will not lack for offense; and on the defensive end, star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, veteran D-man Ryan McDonagh and still-blossoming blueliner Mikhail Sergachev in tow, they’ll be able to beat opponents regardless of the approach any of them take. It’s true the Bolts were able to masterfully maneuver the cap to their benefit, but even if there were a hard cap in the post-season, Tampa GM Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper would’ve had plenty of weapons at their disposal. That is not going to change this season; even with some peripheral player losses, the Lightning are going to dominate most nights against seriously inferior opponents.
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The Leafs aren’t so inferior that they should be expected to lose to Tampa Bay whenever the two squads face off, but the challenge for Toronto is going to be consistently performing resiliently whenever they take on an elite-level franchise like the Lightning. And this coming year, after their off-season changes, the Florida Panthers have to be included in that group of extremely tough customers for the Buds to beat.
Florida would’ve been a difficult draw for Toronto even if they’d kept their 2021 roster completely intact; this Panthers group amassed 189 goals-for this past season – two more than the big-ammunition Leafs – and finished second in the Central Division, four points ahead of the Lightning, and only one point behind Carolina for first spot in the Central. Florida actually had more wins (37) than Tampa or the Hurricanes (both of whom won 36 games), and the Panthers finished behind only Vegas (40 wins) and Colorado (39) for most victories in the league. And now they’ve made some key additions to improve on that already-impressive showing.
One of those additions is simply a full year from star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who appeared in only 35 games last year before he was injured. The 25-year-old Ekblad still is in his prime, and he gives Florida’s underrated defense corps a massive boost simply by being able to average in excess of 25 minutes of ice time per game. But that ‘D’ corps also will get a full year out of veteran Brandon Montour, who skated in only 12 games as a Panther after being acquired from Buffalo.
The Panthers will benefit from the arrival of another former Sabre – veteran winger Sam Reinhart, who put up 25 goals and 40 points in 54 games for Buffalo last year before Florida GM Bill Zito traded for him this summer. And they’ll get a full season out of center Sam Bennett, who thrived with the Panthers after Calgary traded him late in the season; Bennett scored six goals and 15 points in only 10 games after arriving in Florida, and while that shooting percentage is likely going to be higher than the one he’ll put up over 82 games, Bennett still is going to give the Panthers even more scoring options than the many they already had. (And let’s not forget the signing of greybeard Joe Thornton; the former Shark and Maple Leaf is clearly nearing the end of his incredible playing career, but if Panthers coach Joel Quenneville manages Thornton’s ice time properly, he can be another producer of offense on a team that already has more than its share.
Now, will there be other Atlantic Division teams the Leafs are going to have to beat regularly in order to keep pace in the standings? Absolutely. The Montreal Canadiens are going to be in tough to repeat their Cinderella-like performance from last year, but any team with a healthy Carey Price is going to have a solid shot at winning their fair share of games. And the Boston Bruins never can be counted out, even if their goaltending picture still hasn’t fully come together (with the future of star Tuukka Rask in doubt, and a new face in former Sabres starter Linus Ullmark). A full year of having star winger Taylor Hall in tow, and a rebuilding of their bottom-six forward group should help Boston considerably. There aren’t going to be very many easy nights for the Leafs, which is why they turned to veteran netminder Petr Mrazek to help presumptive starter Jack Campbell handle the load between the pipes.
But if all shakes out the way it looks like it will on paper, the Leafs will make the playoffs, but probably will have to face either the Lightning or Panthers in the first round. Emerging from a series against one of those two teams will be a tall order for Toronto, especially with the knowledge that a first-round exit will probably spell the end of the Leafs’ core of young talent.
This is not to argue the Buds can’t win when it counts. There are numerous examples of teams that have overcome previous disappointments to make the jump to a truly first-rate Cup contender. But as it stands at the moment, it looks like Toronto is going to have to earn its stripes in the Sunshine State if they’re going to have real success beyond this regular season.