Toronto Maple Leafs: Watch Out For the Panthers

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 8: The Florida Panthers celebrate a goal against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on April 8, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 8: The Florida Panthers celebrate a goal against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on April 8, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs need to watch out for the other team from the sunshine state.

Whenever most people talk about hockey in Florida, their minds immediately jump to the Tampa Bay Lightning, former Stanley Cup champions and the juggernaut that has been a contender in the Eastern Conference over the last 5 years. But this may be the year when the “other” Florida team makes a run for the playoffs. And the Toronto Maple Leafs need to watch out.

The Florida Panthers have been a franchise mired in mediocrity since their inception in 1993. They’ve made the playoffs only 5 times in their history, making the 1996 Stanley Cup Final and getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

But a year removed from missing the playoffs by one point, the Panthers return most of their starting lineup, added another skilled player to their offense, and have a strong goalie tandem that could give the Maple Leafs and the Atlantic Division a huge headache.

Here Come The Florida Panthers

The Panthers finished 44-30-8, good for 96 points, but not good enough to make the playoffs, finishing behind the 97 points of the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils. They finished 14th in scoring and 17th in goals allowed, while their PP was 21st and their PK was 16th. Their leading scorer was Aleksander Barkov, who put up a career high of 79 points.  Other top scorers included Vincent Trocheck (75 points), Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points), and Evgeni Dadonov (65 points).

Their defense was led by a top pairing of Keith Yandle (56 points, 101 blocked shots) and Aaron Ekblad, who had a massively disappointing season (38 points, 121 blocked shots and 23:23 minutes a night).

In net they had split starts between Roberto Luongo and former Maple Leaf James Reimer. Luongo went 18-11-2 with a strong .929 SV% and 2.47 GAA. Reimer was a little shaky but still solid, going 22-14-6 coupled with a .913 SV% and a 2.99 GAA. The tandem helped the Panthers compete for a playoff spot in the final games of the season.

During the offseason Florida took advantage of the Mike Hoffman situation with the Ottawa Senators. After Hoffman was traded to the San Jose Sharks, the Panthers traded a 4th and 5th round pick in 2018 and a 2nd round pick in 2019 for Hoffman and a 2018 7th round pick.

Hoffman, drama aside, elevates the Panthers offense. 230 points over 342 games, 66 powerplay points, a career relative Corsi of 3.2%, and has averaged over 17 minutes of ice-time three seasons in a row. Hoffman could fit in nicely on a line with Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad, making the Panthers’ top 2 lines some of the best in the NHL. (Though, when compared to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they don’t seem that good!).

The Panthers are still a young team. 17 out of 25 players currently on their starting roster are under 30, with 8 of them, including Ekblad, under 25. Last year seemed to be the year where the team found an identity and still have room to grow this year. A majority of the team is returning from last year, so the team chemistry shouldn’t really change.

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Being so close to the playoffs last year has probably been nagging the Florida Panthers all summer long. And now with a majority of the team returning, Mike Hoffman joining their ranks and two goalies to share the workload, it would be wise for the Toronto Maple Leafs to not sleep on the Panthers. In an already competitive Atlantic Division, the Panthers are going to make the race for the playoffs a little more interesting.

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