The Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Tampa Bay Lightning

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 25: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs fight for the puck during a game at Amalie Arena on February 25, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 25: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs fight for the puck during a game at Amalie Arena on February 25, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /
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If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to win the Stanley Cup, the path to do so goes through Tampa.

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the envy of the NHL, including the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Now that the NHL will go back to it’s normal divisions (after a year in which Toronto played only other Canadian teams) the Leafs will once again be in a division with the Lightning.

As far as the regular season goes, this won’t be too big of a difference.  The Canadian division’s weakness has been massively exaggerated, and the fact is that the NHL is a professional league with a salary cap and the stratification of various team’s isn’t great.

Tampa had roughly 30 games against teams who were worse than any team in the Canadian division, and the Leafs had to face Connor McDavid nine times.  The NHL has almost full parity and so I don’t think moving divisions will make too much of a difference.

The Atlantic Division will feature a fierce fight for the 3rd spot and the Wild Cards between Boston, Montreal, and Florida, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning fighting it out for first.

So how do the Leafs matchup against the one team standing between them and being the best in hockey?

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning were a cool 18 million over the cap when the season ended, so they’ve had to say goodbye to some pretty good players.

Among them: Tyler Johnson, Barclay Goodrow , Blake Coleman, David Savard and Yanni Gourde.

I think Bob Marley has a song about this.

To combat the problem, the Lightning brought in Zach Bogosian and Corey Perry, twfo bottom-of-the-lineup players who will contribute nothing beyond what any random AHL Player could be expected to contribute if given the opportunity.

The Leafs, on the other hand, lost only Zach Hyman but whoever plays with Matthews and Marner will get a big enough bump towards stardom that it almost won’t matter.  With Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin set to become NHL players, the Leafs should still be a better team than they were last year.  They probably have a lower floor, but a higher ceiling.

A lot of the criticism about the Leafs is about their depth, and that just doesn’t matter.  Stars dictate the results of games and the Leafs have Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Muzzin, Brodie and Rielly.  That is more stars than almost any team in hockey.

The difference between the Leafs’ bottom six this year and last year is not going to make any difference.  If you could swap the Leafs’ entire bottom six out with whichever team in the NHL has the best bottom six, the Leafs might win one, maybe two more games.  But likely it wouldn’t even make that much of a difference because the odds are extremely high that one of the Leafs bargain basement pickups will have a career year and put up star numbers.

They’ve added some ceiling in Michael Bunting and Nick Ritchie, both of whom could have career years scoring garbage goals playing with superstars.  David Kampf gives them a potentially elite shutdown line with Kerfoot and Mikheyev.

The Leafs have all the depth they had last year (they are like six NHL lines deep) and though Hyman is gone they won’t miss him because Auston Matthew, like Sidney Crosby and a handful of other star centres before him should have no trouble helping a lucky non-star player towards a career season and a huge payday.

As for Tampa, don’t think they will be drastically worse, however.  The main reason they won is because of their stars: Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Point and Vasilevski.  The depth was more of a luxury than a necessity and they still stand to be the NHL’s best team.

But the Leafs are closer now than they ‘ve ever been, and here’s a little known fact: The Leafs finished ahead of Tampa in the regular season last year, so a second straight division title isn’t out of the question.

Why I Remain Optimistic About the Leafs. dark. Next

I think the Toronto Maple Leafs will be the surprise team of the 2021-22 NHL season, though they shouldn’t be surprising anyone at this point, it’s just that their playoff failure has them incredibly underrated.