The Toronto Maple Leafs had a successful, but perhaps underwhelming summer.
In addition to losing Zach Hyman, the Toronto Maple Leafs will also move back into the Atlantic Division, and they will resume playing their biggest rival.
No, not the Montreal Canadiens. I don’t consider them a playoff team, and though they are the Leafs most historical rival, they aren’t going to be a contender this year.
The team I am interested in, is the team that will stand between the Leafs and any playoff success they might imagine for themselves.
The Tampa Bay Lighting.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay
Tampa won their second straight Stanley Cup, which, considering the conditions, may be the most impressive wins in the history of the NHL.
But they were also circumventing the NHL salary cap by having perennial Hart Trophy Candidate/Winner Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5 million dollar salary just happen to get healthy for the playoffs where the cap doesn’t matter.
The timing is a little too coincidental, but even without Kucherov, the Lightning finished 8th overall in a year where they probably didn’t even care too much about the regular season anyways, after wining the Cup the year before.
Tampa is indisputably a great team and they are the favorite to win the Cup again and pull off the rarely seen Three-Peat.
Or are they? The Lightning sure took a beating this summer due to their salary cap issues.
Tampa lost: Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, David Savard, and back-up Curtis McElhinney.
They replaced them with replacement players in Corey Perry and Brian Elliot.
That is a massive exodus of talent.
But guess what? The loss of all six players will be more than compensated by having a healthy Nikita Kucherov in the lineup + whatever contributions they get from whoever they bring in internally to fill out the lineup.
The NHL is all about star players, and Tampa lost zero star players. Depth barely matters and is nothing more than window dressing.
The Lightning – regardless of losing their entire third line and several decent players – should still be considered the NHL’s best team. They are the Toronto Maple Leafs biggest obstacle and as such, their biggest rival.
Are the NHL’s two best teams in the Atlantic Division? More than likely. It will be interesting to see who get’s an easy first round matchup and who has to play Florida (they’ll finish 3rd). But Tampa won’t fall off due to the players they lost. If they stumble at all, it’s probably because after winning the Cup twice, it’s hard to care about the regular season.
This will maybe give the Toronto Maple Leafs the opening they need to win their first Atlantic Division title, not the loss of Tampa’s depth.