Toronto Maple Leafs Atlantic Division Preview: Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - MAY 10: Chris Driedger #60 of the Florida Panthers defends the net against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center on May 10, 2021 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - MAY 10: Chris Driedger #60 of the Florida Panthers defends the net against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center on May 10, 2021 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be jumping back into the Atlantic Division this season.

Last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the North Division, which was their first division title since roughly the Paleozoic Era.

Things may be a little harder this season as the number of Cup Contenders in their division goes from one (Edmonton) to somewhere between one and three (Tampa and then depending, Boston and Florida).

We will kick off this preview series by looking into the Florida Panthers, everyone’s favorite pre-season pick to do some damage this year.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers

Last year the Panthers were in the Central Division along with Tampa, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit and Columbus.

They finished with a record 37-14-5, which was good enough for second place, four points up on Tampa and a single point behind Carolina.

The Panthers had a good season last year, finishing fourth overall in Expected Goal Percentage and fourth in 5v5 save percentage,  (the latter mostly due to the goalie who they let leave this past summer).

Chris Driedger, who now plays for the Seattle Kraken, posted a 14-6-3 record with a .927 save percentage, which saw the Panthers get nearly 73% of the points in games he played.  (stats

Florida has a really good roster, but they lost their MVP from last year and will be hard pressed to match their record from a year ago.  In addition to their goalie leaving, the Panthers won’t get to beat the hell out of Chicago, Columbus and Detroit this year, whom they amassed a ridiculous record of 19-4-1 against. 

Detroit is still in their division, but they won’t get eight games against them this season.

Because of their record beating up losers, and because of how much their elite goaltending helped them, I don’t foresee the Panthers being anywhere close to as good as they were last year, or as good as people think they will be this year.

If you look at the Panthers roster, it’s nice, but it doesn’t come close to comparing to Toronto’s.

Leafs Roster vs Panthers Roster

You can’t predict how goalies will perform, but the Leafs have two goalies who are coming off great seasons, and the Panthers have Sergei Bobrvosky and the worst contract in hockey.   Huge edge to the Leafs here, but the Panthers do have a potentially strong rookie goalie in Spencer Knight.  Knight is well regarded, but in the NHL, goalie performance is unpredictable.  The Panthers are betting a lot on Knight based on his strong NHL performance to date, but he’s only played six games, (two playoff games).   Huge edge to Toronto here.

Up front, the Leafs have two players significantly better than the Panthers best players, and their 3rd and 4th  best forwards are not as good as Nylander and Tavares.  There are questions about the Leafs top line left wingers, but they shouldn’t have much trouble finding two decent wingers who, with a performance bump from playing with two superstars, can at least pose as legitimate top-six wingers.

The Leafs top six destroys Floridas and it isn’t even close to being debatable.

Lower in the lineup, Frank Vatrano is worse than Alex Kerfoot.   Owen Tippet is way, way, way worse than Mikheyev.  On their fourth line, the Panthers project to use Patrick Hornqvist, Noel Acciari, and Mason Marchment.  Their all rate out statistically as bad players, and the Leafs should have at least some advantage here given their personnel options and Jason Spezza.

I guess Joe Thornton might play half the games, but he isn’t making much of a difference.  I didn’t even think he should have played for the Leafs if they were fully healthy in the playoffs, so I don’t think he is a positive for the Panthers.

Florida can’t match any Toronto line.  The Leafs are better by talent and by depth.

The Panthers blue-line is really bad too. They have a nice top pairing, but after than I’m not sure a single one of their blue-liners could make the Leafs this year.  Maybe Nutivaara or Forsling could beat out Holl, but when you factor in how tough Holl’s minutes are, I doubt it.

The Panthers Top pairing of McKenzie Weeger and Aaron Ekblad is excellent, though it is fair to question if Weeger will continue being one of the best defenseman in the NHL going forward. For the last two seasons he has been among the best 5v5 defensive players in hockey.  I have no idea if he keeps it up, but let’s assume he does because he does.

Weeger is, statistically, the best defenseman on either team.  Ekblad rates out about as good as Rielly, Brodie and Muzzin.  They have a great top pairing.

I am not sure how the Panthers are going to deploy their defenseman, but looking at their depth chart on Dailyfaceoff is concerning.   Brandon Montour is one of the NHL’s worst players.  Markus Nutivaara is not much better. Neither player would beat out Sandin for the Leafs last blueline job.  This doesn’t come close to comparing to Muzzin/Holl.

Their bottom pairing is scheduled to be Gustav Forsling and Radko Gudas. Forsling has decent stats, while Gudas is extremely average.  The Leafs will be using Dermott (statistically, one of, if not the best bottom pairing defender in the NHL) and Sandin, who should be a top-pairing guy before long.

There is no question, the Toronto Maple Leafs defense is significantly better than Florida’s.

Next. Leafs 2020-21 Predictions. dark

As for depth, the Toronto Maple Leafs have approximately seven lines worth of NHL players, and most of the Panthers bottom six would be hard pressed to crack the Leafs lineup.   In my experience, people always overrate surprise teams from the year before, and even with the solid addition of Sam Reinhart, I think the Panthers are going to have trouble making the playoffs , and that people picking them to win the division are nuts.