During the 2022-23 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will play their Atlantic Division foes 26 times, including three games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The last time the two teams met, the Lightning got two goals from Nick Paul to eliminate the Leafs in Game 7 of the First Round. The two teams will meet for the first time this season on Dec. 3.
The loss was particularly tough for the Leafs and their loyal fan base, who had high expectations going into the playoffs, only to have their hopes dashed in a Game 7 loss at home. “This one hurts more,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Lots of reasons to be proud, yet lots of reasons to be devastated and upset. We’re a lot closer than it appears.”
To that end, the Maple Leafs made some changes in the offseason while maintaining some outstanding offensive talent to help them make that leap and try to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1967.
Maple Leafs Make Changes in Net
Jack Campbell is gone, signing a free-agent contract with the Edmonton Oilers for five years at $25 million. In deciding not to re-sign their veteran netminder, the Maple Leafs acquired Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. The two-time Stanley Cup champion had a 5-12-2 record in 20 starts last season with a .906 save percentage (SV%) but eventually lost the starting job to Anton Forsberg. Despite his struggles, those in the organization feel that Murray has the skills to be successful in net, as Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas worked with him in the Ontario Hockey League almost a decade ago with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
In what could end up being a starting tandem in goal, Toronto signed Ilya Samsonov to a one-year deal worth $1.8 million. The 25-year-old is coming off a 2021-22 season that saw him log 44 appearances with the Washington Capitals, splitting starting duties with Vitek Vanecek, and posting a 3.02 goals-against average (GAA) and .896 SV% along with three shutouts. Samsonov also posted a .912 SV% and a 2.97 GAA in the playoffs. Originally a first-round draft pick of the Capitals, he will not only compete with Murray for playing time but also be ready to start, as Murray has had a difficult time staying healthy in recent years.
Maple Leafs Have Plenty of Firepower on Offense
The Maple Leafs are very strong with scoring from their forwards but are a little top-heavy in their distribution. Auston Matthews, Michael Bunting, and Mitch Marner combined for 81 five-on-five goals or almost 40 percent of their even-strength offense. William Nylander and John Tavares were solid contributors last season and are expected to do the same in 2022-23. While Matthews, Bunting, and Marner should remain together as the top line, one of the biggest questions they have is what to do on the second line with Nylander and Tavares, if they stay together at all. At the end of the season, Nylander jumped back and forth between the second and third lines as they looked for more production from those units.
The issue with the forwards, to the angst of pundits and Maple Leafs’ loyalists alike, is that they lost two impactful top-nine forwards, Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase, and didn’t replace them with even one player that is considered a top-nine skater. It is possible that the team thinks that Nicolas Aube-Kubel, an aggressive forechecker, can step in and play bigger minutes than the 10 per game he averaged last season. They also hope Pierre Engvall can take a step forward and build off his career-best 15 goals and 35 points from last season. The free agent signing of Calle Jarnkrok is intriguing, as there are those that feel he will make Alex Kerfoot expendable.
What is also likely is that the Toronto lineup that starts the season may not be the one that the Lightning face in December, and definitely not likely to be the one that ends the season. The Leafs are expected to be one of the more active teams with transactions throughout the season as they try to build a Stanley Cup contender.
Maple Leafs Have Depth on Defense
The Maple Leafs currently have nine defensemen on their roster with significant NHL experience, as they recently added Jordie Benn and Victor Mete to get them up to that number. The depth may have something to do with the contract status of Rasmus Sandin, as the 22-year-old is the club’s lone unsigned restricted free agent. One of the bigger moves was to re-sign Timothy Liljegren, who helped them outscore opponents 62-52 in all situations when he was on the ice. That signing puts him in the top six on defense, pushing Sandin down to the seventh spot.
Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Mark Giordano will likely anchor the left side of the defense. The Maple Leafs hope that Liljegren is ready to take the next step and be paired in the first group with Reilly, as that pair struggled at times last season. It is also possible that T.J. Brodie ends up with Reilly. As a result, they have a lot of decisions to make with their defensive pairings, with the Sandin contract negotiations being the wild card in all of this. Their depth is a positive in one way, but that will rely on the coaching staff being able to pair up their blueliners effectively throughout the season.
How Do the Lightning Match Up With the Maple Leafs?
Neither team did much in the offseason to upgrade their teams. Both made some roster tweaks, believing that the current rosters can take them deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning still hold the edge in goaltending, while the Maple Leafs have a slight edge on offense, and the teams are even on defense. They will also hope that either Anthony Cirelli and/or Zach Bogosian will return from their injuries when the teams meet for the first time in December. Much like their first-round playoff matchup, expect closely contested games in all of their contests.
Some believe that the Maple Leafs should be the favorite to win the Atlantic Division in 2022-23. Even though they did not do much in the offseason to significantly improve their team, they still have a solid core left over from a successful 2021-22 regular season that saw them earn 115 points. The new goaltending tandem should be an improvement over the 29th-ranked Jack Campbell/Petr Mrazek duo from last season. If they do not match last year’s 115-point output, this year’s version will make the playoffs and may even face the Lightning again in the opening round.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)