Welcome back to my Toronto Maple Leafs Opponent Preview series. In this series, I will be previewing each team in the Atlantic Division and breaking down how they match up against the Maple Leafs. The purpose of this series is to refresh people on how teams in the Atlantic Division are built for the 2021-22 season, especially considering the Maple Leafs haven’t played most of these teams since 2019-20.
Last time around, I broke down how the Maple Leafs matched up against the Detroit Red Wings. You can find that piece here. This time around, I will be taking a look at how the Maple Leafs stack up against the Florida Panthers in 2021-22.
2020-21 Record: 37-14-5 (79 points, eliminated in First Round by Tampa Bay Lightning)
Notable Additions: Sam Reinhart, Joe Thornton
Notable Subtractions: Alexander Wennberg, Lucas Wallmark, Nikita Gusev, Anton Stralman, Keith Yandle, Chris Driedger
2021 Draft: Matthew Samoskevich, Evan Nause, Vladislav Lukashevich, Kirill Gerasimyuk, Jakub Kos, Braden Hache
2019-20 Season Series: 1-2-0 (outscored 16-12)
In a division where the top three spots have been dominated by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins for the past few years, the Panthers are wasting no time showing their Atlantic Division counterparts that they mean business.
After starting to make noise in 2019-20, they established themselves as one of the best teams in the one-off Central Division last year, finishing second only to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Panthers’ Offense Sees One Big Addition
The Panthers had a relatively quiet offseason on all fronts this year. However, one move stood out above the rest. On day two of the NHL Entry Draft, they acquired 2014 second overall pick Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a first-round pick in 2022 and goaltending prospect Devon Levi. While Reinhart can play any forward position, having him play centre behind Aleksander Barkov would give them a filthy one-two punch up the middle.
With the addition of Reinhart, the Panthers have lots of weapons to look to for offense. Aside from Reinhart and the dynamic duo of Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, they have Carter Verhaeghe, who had a huge breakout season in 2020-21 with 36 points in 43 games. They also have names like veteran Joe Thornton, who joined on a one-year contract, along with Patric Hornqvist and Sam Bennett. There’s a healthy mix of young talent and veterans capable of producing offense on this team, and it should be a strong suit for them.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
This is closer than some of the other previews I’ve done in recent years, but I’m still going to give the edge to the Maple Leafs’ offense on this one. The reality is, the core four players of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander give the Maple Leafs a better offense than most teams in the league this year. Having said that, I think it’s a safe bet that when these two teams play each other, there are guaranteed to be fireworks every game.
Panthers Defense Loses Pieces, But Remains Stable
As I mentioned before, the Panthers had a quiet offseason, so they didn’t add any new faces to the back end. But after Aaron Ekblad broke his leg and missed half of the season, he may as well be their big addition to the defensive corps this year. They also lost veterans Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle, so their defense will have a different look this year.
Having said that, I still think the Panthers have a rock-solid defensive core. Between Ekblad and Mackenzie Weegar, they’ve got defensemen who are capable of contributing offense. And with names like Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour, and Gustav Forsling rounding out the back end, their defense will be one of their strong suits heading into this season.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
Between the two teams, I like the Panthers’ defense more. While the Maple Leafs have done a good job addressing their defensive woes over the past two years, the Panthers have a really nice mix of players who are capable of both adding offense as well as shutting down the opposition. This could change depending on how much of a role Maple Leafs’ rookies Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren get this season, but for now, I’ll take the Panthers’ back end.
Panthers’ Goaltending Has Boom-or-Bust Potential
The Panthers’ goaltending situation is going to be a fun one to pay attention to this season. Since Chris Driedger was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the Panthers will be relying on a tandem of rookie Spencer Knight and veteran Sergei Bobrovsky to man the crease to start the season.
How the Panthers’ goaltending shapes up this season entirely depends on whether Knight’s NHL performance last season was just a flash in the pan, or if he’s ready to do that for a full season.
It’s painfully obvious that Bobrovsky has not lived up to his monster of a contract thus far, but if Knight carries his success from last season over, he’s going to make the Panthers that much more difficult to play against.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
This is a really tough one. For now, I’m going to give the edge to the Maple Leafs only because of the uncertainty in the Panthers’ crease. Granted, there’s still a little bit of uncertainty in the Maple Leafs’ crease as well, but at least we’ve been able to see what Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek are capable of as NHL goalies. If Knight proves last year wasn’t a fluke and he’s actually ready to play like a top NHL goalie, this answer could quickly change.
Head Coaching Matchup: Sheldon Keefe vs. Joel Quenneville
In this scenario, Florida has a better head coach and it really isn’t a debate. Nothing against Keefe, of course, but when you’re going up against a head coach with the pedigree that Joel Quenneville has, it’s hard to come out on top.
I think Keefe is on his way to great things, but he doesn’t have a full 82-game season as a head coach under his belt yet. Meanwhile, Quenneville has 22 of those along with three Stanley Cups. In this case, experience takes the cake.
Panthers Prospect Corner
Lundell impressed at just about every level last season, and if I’m Quenneville, it’s going to be very hard for me to leave him off of the roster to start the season. The 20-year-old first-round pick in 2020 had 25 points in 26 games for HIFK of the SM-Liiga last season and also had ten points in six games for Team Finland at the World Juniors.
With Barkov and Reinhart likely to make up the top two centres, Lundell has a perfect opportunity to slide into that third-line centre role and develop under sheltered minutes. If that goes well, he should be seeing top-six minutes sooner rather than later.
A fourth-round pick of the club in 2017, Heponiemi spent the majority of last season playing for MODO of Sweden’s Allsvenskan league on loan, where he had 14 points in 16 games. He also put up six points in six games for the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Syracuse Crunch and got his first taste of NHL action where he had two points in nine games.
Heponiemi was sent to the AHL recently, but I’d imagine he’ll be one of the first call-up options, and when he does, he’ll provide some offensive flair to the bottom six. If he doesn’t, I believe he’ll be a go-to call-up player for them all season.
Grigori Denisenko dipped his feet into the waters of North American hockey for the first time last season, tallying four assists in seven NHL games and nine points in 15 AHL games.
Selected 15th overall by the Panthers in 2018, the 20-year-old Russian could very well join fellow rookies Lundell and Heponiemi in providing Panthers fans with a taste of what’s to come over the next few years.
What They’re Saying
Looking into what I’ve seen so far, I think Florida’s gonna give Toronto a run for their money. Their forward core has upgraded to new heights with a healthy mix of old and young. In addition to their new prospect goalie stepping up in Spencer Knight, the defense gets a huge break with the return of Aaron Ekblad. Toronto is gonna have their hands full all year.Joey Ganzi, The Hockey Writers
Mar. 27, 2022 vs Florida
Apr. 5, 2022 @ Florida
Apr. 23, 2022 @ Florida
2021-22 Season Prediction: Third in Atlantic
With the Atlantic Division returning after being out of commission since the original postponing of the 2019-20 season, I believe this is the year that the Panthers will establish themselves as one of the division’s top teams.
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Despite losing more than they gained this offseason, the addition of Reinhart along with a potential strong rookie season between the pipes from Knights will make them one of the tougher teams to match up against this season.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.