The 2021-22 NHL season is bound to look a lot different than its predecessor. Fans will likely be back in most buildings around the league in some capacity. There are a number of big names in new jerseys and the Seattle Kraken will officially play their first game as an NHL franchise. But one difference that could affect the Toronto Maple Leafs is re-joining the league’s Atlantic Division.
A year after dominating the newly-created North Division – behind a narrative of it being weaker than other divisions in the pandemic version of the NHL – the Maple Leafs are expected to be back in the Atlantic Division with former familiar foes. The Boston Bruins. The Tampa Bay Lightning. The Florida Panthers and the others that should make some noise in the Atlantic Division this season.
Now, while this is different for the Maple Leafs after the 2020-21 season, it could also prove to be problematic for the team who suffered yet another first-round exit against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020-21 NHL playoffs.
More specifically, it could put the Maple Leafs on the fringe of making the playoffs this season.
Thunder Rolls, And Lightning Strikes Twice
In today’s game, going back-to-back to win the Stanley Cup is next to impossible. Still, the Lightning were able to accomplish just that and prove to the hockey world that they are a force to be reckoned with on a yearly basis.
Even losing a significant part of their depth in Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde – as well as David Savard – the Lightning should be considered a strong contender in the Atlantic again going into the 2021-22 season.
They’re still led up front by the skill of Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and leadership of Steven Stamkos. On the back end they’re loaded with Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman. And they even added seasoned veteran Corey Perry to the mix this year.
Losing some of their depth players has actually opened up spots within the lineup for some of their deep prospect pool to take a shot at making the big club this year – including Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk and Cal Foote.
They might not be the Lightning from the past two seasons, but they are a team that should finish the year among the top three in the division once again in 2021-22. That and they have back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cup winner Pat Maroon.
Things Are Looking Sunny for the Panthers
The Panthers will be another team this season that will test the depths of the Atlantic Division. While the Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes, the Panthers will be looking to see who takes the reins between Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight.
Knight showed glimpses of what he possesses at the tail end of last season and into the playoffs and – as the likely candidate to take over in Florida – Knight could be the difference maker for this season’s version of the Panthers after a playoff exit at the hands of the Lightning in 2020-21.
Add to that a full season with Sam Bennett and the addition of Sam Reinhart and veteran Joe Thornton and this could be a slightly different team than what we’re used to.
A Cup contender? That might be a stretch. But a top three team in the Atlantic Division is a likelihood for the Panthers in 2021-22.
Don’t Count Out the Bruins
They’re perennial contenders and will be until their core ages to a point of slowing down. But until then the big, bad Bruins are still a team that likely will make noise in the Atlantic Division. They re-signed Taylor Hall. They landed Linus Ullmark. Add Tomas Nosek and Nick Foligno and they’ve sured up their depth.
The question will be on defence, how well they can come together and play in front of Tuukka Rask – who has committed to only wanting to play for the Bruins until his career is over. Still, the Bruins have always been a test for the Maple Leafs and will continue to be a force in the Atlantic.
Add to that the possibility of young players like Fabian Lysell and Urho Vaakanainen having an impact at some point during the season and there’s a real possibility that the Bruins will round out the top three in the Atlantic alongside the Panthers and Lightning.
So that leaves a wildcard spot and we all know that might not include another Atlantic Division team. So how will that play out for the Maple Leafs?
Wild Card Race Will Be Wild
Assuming the rest of the Atlantic won’t surprise this season, you can likely count out the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators from the wild card contention. The Canadiens had a great run in 2020-21, but have lost Shea Weber for the year and have Carey Price coming back from another injury. So, how that plays out will dictate how the Maple Leafs spend the month of April.
As for the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders all have strong cases to make the playoffs and that doesn’t include the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Those two teams could very likely fill in the two wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference.
So, for the Maple Leafs, it’ll come down to two potential routes into the playoffs. They will either have to lock up a top three spot in the Atlantic Division – beating one of the afore mentioned teams in the regular season standings, or somehow locking down a wildcard spot ahead of the two teams that could potentially steal those spots out of the Metro.
Either way, the Maple Leafs are in for a tough ride.
Simply put, they didn’t get worse in the offseason. But they didn’t get any better. Out are Nick Foligno, Joe Thornton, Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen. In are Petr Mrazek, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie.
Even if you can argue that Mrazek and Andersen are a wash and Hyman and Bunting are a wash, Kase and Ritchie for Foligno and Thornton might be the difference maker in how well the Maple Leafs can do this season.
Regardless, Leafs Nation is in for a fun ride once again this season and could finish the year even more disappointed than previous years. Or, depending on what the team has taken away from their countless first round exits, this could be a better Maple Leafs club looking to finish among the top three in their division in 2021-22. Either way, they’re going to be in tough with the Lightning, Panthers and Bruins set to make noise once again.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.