The Toronto Maple Leafs have now crossed the Rangers Line. The most famous Stanley Cup drought in history belonged to New York, which for years had to hear “1940” chants until Mark Messier, Mike Richter, and company finally broke the hex in 1994.
Fifty-four years between Cups. And 2021 minus 1967… yup, it’s 54, and Toronto will go into 2022 still seeking Stanley.
Why are expectations high for the Maple Leafs? They always are, for one thing, but also because Toronto is coming off its first division title since 2000. There’s just that minor issue of never getting out of the first round of the playoffs.
Why will the Maple Leafs let you down? In the past 14 months, the Tampa Bay Lightning have played eight playoff rounds plus a 56-game regular season. As much as the Bolts proved last year that there’s no such thing as a “Cup hangover,” wear and tear are very real things. With some salary cap-influenced roster attrition to go along with the amount of hockey they’ve played, it figures that the two-time defending champions aren’t favored to three-peat.
After a decade of dominance in net for Boston, including winning the 2014 Vezina Trophy and the 2020 Jennings Trophy, Tuukka Rask is recovering from hip surgery and still unsigned, although he does hope to return to the Bruins once healthy.
The Canadiens won 24 games and lost 32 last season. The fact that they made a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final is not any kind of indication that they’ll be any good this year, and Marc Bergevin didn’t exactly spend the summer making the Habs any better.
It’s all there for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A season after winning their first division title in 21 years, the next task for the most frustrating team in North American sports is winning a playoff round for the first time since 2004. It’s not going to happen. The Leafs, once again, are going to let you down.
As good as Jack Campbell was last season, there’s a reason that he’s coming up on his 30th birthday and has a career-high of 31 games played in an NHL season. Likewise, Petr Mrazek posting a .923 save percentage in 12 games for the Hurricanes last season isn’t a convincing argument that he’s fundamentally different from the guy who played 40 games each of the previous two years, with .914 and .905 marks, and sits at .912 for his career.
With as top-heavy a roster as there is in the league with Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares accounting for more than 40% of their cap space, the Leafs, as one might expect, are lacking for depth. There are way too many minutes to play for the Pierre Buntings, Ondrej Kases, and Ilya Mikheyevs on this roster, and as much as one may love Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza, they are no longer the players that you think of when you hear “Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza.”
On defense, Jake Muzzin is 32 and his days as a possession god are nothing more than a memory now. We’re well past the point of expecting Justin Holl to get any better than he is. T.J. Brodie’s best days were in Calgary and the best thing he had going for him last season, his first with the Leafs, was his plus-minus.
That’s not to say the Leafs stink, because they don’t — and they’ll beat up on the Red Wings, Sabres, and Senators enough to cruise to the playoffs. They’re just in a nearly impossible position of trying to build out the rest of their roster around three elite forwards under the constraints of a salary cap that got flattened by the pandemic. What they have is enough to get to the playoffs again… and then get the door slammed on them by a returning Rask, or by Linus Ullmark, or by Jeremy Swayman, or by whoever the Bruins decide to strap a set of pads on.
It’s been three years since the Leafs lost a first-round series to Boston. At least when it happens again, it’ll be a sign of the universe returning to normal.
One team in the Atlantic that will surprise people? The Florida Panthers. Did you know that the Panthers had more points last season than the Maple Leafs, a team that supposedly dominated the all-Canadian division? It’s true, and Florida did that while putting Sergei Bobrovsky and his .906 save percentage in net for 31 games.
This is Joel Quenneville’s third full season as Panthers coach. His previous stops’ third full seasons? A division title with 114 points in St. Louis, 95 points in Colorado, and 97 points in Chicago.
The Panthers have only four players over 30 years old: Bobrovsky, Radko Gudas, and bottom-six forwards Patric Hörnqvist and Joe Thornton. All of Florida’s forward lines have some pop — they’re not just wasting time and grinding out there — and Aaron Ekblad is back from his gruesome leg injury to anchor the blue line. Between Bobrovsky and young Spencer Knight, the goaltending should be good enough to get the Panthers back to the playoffs.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but in a division with Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, and a Canadiens team that went to the Final last season, it’s pretty easy to sleep on the Panthers. Don’t.