After a tightly contested series that saw multiple goals last year, with many high-scoring affairs, this matchup between Toronto and Florida should be a great series this season.
The Florida Panthers split their season series with Toronto last season, with each team winning their home games, but failing to win away. Each game seemed to have a big moment, with Aleksander Barkov‘s hat trick in the Cats’ 3-2 OT win only canceled out by John Tavares‘ four goals in the Leafs’ 7-5 win in March.
These two teams have very similar expectations, with each aiming for the third seed in the Atlantic Division realistically, but both fan bases have expectations that the team can go even higher. This will be a huge series next year for both teams, as one loss could result in being the third-best team in the Atlantic from the first best wild card team.
With that said, Toronto’s roster still has a lot of uncertainty with less than a month to go before the start of the pre-season. Last season’s top point scorer for the Leafs, Mitch Marner, has remained unsigned by the club. Marner is asking for around $10.5 million, which the Leafs are strapped to give.
With that said, Toronto still has plenty of stars in their team, even without Marner. Their first and second center combination remains the most dominant in the NHL, with Auston Matthews and John Tavares, who is coming off a career-high season with 88 points, will look to continue their play in 2019. If Matthews can stay healthy, which he has failed to do since his rookie campaign, he’ll certainly crack his career-highs in this season.
Toronto’s general manager Kyle Dubas did very well to hold on to as many players as he could with minimal cap space. Wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen set the bar high last season, with career-high tallies of 46 and 45 respectively, were both brought back on very cheap contracts. William Nylander looks to recover after a porous 2018-19, where his holdout worked to get him his paycheck.
With that said, there are a lot of new faces in the Toronto locker room this season, with the Leafs doing their best to bolster their team with their limited cap space. Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Garret Sparks, and Tyler Ennis have all departed the club.
Coming in, a very mixed bag of players from across the league. Their biggest move was to bring in Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie. Barrie, also coming off career-highs of 59 points from the blue line, may start on the top pairing with Rielly, and should be a huge impact for the Leafs defensively.
Alongside Barrie is forward Alexander Kerfoot. He’s been a consistent depth scorer, with 85 points in his first two seasons. Kerfoot, Johnsson, Zach Hyman, Kapanen, all have the potentials to be very good pieces for Toronto.
From rivals Ottawa comes defenseman Cody Ceci, mainly in exchange for Zaitsev. Ceci brings a little more physicality to the team but isn’t going to solve too many problems. His contract, which has the same value as Zaitsev’s, expires after this season, which gives Toronto a lot more flexibility.
Despite the efforts to improve, Toronto’s biggest weakness from last season is their biggest weakness this season, their defense. Barrie was a huge step forward for the Leafs, but with the rest of the defenseman being Ceci, and a mixture of Ben Harpur, Martin Marincin, Jordan Schmaltz, and Justin Holl, with Travis Dermott starting the season on IR.
For Florida’s point of view, forwards like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau should be licking their chops to go up against players like Harpur or Marincin, who have very limited NHL experience.
Similarly to the matchup with Tampa Bay, Sergei Bobrovsky should be a huge addition to this series. He’ll be able to make a few saves that Roberto Luongo and James Reimer couldn’t make to keep Florida in these types of games.
The battle between the benches should also be an interesting one between Joel Quenneville and Mike Babcock. The two had some great games against each other when the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings were still division rivals, with Babcock’s philosophies of puck possession always resisted by Chicago’s intense defensive work.
These teams will have plenty of time to adjust, with their first meeting not coming until Sunday, January 12th in Sunrise. The two will meet twice in February before meeting in game 75 of the Panthers’ season, which should be a huge game for these two playoff contenders.