TORONTO – A year ago, it really felt like a coin flip. And seven games went on to prove the prognosis was correct. It was a close series by any definition.
But the sequel to Lightning – Maple Leafs has a different feel.
Toronto, having finished 13 points ahead of Tampa Bay in the 2022-23 standings, is legally favored this time around, for whatever it takes in the crazy world known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Does the NHL community buy it?
I reached out to rival front office executives and head coaches across the NHL this weekend and asked them to crash the Tampa Bay-Toronto series and pick a winner.
That’s what they say.
(Note: Some responses have been slightly edited for clarity.)
Head Coach No. 1
I think Toronto wins the series. They learned to play more than just a winning brand of hockey, more complete. They looked different last year when they lost to Tampa in the playoffs, and I thought they turned around. Plus, the loss of (Tanner) Gano really hurt Tampa. I think he went seven times and Toronto won. Playing with them this year has been a lot tougher than previous years, and I don’t think Sheldon (Keeffe) gets enough credit.
Coach number 2
It’s going to be a great series. Tampa has a lot of experience, talent, fierce competitors, and great goalkeeping. Toronto has learned some hard lessons with a young nucleus. But after last year’s playoffs, it seemed they’d made a move on hockey and what it takes to win. They have elite talent competing, and they’ve added some quality players to complement the key players.
It’s going to be a great series. can go down to the target.
(He chose Toronto).
Coach number 3
Leaves at 6. Tampa looks tired. They’re a slower team this year, and McDonough’s loss was bigger than they thought, because their rear end isn’t nearly as good. The papers are much deeper and have more skill and depth. I would say Leafs at 5, but 88 steals is 1 more.
Coach number 4
(I choose) Toronto. Because I think the big move in qualifying is the scar of the fight and the urgency to win. I think the defining moment for Tampa is when they lost to Columbus and it was anticipating to win. After that, they returned with urgency.
Same for Colorado. When they lost to Vegas, they were shocked. This hastened them. That’s what they need.
I think this is the Special Component Championship team you need at the NHL level.
Coach number 5
I think Toronto wins seven games because they have more speed in the bottom six forwards and also overall as a team. But he wouldn’t be shocked if Tampa won, too.
Front Office Executive No. 1
I’m going with Toronto. This is the year they break through. I love their extras up front in (Ryan) O’Reilly, (Noel) Acciari, (Sam) Lafferty, and (Matthew) Knies. Their background is deeper than ever. And (Ilya) Samsonov had an underrated year with nothing to do with past playoff failures. Tampa has a lot of miles in this core, which can be good (match success/experience) and bad (when does fatigue start?). The Lightning went 9-13-1 down the stretch, and I’m a believer you can’t just turn the “go” switch once the playoffs start. I’ll say Toronto at six.
Front office executive number 2
Go with Toronto. I think it’s their time. They have depth up front and a stronger bottom six this year. You seem to be healthy throughout the lineup. Goalkeeper care still worries me though.
It seems to me that Tampa is a tired team that can be beaten early. They’ve played a lot of hockey (in) the last few years in an intense time frame. I just don’t know how they can afford another run of playoffs.
Front office executive number 3
I think this series has the potential to get as much drama as any first-round match with several great narratives at play for both teams. Have Tampa’s incredible mileage of the past few years finally caught up to them or can they call on their competitive spirit and winning knowledge for another run? Two very close teams. I think if Samsonov can get the goalie fight fairly close to a draw, Toronto gets it done.
Front office executive number 4
As you well know, this is a tough series to choose. For me, it all depends on the goalkeeper. It’s hard to be confident in Toronto’s goalkeepers when you’re up against the best goalkeeper in the game. I’d pick Tampa, but it’s so close. O’Reilly and Toronto’s improved depth gives them a legitimate shot. Tampa at seven.
Front office executive number 5
I’m going to Tampa. I think Fassi makes the difference.
He just won this time of year.
Front office exec number 6
Higher seeds due to the well-earned home ice feature.
(So pick Toronto.)
Front office exec number 7
Toronto… I like their speed and believe the starting four (34, 16, 88 and 44) will finally move up their playoff appearances due to a more balanced lineup going into the playoffs.
Front office exec number 8
I think Toronto is going to win this series.
This time, they got this. Over the past few years, I think they’ve learned all of those hard lessons. I think the best players will be good. Fetch a huge O’Reilly. His playoff intangibles will play a major role as Tampa starts to do its thing. The Acciari Pebbles will also be valuable as the series progresses.
Goalkeepers in Toronto don’t need to outpace (Andrei) Vasilevsky but will need to try to stay on par with him. Tampa may not be entirely healthy.
Front Office Executive No. 9
Toronto is the best team for me. Tampa still has the same stars at the top of their lineup, but the salary cap has removed a lot of their depth. They’re still a good team, but to me, they’re not the juggernaut they used to be.
Front office exec number 10
Even if I feel like it should be Toronto’s turn, I’ll take the best goaltender in a long line.
(Choose Tampa Bay.)
Front Office Executive No. 11
Give me Tampa. Why? Coach and goalkeeper.
Front Office Executive No. 12
Toronto is in sixth place. Although goalkeeping is the trump card that can swing the other way.
Front Office Executive No. 13
This will be another great series. Toronto nearly killed the Dragons last year but Tampa stopped them in Game 7. I expect this to be very competitive again.
Toronto is better suited to the playoffs than ever before. They’ve made some significant acquisitions to strengthen their depth and make the Bottom 6 more competitive. O’Reilly would also help them face off against the top lines in Tampa in a brave series.
Tampa is a little enamored going into the series and despite some great seasons by their best players, they don’t feel as invincible as they once did. Vasilevskiy has been very good and could steal any game or series, but then again it’s not like he or the team has the same swagger as in years past.
Toronto was given the nod in this series for getting past the first round for the first time in the Marner/Matthews era. Toronto at 6.
If you’re counting at home, it’s 14-4 for the Leafs: 5-0 in responses to head coaches and 9-4 in execs. So, not soon.
It should be noted that a year ago, I did this exact same drill before the Battle of Alberta second-round playoff series, and it was a unanimous sweep as seven CEOs and four coaches selected the Flames (who lost in five games).
Which is to say, despite the sentiment here for the Leafs winning their first playoff series in 19 years, it clearly shouldn’t shock anyone at all if the veteran and savvy Lightning get the job done.
I’m looking for O’Reilly to make a huge impact on this series for the Leafs. The 2019 Playoff MVP will be the difference maker. I also think Vasilevskiy will steal a game, maybe two. But in the end, I’m with the NHL community here. I think the depth of the Leafs lineup wins out and Toronto finally wins its first playoff series in the salary cap era.
(Top photo of Andrei Vasilevsky, Eric Cernak and Austin Matthews: Nick Torchiaro/USA Today)
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