Every year, a team wins the Stanley Cup, and every other team decides to get in line to mold their team just like that team, because if it worked for the Cup winners, it’ll work for them, right? Meanwhile, there are always a few teams creating their own style, and those are usually the ones poised for success in the next few years.
However, I think there is a fine line between learning a few things to adapt your own strategies and vision, and outright copying the reigning Cup champs. This is especially the case for the Leafs with the Tampa Bay Lightning, as the Lightning have often been a comparable team due to the skill both teams possess, so it might not be a bad idea to pull a few pages from their notebook.
So, here are few things that I think the Leafs could learn from the Lightning this season, that I think can be applied to the Leafs without drastically shifting from their own vision.
Don’t overreact to a disappointing playoff loss to Columbus
In 2018-19, the Tampa Bay Lightning shocked the hockey world by tying the NHL record for most points in the regular season, and followed it up by getting swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. There was tons of concern if the team had what it takes to win, if they could really get over the hump. The core of the team was called into question, and even Jon Cooper’s job didn’t seem 100% safe despite being arguably the best coach in the league.
And yet, the Lightning did nothing. Ok, they didn’t do *nothing*, but they didn’t overreact. They played it smart, made additions to the team when they could, like adding Shattenkirk and Maroon in free agency, and Coleman and Goodrow through trade. The biggest “overreact” you could argue they made was trading JT Miller, but that was more out of necessity to make cap room for Point.
The Leafs didn’t have as good of a season this year as that Lightning team, but it was an equally disappointing season ended at the hands of the Blue Jackets. And now, we have a lot of hot takes flying around. Trade Freddie. Trade Nylander. Trade Rielly. Trade Marner. Dismantle the entire bottom six to load up on defense. But, like the Lightning last year, the Leafs should probably try not to get too crazy this offseason.
I don’t think people realize that this Leafs team is better than what it seemed like on the surface. Their first quarter was tanked by Babcock, their second quarter saw a really, really good team under Keefe, and the second half of the season saw it tanked by Frederik Andersen turning into the worst starting goalie in the league. And then in the playoffs, they were the better team against a Blue Jackets team that was supposed to stifle them, but they had bad luck only shooting 1.97% at even strength. This team has the potential to go on a deeper run than they have, so I think overreacting to this season would be a mistake.
Don’t blow up the core
If you take a look at the big names for the Tampa Bay Lightning, you’ll see a common theme. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat led the way for forwards, Victor Hedman led the way for their defense, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was the guy in net, with Steven Stamkos being an important factor despite injuries keeping him out for almost the entire run. Out of those players, only Brayden Point wasn’t on the Lightning in 2014-15 when they went to the Cup Finals (since it was the year after he was drafted), although Vasilevskiy only played a few games as the backup.
During all of this time, despite so many seasons falling short, including a couple of really disappointing ones, the Lightning kept their main core together. They almost lost some pieces along the way, but they’ve done a good job of identifying who needs to stay and keeping them around to help them win a Cup.
But, you know what? The Leafs should blow up their core. It’s been four years and they haven’t done anything. Forget that they got screwed over two years in a row by a playoff format that had them facing the second best team in the conference, despite being the third or fourth best team themselves. Forget that they only shot 1.97% in a five game playoff series during a pandemic. This team isn’t good enough.
See how dumb that sounds? The Leafs have clearly identified their core (Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Rielly, and now Muzzin as well), and seem to have no intent to get rid of them just yet. And they shouldn’t. They’re all elite talents, and will probably play a huge part in this team eventually getting over the hump. Overreacting and dealing any of them at this point will probably set the team back more than help them (unless it’s something dumb like Marner for McDavid, then obviously you make that deal).
Be smart when you add toughness
One common theme in a few of Tampa’s moves this year was a commitment to be tougher to play against this year. It’s something a lot of teams do after a disappointing playoff loss (see: the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs), but more often than not, they don’t do it right. Teams will get anything that can fight and hit, and often times bring that asset in expensively, whether it be a bad contract or overpaying in a trade. And more often than not, they end up being players who don’t provide a positive impact on the ice.
However, Tampa Bay didn’t do that. In free agency, they brought in Patrick Maroon on a cheap one year deal. At the deadline, they got Blake Coleman for a first and a prospect, although Coleman is worth that kind of a price, while they also moved down from a first to a third to get Barclay Goodrow (probably the biggest reach value wise). Not only were these players physical and tough, but they were also good at hockey.
None of them are perfect, but none of them negatively impact their team, making the physical aspect of their game easily worth it.
The Lightning also saw some of their own players develop more of an edge this season, as long time players like Killorn, Gourde, and Palat all were strong forecheckers and physically tough to play against. Even their stars in Kucherov and Point had a bit of edge to them, making it consistent throughout the lineup.
That’s the big thing the Leafs need to focus on this offseason. Don’t throw money at Simmonds and Gudas who aren’t positive impact players anymore just so that you can be more physical. Be smart, find those players that can be physical but are also good hockey players, and get them on deals that are cheap. And be patient with the players currently on the team as well, this edge that the Lightning developed will eventually happen to the Leafs as well.
Is defense as big of a concern as it should be?
So, just to get this out of the way, yes the Leafs should look to improve their defense when they can. While I’d argue they have three strong pieces in Rielly, Muzzin, and Dermott, the Lightning had four in Hedman, McDonagh, Shattenkirk, and Sergachev. Whether it be through free agency, trade, or internally, adding another defenseman of that calibre to the team will really help them.
But, just like with the physicality, be smart about it. Don’t overpay for it, and don’t destroy your offense just to make room for it. Pietrangelo would be nice, but it would be really hard not to destroy said offense. There are some options like Brodie that could probably work, but again, depends on the money.
However, after that fourth piece, the Leafs probably shouldn’t worry about the blueline as much as people think they should. After the aforementioned big four for Tampa Bay, this is the defense they put out there: Zach Bogosian, Erik Cernak, Brayden Coburn, Jan Rutta, and Luke Schenn. Some of these are depth pieces that have good underlying results, some of them have bad results, but still would get paired up with Hedman and McDonagh and be fine.
My main point here is don’t hurt the team trying to improve the defense, because the playoffs are more often than not a coin flip, and the Leafs could win with Mikko Lehtonen playing top pair minutes with Rielly. Honestly, who knows at this point.