What the Maple Leafs can learn from the Florida Panthers

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
29 days ago
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We’re into the final four of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Toronto Maple Leafs are nowhere to be seen, although I guess you could argue they’re being heard.
Toronto is undergoing a summer of change and reflection, with Craig Berube installed as the next head coach. If this team truly wants to learn about how to get over their proverbial hurdles, they’d be wise to look to the Florida Panthers, a divisional rival that has completely usurped them as an Atlantic power, with a stellar analytical profile, elite goaltending and excellent two-way play. Florida is a possession machine that is rolling through opponents through the first two rounds, and there are concepts Toronto’s core needs to learn from.
The obvious counterpoint is that the Panthers are just a much better team than the Maple Leafs. Sergei Bobrovsky’s late-career renaissance is in full bloom, Aleksander Barkov’s two-way impact may be a singular force and hey, wait, where are you going?!
Here are some things the Maple Leafs can learn from the Panthers, both on and off the ice.
All stats from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick unless indicated otherwise, current prior to May 22. 
Constantly turning stellar defense into instant offense
Florida is the best defensive team in the league and one of its key strengths is its ability to turn defense into instant offense. This is Barkov’s defining quality and it reverberates throughout the lineup. Barkov may be a one-off: he won the Selke and he’s sporting a ridiculous 5.65 takeaways per 60 at 5-on-5 throughout the playoffs via Natural Stat Trick. It extends beyond Barkov and Sam Reinhart, as Florida’s defensemen also innately know when to join the rush.
Barkov is simply in a different tier. Sam Reinhart finished fourth in Selke voting as well and their two-man game is scorching opponents. They dominated against the Bruins, Barkov is one of the leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidates and this is the type of play that Craig Berube ought to be pointing out in summer meetings.
Gustav Forsling’s series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins is a good example. Forsling isn’t known for his offense — he absolutely should be at this point, while arguably function as the NHL’s best defensive defenseman — but he anticipates where the play is going and catches the Bruins off guard. Anton Lundell leads the rush and Forsling follows the puck. It’s a weak rebound for Jeremy Swayman to surrender but none of the Bruins anticipated Forsling crashing in, and he ended their season. Fortune favours the bold.
We’ve attempted to select examples from the playoffs because this is ostensibly summer school for the Maple Leafs but we’d be remiss if we didn’t show Forsling’s all-world defense-to-offense spectacle against the Washington Capitals on February 24.
It’s not just Barkov and Reinhart, who are carrying Vladimir Tarasenko on the top line, or the constant agitation from Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett or Carter Verhaeghe, or Gustav Forsling and his two-way brilliance. It’s a concerted effort through the fourth line and if you make a mistake against the Panthers, they will punish you. Toronto led the NHL in five-on-five goals: will it amend its style to capitalize on opponent mistakes?
Auston Matthews, a Selke finalist in his own right, and William Nylander have proven to be adept at generating turnovers into instant goals but it’s a fleeting quality across the roster. Toronto’s offense infamously dries up in the postseason, chances are harder to come by and a greater emphasis on turning defensive wins into instant offense is a key priority even if it is admittedly easier said than done.
An emphasis on north-south hockey
Get your compass out. At their scintillating best, the Maple Leafs play an enthralling brand of hockey, a highly skilled ballet on ice. Mitch Marner can slice teams apart with precision passing, while dangling around defenders like a slalom course. Nylander’s power and precision through the neutral zone will often cause fans to rise from their seats. Matthews is the best goal-scorer on the planet.
And yet, Toronto’s east-west entries into the offensive third are no longer working. Opponents can quite easily anticipate what the Maple Leafs are doing — particularly on the power play, as the man advantage faltered badly during the 2024 postseason, arguably the main reason why they lost in seven to the Boston Bruins. Nylander and Matthews were the only players who could constantly enter the offensive third and the rote insistence on dropping the puck back to the point allowed defenders to converge. It’s essentially the basketball equivalent of drop coverage: if there are four forwards either at the faceoff circle or net front, you can attack the player with the puck at the point, and let all your defenders drop back to protect the net or clear the slot.
There will be some tactical departures from Sheldon Keefe’s brand of hockey, which new head coach Craig Berube made clear during his introductory press conference.
“We want to play a north game,” Berube said Tuesday. “We want to play fast. We want to be a heavy team. When I talk about heaviness, it is not running guys through the boards and fighting. Listen, the game has changed. But you still have to be strong on pucks and win puck battles. Those are priorities for me.
“Playing predictable and north. Paying as fast as we can. Structure is huge. We have to have structure in all three zones. That is going to be a priority.”
We’re curious to see what Berube’s three-zone structure looks like but one would imagine it involves less predictable offensive entries and an emphasis on tracking back all the way to the slot, as Toronto built a bad habit of allowing attackers to scoop rebounds from the net front.
Don’t be afraid to make a seismic trade
Maple Leafs fans are frothing for a major transaction this summer. Mitch Marner and John Tavares are the two most likely candidates to get traded, although likely is a misnomer, as both candidates carry no-movement clauses and have shown no intention to leave their hometown. You may as well fold the franchise if you’re entertaining a Matthews trade, Nylander just signed an eight-year extension. Marner has been subject to constant vitriol from the fans following a substandard performance against the Bruins, where he blew a defensive assignment against David Pastrnak on the series-clinching goal and now management has to consider what the return on value is for a former Selke finalist with perennial 90-point ability.
Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t happy in Calgary two summers ago and the Panthers capitalized by making a seismic trade, sending Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar in exchange for the turbulent winger. Huberdeau was coming off a 85-assist, 115-point campaign while Weegar was emerging as an underrated star. It looked like an even deal at the time, with some believing the Flames recouped some value in a 2-for-1 trade.
Huberdeau’s production has fallen off a cliff, Weegar has remained a star but the Panthers replaced his impact when Forsling morphed into a superstar, while giving Brandon Montour plenty of room to play an offensive-minded game when paired with Niko Mikkola. Tkachuk, on the other hand, emerged as the NHL’s most clutch player last playoffs, while being named as a Hart Trophy finalist. He followed up with 88 points in 80 games this season, while his outright skill and aggression has been replicated across the board by his teammates. Tkachuk helped change the Panthers’ identity entirely. If there’s an unhappy star in a small market to be found — as July 1 inches closer, the seeds of discontent will be sown — Toronto ought to pounce.
Be more patient with prospects and leverage the scouting department to find market inefficiencies
One of the unfortunate hallmarks of Kyle Dubas’ legacy with the Maple Leafs is that the team failed to develop young talent across the board. This dynamic may be changing as 2023 first-round pick Easton Cowan captured OHL MVP honours, while Fraser Minten cracked the opening night roster and Matthew Knies is a bonafide star in the making. No team in the NHL boasts the same resources as the Maple Leafs and patience may prove to be a virtue, as it has been for the Panthers.
Any team in the NHL could’ve taken Forsling and finding a gem in the rough is a credit to the Panthers’ scouts. Forsling was placed on waivers by the Hurricanes in January 2021, the Panthers seized upon him, and he signed an eight-year extension worth $46 million just before the 2024 playoffs. The next Gustav Forsling can’t slip through the cracks and the Maple Leafs have already left one bonafide star develop at their own peril.
Carter Verhaeghe tortured the Maple Leafs during the 2023 playoffs with his pace and ability to slip past defenders. Verhaeghe was selected 82nd overall by the Maple Leafs in 2013, but he was traded in 2015 to the New York Islanders in exchange for Michael Grabner. Toronto was rebuilding at the time but it goes to show that you can’t merely just give away assets aimlessly. Grabner played one season for the Maple Leafs, registering nine goals and 18 points in 80 games. Verhaeghe has morphed into a back-to-back 70-point man, constantly winning top-six matchups. A born-and-raised Maple Leafs fan, Verhaeghe’s emergence for the Panthers only adds insult to injury.
As a cautionary note to the Maple Leafs’ youngsters: the Panthers exercised patience with Anton Lundell and he’s ascending during the 2024 playoffs. Lundell was selected 12th overall in 2020 and while some of his draft mates were rushed to the NHL, Florida exercised caution. This is Lundell’s third season and he’s excelled in a two way role and his teammates are calling him “Baby Barkov” — one Barkov is frightening enough!
It has been decreed as a summer of change for the Maple Leafs. It’s time for the team to learn some lessons from a vaunted divisional rival.

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