It’s trade deadline season, which means it’s also playoff-push season: the importance of every game is ratcheted up and the significance of every point lost is magnified.
Thanks to a three-game winning streak out of the all-star break, the Leafs have gotten themselves back into a playoff spot and head into Monday’s game third in the Atlantic, six points behind Tampa Bay for second. It’ll be hard to make up that ground on a Lightning team that has been lights out for two months, holding the NHL’s best record since Dec. 1 (20-6-2).
But as the Leafs and their fans hold out hope they can scratch their way to home-ice advantage in the first round, they can’t look past Monday’s game. Rather, they’d be wise to keep in mind a message made infamous by the original Jurassic Park movie:
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
Florida trails Toronto by two standings points, but has two games in hand, so a regulation decision either way would have a huge impact on this race. And remember, it was just a little over three weeks ago that the Panthers hammered Toronto 8-4, chasing Freddy Andersen.
The Panthers have long been an NHL laughing stock — and as someone who had a rooting interest in the team in my youth, I know this full well. So it’s easy to blow off this year’s team with all the others and, fairly, they have to prove something before talking a big game.
But there are elements of the 2019-20 Panthers that these Leafs and their fans should be concerned about — at least until a playoff spot is officially locked in.
They have an offence to match Toronto’s
We all know Toronto can score. That’s the main strength of this team that was unlocked after Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock and leaned into a more offensive style. The Panthers may not have an individual challenging for the Rocket Richard as Toronto does with Auston Matthews, but they have been scoring at a pace this season to rival the Leafs.
Season-long, both the Panthers and Leafs average 3.60 goals per game, which ranks second in the NHL. If we only measure this from the time Keefe stepped behind Toronto’s bench until today, the Leafs have a league-leading 3.97 goals per game, while the Panthers are third at 3.59.
Both teams have four 40-point players and the Panthers have one more 10-goal scorer so far (seven) than the Leafs do this season.
They have plenty of trade assets
The Panthers don’t have a glaring weakness they have to improve upon (no, we’re not putting Sergei Bobrovsky in that category), but it is worth noting they are in the bottom half of the league in allowing high danger chances at 5-on-5, so perhaps they could add some depth to the blue line.
Whatever they do, this appears to be close to an all-in season for the Panthers and they could be a trade deadline wild card. And should GM Dale Tallon decide to jump into the mix, he has all sorts of assets he could move.
Florida has its own first-round pick, but could also explore dangling younger players such as Grigori Denisenko or Aleksi Heponiemi, a couple of forwards the team has high hopes for, but who would also be attractive to many suitors around the league.
Even Mike Hoffman‘s name is in the rumour mill. The pending UFA is a big part of this team with 18 goals, though 16 of them have been on the power play and he’s mostly occupied a spot on the third line. It may be hard to lose that for the push, but if the Panthers feel sniper Owen Tippett is ready (19 goals in 46 AHL games), then perhaps Hoffman could be packaged for a return and Tippett would get a bump to the pros.
Whatever they want to do, the bottom line is that the Panthers have more to offer on the trade market than the Leafs, and thus may have more options to upgrade their team ahead of Feb. 24.
Sergei Bobrovsky is a sleeping giant
After signing a seven-year, $70 million free agent contract last summer, Bobrovsky hasn’t brought much to the Panthers with his sub-.900 save percentage this season. It’s been a weird year for big-name goalies, though, from Pekka Rinne to Carey Price, Braden Holtby and even Frederik Andersen in Toronto’s crease.
Much like Andersen and the Leafs, if Florida’s goalie managed to get back to a level he’s come to be known for, then the team would take off around him. And while not at his Vezina peak, Bobrovsky has been slowly turning a corner, with a .908 save percentage over the past three weeks.
It may be that Bobrovsky never gets back to a level of play that earned him his contract, but Florida finished 10th in the East last season with the second-worst goaltending in the league. They’re fourth-worst right now. So, heck, if Bobrovsky can lead them to even the middle of the league in save rate, Florida has the other pieces needed to become a force.
They have Joel Quenneville
Some Leafs fans may still have a sour taste in their mouths for how the Mike Babcock era ended, especially considering the fanfare with which it began. And that may also cloud opinions on what it is to have an established NHL coach with a glowing resume.
But underestimate Joel Quenneville at your own peril.
The fact is Quenneville has no active equal in terms of how decorated he is in the NHL. The three-time Stanley Cup champion should also have more than the one Jack Adams he won in 2000, but voting tends to shy away from rewarding a coach who is in charge of a team that’s expected to be good, as the Blackhawks were for most of his decade there.
Perhaps the biggest area of improvement Florida has enjoyed under Quenneville is that they compete right across the finish line more often and are now very difficult to come back on. For whatever reason, the Panthers had the second-worst winning percentage when leading after two periods last season, and were the only team with a sub-.500 points percentage in games they led after 20 minutes. This year, they are in the top half of the league in both stats and are one of just six teams that hasn’t lost a game in regulation that they led after 40 minutes.