TORONTO — A year ago, it really felt like a coin flip. And it took seven games to prove the prognosis correct. This is a close series in any sense.
But the Lightning–Maple Leafs playoff sequel has a different feel.
Toronto, after finishing 13 points ahead of Tampa Bay in the 2022-23 standings, is legitimately favored this time around, for any carry in the crazy world known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Is the NHL community buying it?
I reached out to rival front-office executives and head coaches across the NHL this weekend and asked them to break down the Tampa Bay-Toronto series and pick a winner.
Here’s what they say.
(Note: Some responses have been slightly edited for clarity.)
Head coach No. 1
I think Toronto won the series. They learned to play more of 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 the corner. Plus, losing (Tanner) Jeannot really hurts Tampa. I think it goes to seven and Toronto wins. Playing them this year was tougher than (in) past years, and I don’t think Sheldon (Keefe) gets enough credit.
Head coach No. 2
It’s going to be a great series. Tampa has great experience, talent, fierce competition and great goaltending. Toronto learned some hard lessons with a young core. But after last year’s playoffs, they seem to have taken a step back in playoff hockey and what it takes to win. They have elite talent competing, and they’ve added some great players to complement the core guys.
It’s going to be a great series. Could come down to goaltending.
(He chose Toronto.)
Head coach No. 3
Leafs in 6. Tampa looks tired. They are a slower team this year, and the loss of McDonough is bigger than they thought, because their back is not that good. The leaves are deeper and have more skill and depth. I would say Leafs in 5, but 88 steals 1 more.
Head coach No. 4
(I choose) Toronto. Because I think a big step in the playoffs is (the) battle scar and urgency to win. I think the key moment for Tampa was when it lost against Columbus and before that hoping to win. After that, they came back in a hurry.
Same for Colorado. When they lost against Vegas, they were stunned. That caused their urgency. This is what they need.
I think that’s the special ingredient that championship teams need at the NHL level.
Head coach No. 5
I think Toronto won the seven games because they were faster in the bottom-six forwards and in general as a team. But won’t be surprised if Tampa also wins.
Front-office exec No. 1
I’m going to Toronto. This is the year they’ve been through. I like their additions up front in (Ryan) O’Reilly, (Noel) Acciari, (Sam) Lafferty and (Matthew) Knies. Their backend is deeper than ever. And (Ilya) Samsonov had an underrated year unrelated to past playoff failures. Tampa has a lot of mileage in that core, which can be good (playoff success/experience) and bad (when is fatigue?). The Lightning went 9-13-1 down the stretch, and I’m a believer you can’t just turn the switch on to “go” once the playoffs start. I would say Toronto at six.
Front-office exec No. 2
Going to Toronto. I think it’s their time. They have depth up front and a stronger bottom six this year. Looks healthy throughout (the) lineup. The goaltending still worries me, though.
Tampa seems to me to be a tired team that could get beat early. They’ve played (in) a lot of hockey these past few years in a shortened time frame. I just don’t know how they can handle the grind of the playoffs again.
Front-office exec No. 3
I think the series has the potential to have as much drama as any first-round matchup with so many macro-narratives in play for both teams. Has Tampa’s incredible mileage in recent years finally caught up with them or can they summon their competitive spirit and winning know-how for another run? Two very well matched teams. I think if Samsonov can make the goalie battle a little closer to a draw, Toronto will make it happen.
(Toronto is chosen.)
Front-office exec No. 4
As you already know, this is a difficult series to choose. For me, it all comes down to goaltending. It’s hard to be confident with Toronto’s unproven goalies, and you’re facing the best stopper in the game. I’d pick Tampa, but it’s so close. O’Reilly and Toronto’s improved depth give them a legitimate shot. Tampa in seven.
Front-office exec No. 5
I’m going to Tampa. I think Vassy makes the difference.
He just wins this time of year.
Front-office exec No. 6
Higher seed due to well-earned home ice advantage.
(So Toronto is chosen.)
Front-office exec No. 7
Toronto … I like their speed and believe their core four (Nos. 34, 16, 88 and 44) will finally step up their playoff games thanks to a more balanced playoff lineup.
Front-office exec No. 8
I believe Toronto will win this series.
This time around, they got it. Over the last few years, I think they’ve learned all those hard lessons. I believe their leading men will be good. O’Reilly carries a lot. His playoff intangibles will play a big part when Tampa starts doing it. Acciari’s bravery will also be important as the series continues.
Toronto’s goaltending doesn’t have to surpass (Andrei) Vasilevskiy but will have to try to stay on par with him. Tampa may not be entirely healthy.
Front-office exec No. 9
Toronto is the better team for me. Tampa still has the same stars at the top of their lineup, but the salary cap has removed a lot of depth. They’re still a good team, but to me, they’re not the juggernaut they used to be.
(Toronto is chosen.)
Front-office exec No. 10
Even with the feeling that it should be Toronto’s turn, I’ll take the best goalie in what should be a long series.
(Tampa Bay is chosen.)
Front-office exec No. 11
Give me Tampa. Why? The coach and the goalie.
Front-office exec No. 12
Toronto at 6. Although goaltending is the wild card that could swing it the other way.
Front-office exec No. 13
This is going to be another great series. Toronto almost slayed the dragon last year but Tampa held them off in Game 7. I expect it to be very competitive again.
Toronto’s team is fitter for the playoffs than ever. They made some key acquisitions to bolster their depth and make their bottom 6 more competitive. O’Reilly will also help them battle Tampa’s top lines in a rough series.
Tampa was going a little crazy entering the series and despite some outstanding seasons from their top players, they weren’t nearly as invincible as they used to be. Vasilevskiy is very good and can steal any game or series, but again it doesn’t feel like he or the team has the same swagger as in years past.
I’m giving Toronto the nod in this series to get past the first round for the first time in the Marner/Matthews era. Toronto at 6.
If you’re counting at home, that’s 14-4 for the Leafs: 5-0 in head coaches’ responses and 9-4 in executives. So, not close.
Interestingly last year, I did the exact same exercise before the Battle of Alberta second-round playoff series, and it was a unanimous sweep as seven execs and four head coaches all picked the Flames (who lost five games ).
That said, despite the overwhelming sentiment here for the Leafs to win their first playoff series in 19 years, it clearly shouldn’t surprise anyone if the veteran, savvy Lightning gets the job done.
I look for O’Reilly to have a big impact in this series for the Leafs. The 2019 playoff MVP will be a difference-maker. I also think Vasilevskiy will steal a game, maybe two. But ultimately, I’m with the NHL community here. I think the Leafs lineup wins and Toronto finally wins its first playoff series in the salary cap era.
(Top photo of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Erik Cernak and Auston Matthews: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)