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Tampa Bay Lightning’s forward group is better and deeper than the Toronto Maple Leafs’

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Much has been made about the Maple Leafs acquisition of Tavares, but the Lightning forwards are still better.

2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The common refrain around the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer has been how much stronger their forward group is going to be with the addition of John Tavares. Many a Maple Leafs fan has posited that they now have the best forward group in the Atlantic over the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins. While Tavares is an improvement in one area for the Maple Leafs, the Leafs still let go of two solid players in James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. While the top end of their forward group got better by replacing Van Riemsdyk with Tavares, their depth took a hit by downgrading from Tyler Bozak to Tyler Ennis.

The Lightning meanwhile have not upgraded their forward group since adding J.T. Miller at the deadline, trading up from Vladislav Namestnikov, and they also haven’t lost any players of note. The main departure from the group was Chris Kunitz, who was a useful bottom line contributor with 29 points last year.

To help in this endeavor, I have taken Dom Luszczyszyn’s fantasy hockey projections for this coming year to get an idea of where both teams stand going into the 2018-19 season and how they stack up against each other.

Also, go support Dom and his great work. The projections are cheap and if you are into fantasy hockey, he provides a ton of information, and the initial $2,500 he receives is going to charity.

The Top End

Both teams have very high-end talent that will be filling up spots on their top two lines this season. The top four players for both teams are basically a wash. In Dom’s projections, Auston Matthews leads the way in goals with 44, and Nikita Kucherov is not far behind with 39 goals projected. Kucherov leads the points race projection with 93 (a number I think is conservative) while Matthews comes in second at 82 points.

When you get to the next level, you have Steven Stamkos and Mitch Marner projecting out with very similar numbers. Stamkos projects for 30 goals and 78 points with Marner coming in at 25 goals and 75 points. Likewise the next tier of Tavares and Brayden Point are close. Tavares is projected for 32 goals while Point is projected for 31. Dom projects a handful more assists for Tavares to put his total at 73 compared to Point’s 67.

Likewise with the last of the Top four players, William Nylander and J.T. Miller are also projected for similar totals. Nylander is projected for 23 goals and 66 points while Miller comes in at 27 goals and 64 points.

Verdict: Even. There are little variances here and there, but when you add up the goals and points projected for the top four forwards of both teams the disparity isn’t significant. For goals, there is a difference of just two goals; 127 for Tampa and 125 for Toronto. On the points side, it’s a difference of five points; 301 for Tampa and 296 for Toronto.

The Middle Six

In a playoff series, there’s an oft-believed mantra that top lines equal out and it’s the depth that separates winners from losers. This can be the case, though not always, as we saw with the Washington Capitals’ top line dominating during the series. We also saw with Boston that their top line was dominant, but because of their lack of scoring depth, they had a hard time getting past Toronto in the first round and fell to the Lightning in the second.

This is also where we start to see a difference between the two teams. After our first four players on each team projected to score over 60 points, there is a drop off into the 30-60 point range that consists of the middle six forwards for both teams. We get a pretty convenient break at the 30 point mark that gives us five players for each team that helps to separate that middle six from the bottom line forwards.

Yanni Gourde and Nazem Kadri are the top of this group for their respective teams and both are projected at 55 points with Kadri projected to score six more goals than Gourde, but Gourde can equal that out with his playmaking skills.

Tyler Johnson is the next in the group projected for 19 goals and 45 points, with a small drop from his 21 goal, 50 point 2017-18 season. We then get three players tied with a projection of 40 points; Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Patrick Marleau. One thing to note here is that Palat is projected to miss 11 games, bringing his point totals down. Marleau is the leading projected goalscorer of this group with 22, and Palat and Killorn as natural playmakers are expected to make up for it with assists.

After Marleau comes Anthony Cirelli, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, and Connor Brown. Cirelli is projected for 38 points, which may be generous in his first full rookie season. This projection is also only with a 67 game slate. However, he will be centering the third line most likely between Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde and has shown the speed and skill to be able to keep up with them while being a defensively responsible player. However, in this projection, I feel that is also off set by Andreas Johnsson’s projection of 34 points after only playing in nine NHL games plus six playoff games last year.

Hyman is projected for a slight drop from his 40 point season while Brown is projected for a slight uptick to get over the 30 point plateau this season after scoring 28 points last season.

Verdict: Lightning advantage. While there is some optimism for Cirelli and Johnsson to step up after limited action last year in this projection, there is a clear advantage for the Lightning. This group of Maple Leafs is projected to score more goals with 97 to the Lightning’s 89, but the Lightning’s group is projected for more assists to give them a higher point output of 218 to 198.

There is also a decent amount of regression effecting Johnson and Hyman’s projected output, and there’s also a limit being placed on Palat by missing 11 games as well as projecting him to score at his lowest point per game pace of his career while still in his prime at 27 years old. Palat’s health has been an issue in the past, but when he is healthy, he has been a player that consistently produced at a 50-60 point pace in his career.

The Bottom End

The bottom end is always a bit harder to project. This is where players tend to not play 82 games and their performances from season to season can be wildly different. In addition, Dom has not included Adam Erne and Andy Andreyoff who are expected to battle for the left wing spot on the fourth line. Par Lindholm for the Maple Leafs is also making his North America debut and while he has been an offensive force in Sweden, we’ve yet to see how he will adapt to the smaller ice surface and likely a lesser role.

Lindholm has been projected for 20 points, but I would expect that number to be closer to 30-35 points as a possible ceiling if he plays on the third line with Nazem Kadri. However, that means decreasing the projections for one of the guys in the above group as they would have less ice time to contribute offensively.

Callahan’s offensive production, and thus his projections, have also been impacted by injuries over the last couple seasons. He is recovering from a shoulder surgery and should be back in the line up sometime in November.

Verdict: Toronto advantage. Toronto has some young players mixed with some veteran players and some unknowns here, but I think overall it’s a better fourth line than what the Lightning are likely to be icing for most of the season. This could change if the likes of Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens push their way in to take a couple of fourth line spots. Both have been offensive performers in the AHL much like Kapanen, Leivo, and Brown were in the past. They’re also both defensively responsible players which would fit in well in a fourth line role.

Conclusions

The top end of both lineups are phenomenal and pretty well even. Toronto does have the stronger center combination by being able to go Matthews-Tavares-Kadri down the middle. However, an injury to one of those three could be problematic for the team leading to Lindholm or Marleau sliding into that spot and representing lesser production.

The Lightning on the other hand have the freedom of being able to slide Tyler Johnson or J.T. Miller into the middle on any of their three lines in the event of a center injury. This ability to use capable centers on the wing bodes better for the Lightning and also strengthens their depth on the wing. If we were talking about the Lightning’s center depth being Stamkos-Point-Miller, then the center projections would favor the Lightning with Miller being projected to score more points than Kadri this season.

Toronto having the edge on the bottom end of the line-up isn’t as important a factor and doesn’t override the edge that the Lightning have in their middle six skill and depth. Both teams also have offensive depth in the minor leagues that they can call on to provide help in the middle six without missing much of a beat when there are injuries.