This is it, the ultimate team comparison text can provide. We're going to break down and compare the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning line by line, head-to-head, based on goals for the forwards, goal rates for the defenders, and as much data as I could find for the goaltenders.
This series preview tells the story of the regular season for both the Leafs and the Bolts. How they are similar and how they are different. And especially how each team produces their offense.
For the Lightning, you will find a lot of their scoring comes from the power play and the top six, whereas the Leafs it comes from the top end and their depth in scoring.
It was also interesting to see how each team organizes their defense. Both teams have a "shutdown" pair that they've put together, as well as an offensive pair. Personally, I don't think the Leafs have set up their best possible lineup, and it'll be interesting to see how long before they go a different way.
I won't spoil the goaltending results, but they will surprise you.
I have updated the lines for both teams to reflect how the teams have practiced over the weekend. Note the Lightning loading up their first line, while the Leafs are keeping to what they've shown us their lineup has been since the deadline.
The Leafs' Lines
Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
John Tavares - Ryan O'Reilly - William Nylander
Alex Kerfoot - Noel Acciari - Calle Järnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese - David Kämpf - Sam Lafferty
Jake McCabe - TJ Brodie
Morgan Rielly - Luke Schenn
Mark Giordano - Justin Holl
The Lightning's Lines
Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel - Anthony Cirelli - Alex Killorn
Michael Eyssimont - Nick Paul - Ross Colton
Pat Maroon - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Corey Perry
Victor Hedman - Nick Perbix
Mikhail Sergachev - Darren Raddysh
Ian Cole - Erik Cernak
All the goal counts are pro-rated to 82 games and account for only 5v5. All special teams (5v4, 5v3, 4v4, 3v3, etc) will be added below. I wrote this article on Sunday (April 9th) in the evening, so that's when the numbers were taken. A couple games won't (and didn't) make a difference. I have used my descretion wherever possible to account for players who have changed teams and what to do with their goal rates. The lines have been updated to reflect the weekend practices, so that is current.
Let's get into it!
Bunting-Matthews-Marner vs Stamkos-Point-Kucherov
Toronto: 15+28+16 = 59 goals
Tampa Bay: 17+30+15 = 62 goals
The Leafs have chosen to play Calle Järnkrok – who outscored Bunting at 5v5 this season – on the third line, meaning the Leafs are at a slight disadvantage compared to the Lightning's stacked first line. Point had a 50-goal season, while Matthews still hit 40 in a down year, but they net out almost identical at 5v5. Matthews last year rated to 43 5v5 goals, a teeny bit more than Point's career year.
You'll notice in the power play numbers than Point matched John Tavares in the leaderboard, while Stamkos and Matthews ended with about the same numbers. Stamkos and Brandon Hagel rated with the same number of 5v5 goals as Hagel had his first 30-goal season.
The top lines saw each other off, and the difference will be who can actually put the puck in the net and get that shooting percentage advantage.
Advantage: Slightly Lightning
Tavares-O'Reilly-Nylander vs Hagel-Cirelli-Killorn
Toronto: 17+16+22 = 55 goals
Tampa Bay: 17+10+17 = 44 goals
I'm going to say right at the top that Cirelli's number is scaled up like all the others to an 82-game season, as is Ryan O'Reilly. In fact, ROR had the same scoring rate at 5v5 in St. Louis as he is having in Toronto, so I got lucky in not having to consider differences.
We always knew this was going to be where the Lightning fell behind the Leafs. Their deadline acquisition has deepened their roster and given them this boost over the Lightning. The next guy up for Toronto is Calle Järnkrok, who you will see has 18 5v5 goals this year pro-rated. That increases the advantage in the Leafs favour when looking at the third line.
I think the biggest outlier here is the talent of William Nylander over Anthony Cirelli, especially offensively. Is Cirelli's defense able to make up for it? Because apart from a favourable on-ice save percentage, he's only slightly above water in goal rates. Nylander has been clearly better than him all things considered.
Advantage: Heavily Leafs
Kerfoot-Acciari-Järnkrok vs Eyssimont-Paul-Colton
Toronto: 6+8+18 = 32 goals
Tampa Bay: 5+9+12 = 26 goals
Again, closer than I would've expected at 5v5, but edge still goes to Toronto. What I find more interesting is the Trade Deadline changes did little to nothing on the goals front with these lines.
For Tampa Bay, they lost Vlad Namestnikov, he would've scored 8 pro-rated goals. That would've been an upgrade on Eyssimont. Pat Maroon spent most of the season on the third line, he also had 5 goals. If the Lightning had the choice, Tanner Jeannot who was acquired at the deadline for a whole draft worth of picks, would've sat in the 3LW spot, but he also only had 5 pro-rated goals between Tampa Bay and Nashville.
The second line showed it as well, but we have reached the point in the Lightning only have 2/3 of each line and they're pushing someone up that shouldn't be there. Cirelli should be a third liner, and Eyssimont should be on the fourth line. But the Lightning didn't add up front.
Meanwhile on the Toronto side, the Leafs added O'Reilly and were able to push Järnkrok down. However, they had to get rid of Pierre Engvall to compensate. Engvall removes any advantage of pushing Bunting down because of his 14 pro-rated goals as a casualty of the salary cap. If they had found a way to keep Engvall, then the Leafs would have a more significant advantage.
Looking away from goals, Tampa third line is okay defensively, but they are no longer faster, more skilled, or scrappier than the Leafs. Defensively, Kerfoot and Acciari are better than anyone on the Lightning's third line.
Advantage: Heavily Leafs
Aston-Reese-Kämpf-Lafferty vs Maroon-Bellemare-Perry
Toronto: 11+7+14* = 32 goals
Tampa Bay: 5+5+6 = 16 goals
*Lafferty played with Kane in Chicago, so if you ignore that context and just use his Toronto minutes, he has 9 pro-rated goals, for a fourth line total of 27.
Offensively, advantage Leafs again. However, offense from the fourth line matters much less than on other things, so aspects of the game like physicality, low goals against, special teams contributions, etc matter more.
Every player on the Leafs fourth line is better than all of the Lightning's fourth liners, and they can scrap it out, too. We've seen all three players throw their weight around and hold their own to win pucks. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Leafs fourth line go against the Lightning's third line and see the Leafs third line feast on the Bellemare line at home. By goals they are interchangeable.
The Lightning's fourth line is heavy and dirty, that is for sure. That said, I have major concerns about all three not having the legs for this series. Maybe their job is to just muck it up, and maybe that ability to muck it up will neutralize the much better fourth line they intend to go up against. But the Leafs will be better equipped to go up against the Lightning's top three lines than the Lightning's fourth line will be against the Matthews, O'Reilly, and Acciari lines.
Advantage: Leafs, but the heaviness goes to the Lightning
Leafs total goals: 173 (54%)
Lightning total goals: 148 (46%)
For the defenders, I'm using different stats to compare them, so I'll cover their scoring here. On goals, the Lightning's top six defenders scored 27 prorated goals at 5v5. The Leafs top six scored 21 goals.
The higher scoring from the Lightning's defenders does reduce the pain against the Leafs offense, but it doesn't completely make up for it. The Leafs are still +3% ahead on goals.
For the comparison here, I'm going to look at the average expected goals and real goals for both members of each pairing when they're on the ice and I'll come up an xGF% and GF% for each pair. My numbering should incorporate more minutes and better data than a standard WOWY. Hopefully it tells the picture.
Rielly-Schenn vs Sergachev-Raddysh
Average xGF/60, Average xGA/60, Combined xGF%, Combined GF%
Toronto: 2.87 for, 2.71 against, 51%, 48%
Tampa Bay: 2.85 for, 2.59 against, 52%, 48%
Unsurprisingly, if you replace Luke Schenn with Timothy Liljegren, a more offensive defenseman the Leafs will likely start in the pressbox, their average numbers jump up ahead of Sergachev-Raddysh. About 2.9 for, 2.6 again, 53% combined xGF% and 55% combined GF% for the Leafs best offensive combination. We'll see how long the Schenn project will run into the playoffs. The Lightning kept him as their seventh defenseman in their playoff runs and are expected to have their 2023 version of Schenn, Zach Bogosian (former Leaf, ironically), in the pressbox. It would be smart for the Leafs to do the same again here, especially on their offensive pair.
In terms of goals, both pairings were pretty poor. On the Leafs side, that's Luke Schenn at 44% in 12 games of data collected from me. On the Lightning side, it's Darren Raddysh and his 42% and especially poor goals against in 14 games this season (his entire dataset).
At least the Leafs have another option. Liljegren is ready, he'll get a chance.
Advantage: Slightly Lightning
McCabe-Brodie vs Cole-Cernak
Toronto: 2.91 for, 2.32 against, 56%, 62%
Tampa Bay: 2.74 for, 2.48 against, 52%, 51%
TJ Brodie is a top-five defensive defender in the league by the numbers, and paired with Morgan Rielly most of this season has among the best shots for numbers in the league as well. Taking his strong results and averaging them with McCabe's strong, but more reasonable results gives a pair that are each 56% in xGF% and are still 56% together. This is a tall task for the Cole-Cernak pair to go up against, but more importantly for the Lightning's top-six to go up against. I give the physical edge to the Lightning, but the edge on ability to defend rushes to the Leafs. Brodie is considered by many as the best rush defender in the league.
Both Brodie and McCabe independently and together have had great results this season. Cole and Cernak are much more mixed.
Advantage: Heavily Leafs, hard to deny.
Giordano-Holl vs Hedman-Perbix
Toronto: 2.95 for, 2.41 against, 55%, 57%
Tampa Bay: 2.88 for, 2.76 against, 51%, 54%
Both pairs are the secondary offensive pairs that play lots of minutes with the top forwards, as well as the secondary defensive pairs used against top forwards. Hedman has had a down year, but he's also been able to give some of the reins to Mikhail Sergachev, especially offensively. That usage might switch back at some point, and it's always possible Hedman regains his form.
Advantage: Leafs, but biggest opportunity for improvement from the Bolts.
The Lightning are in a much more precarious position defensively because they're running two rookies with less than 100 combined games of experience in their top-four. Their defensive shutdown pair is also worse defensively than the Leafs third pair. This defense group is shallow at every position except Hedman, whereas the Leafs have depth and players with successful track records up and down the lineup.
A lot of these comparisons are between Leafs skaters who are as good now as the Lightning were at their peak, while the few difference-makers on the Lightning players who are left have underperformed on the whole. You'll see that more starkly on the goaltending front.
Samsonov vs Vasilevskiy
SV%: .917 vs .916
5v5 SV%: .925 vs .924 (adjusted, isolates teams with low or high penalty kill time)
GSAx/60: +0.462 vs +0.466 (goals saved above expected, accounts for defense)*
Shutouts: 4 vs 4
Two Russian goaltenders with identical stats all the way down that have landed them in 7th and 8th in the league in almost all the goalie categories you can find. Call this a bad year for Vasilevskiy and a good year for Samsonov, truth is that this is where both of these goalies are this season. Does Vasilevskiy step up his game? Can Samsonov match? At the moment, all we can say is that it's a true and honest wash. That is the past, the future is uncertain.
*Over the course of the season, both goalies have saved about half a goal more than expected compared to the calculated average goalie from that season.
Advantage: Too close to call
Toronto: 62 goals in 238 opportunities, 0.33 G/2 mins
Tampa Bay: 70 goals in 270 opportunities, 0.32 G/2 mins
The Lightning have more power play goals this season, and in most seasons, because they get more power play opportunities. They also take a lot of penalties.
How this will shake out in the playoffs is anyone's guess. What you should know is that the Leafs power play is as deadly as the Lightning's whenever they go out there.
The Leafs had 6:37 minutes of power play time per game last series, which gave them four goals, or 0.29 G/2 mins. The Lightning had 7:17 minutes of power play time per game last series, which gave them seven goals, or 0.79 G/2 mins.
The Lightning got hot – that was the difference then – and still the Leafs outscored the Lightning 24-23 in the series. With a better penalty kill and 5v5 advantage, that ratio should go farther in the Leafs favour.
Advantage: Slightly Lightning
Toronto: 44 goals in 236 opportunities, 0.21 G/2 mins
Tampa Bay: 51 goals in 253 opportunities, 0.25 G/2 mins
Both teams have good penalty kills. Advantage goes to the Leafs in preventing goals.
Combining PP goals for, PP goals against, PK goals against, and PK goals for, here are the goal differentials for each team. This tells us each team's overall special teams quality. The two teams are essentially the same, though it's a good sign the Leafs have a better advantage despite fewer total minutes on special teams.
Tampa Bay: +15
Other Even Strengths
4v4 and 3v3 goals for and against.
Tampa Bay: -3
This is a very small sample of playing time, and 3v3 definitely won't be seen in the playoffs, but it's important to note the Leafs have done pretty poorly in open ice. This could be an advantage in high-penalty games for the Lightning. Again, this game state is not nearly as important as 5v5 time. 5v5 is still 90% of the game.
Toronto: Matthew Knies
Tampa Bay: Tanner Jeannot
The Leafs 6'3" 20-year-old top prospect was a point-per-game captain in the NCAA and signed an ELC with the Leafs after losing the Frozen Four championship in Amalie Arena last weekend. He has since been sleeping on John Tavares' couch. He made as good of a case to be played in the lineup as anybody could have asked. He'll have a chance to come into the lineup, hopefully with less pressure than being in at the start and possibly have to be pulled.
Can Jeannot come back from injury earlier than reported? Will he be able to impact the game if he can? Jeannot will need to make sure he doesn't go over the line if he feels like he needs to compensate for a lack of speed after coming back from injury. Steven Stamkos can be a slapshot on one leg, what can Jeannot be? Okay, he can at least be better than the guys currently on the fourth line, that's for sure.
With support from readers like you.Hold Us Up!
The Leafs are the better team here, and this year they have a margin on the Lightning. The Bolts have a lot of belief in themselves, but they are limited in a lot of ways. I've been saying since before the deadline that I think their GM drank too much of the kool-aid and didn't realize that the middle of the lineup is very shallow. Morph Anthony Cirelli and Nick Paul into one person and you might get a 2C, meanwhile the Leafs are laughing with Ryan O'Reilly AND John Tavares on the second line.
At the end of the day, it comes down to which version of the stars are you getting. Are you going to see 60-goal Matthews? Or Selke Cirelli? Is Victor Hedman going to return as a 60% goals guy? Is Rielly going to repeat his elite postseason last year? Vasilevskiy or Samsonov? That's what's going to decide this series, not the fourth liners, not even the third liners.
And I predict the Leafs will do it. See you in the second round 😉. Go Leafs Go!