TORONTO (Mar. 4) — Despite a frenzy of blueline–altering deals leading up to the National Hockey League trade deadline by general manager Kyle Dubas, we can arrive at the same conclusion as back in December or January: Unless the Boston Bruins are a mirage, the Toronto Maple Leafs have no chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Forever–hopeful fans of the Blue and White will dip into their arsenal and point out how infrequently the No. 1 team in the regular season wins the NHL championship; how the 1995–96 Detroit Red Wings (62 wins) were knocked out in the semifinals by the Colorado Avalanche; how the 2018–19 Tampa Bay Lightning (62 wins) were demolished in four straight by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even my old pal, Bryan Hayes, said Friday on TSN: “I could see either the [Leafs or Edmonton] pursuing a Cup or in the Cup final.” Well, maybe the Oilers in the West, if Cale Makar (having suffered a head injury) isn’t healthy for Colorado. But, not Toronto in the East. The key match–ups of coaching (Jon Cooper vs. Sheldon Keefe), elite defense (Victor Hedman vs. Morgan Rielly) and goaltending (Andrei Vasilevskiy vs. Ilya Samsonov) indicate Toronto will lose to Tampa Bay in the opening round, making it seven consecutive–such failures for the Maple Leafs. But, no team — not the Lightning, the Rangers, New Jersey, Carolina, Colorado, Edmonton or Dallas — can conceivably upend Boston in four of seven playoff games.
This is less a statement about the Leafs roster than the Conference in which the club resides. For many years, in the 2010’s, the Western championship was the de facto Stanley Cup final — particularly when the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings traded NHL titles from 2012–15. Today, the balance of power has shifted to the East. Any of Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay and the Maple Leafs would be favored, or even–money, in a Stanley Cup final. Getting out of the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions this spring will likely be more of a challenge than pairing up against the West champion. And, that’s why the Leafs — in spite of an aggressive remodeling by Dubas — will extend the longest–ever Stanley Cup drought to a minimum 57 years.
The Bruins of 2022–23 have been alone, by miles, atop the NHL standings — after 61 games, a dazzling 48–8–5 for 103 points, 15 more than second–place Carolina… and the fastest ever team to compile 100 points. Boston has won its past nine games and has 103 more goals scored than goals against. This is virtually twice as spectacular as the next–best team, New Jersey, which is a plus–52. The Leafs, by comparison, are a plus–47. Though the Maple Leafs, quite properly, are lauded for their improved defensive structure this season, they have still yielded 34 more goals than Boston’s league–low 130. For historical perspective, the Bruins are still slightly ahead of the pace achieved by the best–ever team in the regular season. After 61 games, the 1976–77 Montreal Canadiens were 44–7–10 for 98 points, five fewer than Boston. To perfectly equal the Habs’ record (60–8–12), the Bruins cannot lose again in regulation. They must go 12–0–7 after 80 games for 132 points. Which can actually be exceeded considering how unlikely it is for Boston to lose seven matches in overtime or shootout the rest of the way.
THE BOSTON BRUINS HAVE WON NINE CONSECUTIVE GAMES, INCLUDING A NARROW, 3–2 TRIUMPH IN EDMONTON OVER CONNOR McDAVID AND THE OILERS. JASON FRANSON THE CANADIAN PRESS
It can also be argued, quite liberally, that the NHL of 2023 is far different than in 1977. The league had only 18 teams back then and the Canadiens played more frequently against such bottom–feeders as Detroit (16–55–9), the Colorado Rockies (20–46–14), Washington (24–42–14) and the Cleveland Barons (25–42–13). None of Vancouver, Chicago or the Minnesota North Stars topped 64 points. The salary cap, as anticipated, has created more parity in the now 32–team NHL. Which further illustrates how remarkably the Bruins are performing. Even by franchise comparison, Boston is well on pace to shatter its best–ever mark. The 1970–71 Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, demolished all comers in the regular season with a 57–14–7 record for 121 points. The team erupted for a league–record 399 goals, 108 more than Montreal. Again, that Boston team encountered the still–weak West Division of the NHL, formed, in expansion, only three years earlier. Orr, Esposito and Co. piled up easy points against the California Seals, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Philadelphia, all of which finished beneath .500 in the standings. In their own division, the East, Boston came up against expansion teams from Buffalo (63 points) and Vancouver (56 points), as well as a terrible Detroit club (55 points). In the tougher NHL of 2022–23, the Bruins need only a 9–6–2 mark in their next 17 games to equal the ’70–71 juggernaut.
Here, I have deliberately provided Leafs Nation an “Ah–hahh!” opportunity. No, that Boston club did not win the Stanley Cup; in fact, it failed to emerge from the opening round after losing a seven–game quarterfinal to Montreal, the surprise eventual champion. This can again be accomplished if one of Samsonov, Matt Murray or Joeseph Woll pulls a Ken Dryden. If unaware, Dryden came up to the Habs for the final six games of 1970–71 and immediately wrested the No. 1 job from Rogie Vachon. He then gutted out 12 wins in 20 playoff starts, upending the Bruins in seven, Minnesota in six and Chicago in seven, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Dryden went on to capture the Calder Trophy as top NHL rookie in 1971–72 and backstopped Montreal to six Stanley Cups in parts of nine seasons. Does anyone, without chemical enhancement, foresee a Dryden in Samsonov, Murray or Woll?
If, however, there is a cautionary tale for the Bruins, it surrounds goaltending.
Linus Ullmark has come virtually out of nowhere as the NHL’s top stopper. His statistics are off the chart: a 31–4–1 record in 38 starts, leading the NHL by quite a margin in goals–against average (1.88) and save percentage (.938), both elite numbers. Back–up Jeremy Swayman is 16–4–4 in 26 appearances (2.27/.918). Yet, Ullmark and Swayman have combined for a measly eight playoff games. Toronto’s Matt Murray, alone, has 51 matches of playoff experience, though another injury plagued season does not bode well for a return to his Pittsburgh glory days. If Murray is still hobbled, neither Samsonov (eight games) nor Woll (zero games) have a Stanley Cup resume.
Where Boston shines over Toronto is in the capacity and frequency of its best players to elevate performance. There has not been a better two–way forward in the NHL the past decade than Patrice Bergeron — a Bruins’ regular since 2003–04, the last time the Leafs won a playoff series. In that time, Bergeron has helped Boston to 16 playoff round victories and two appearances in the Stanley Cup final, defeating Vancouver for the 2011 championship. Brad Marchand is a Bruins stalwart since 2010–11, compiling 118 points in 139 playoff matches while annoying his opponents to distraction. David Krejci has 156 games of playoff experience since 2008, recording 124 points. David Pastrnak (43 goals in 61 games) is a beast… autumn, winter and spring. On defense, the Bruins, like the Leafs, lack a Norris Trophy candidate. But, Charlie McAvoy has been part of three deep playoff runs, including the 2019 Game 7 loss to St. Louis in the Cup final, and would be Toronto’s most–complete blueliner. Dmitry Orlov won the Cup with Washington in 2018 and already has eight points in four games as a Bruin. Hampus Lindholm (59 games of playoff experience, mostly with Anaheim) is a marvelous plus–41 this season.
The leading Boston performers are also up in age, which could become a factor. But, likely not until the third or fourth round of the playoffs. Toronto would encounter the Bruins in the second series, for the Atlantic title.
FOR THIS TO NOT BE REPEATED A FOURTH TIME SINCE 2018, THE MAPLE LEAFS NEED TO GET PAST TAMPA BAY IN THE OPENING PLAYOFF ROUND… THEN HAVE AUSTON MATTHEWS OUT–PERFORM PATRICE BERGERON IN THE ATLANTIC DIVISION FINAL. GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
All of this, of course, presupposes that Toronto will eliminate Tampa Bay, and that Boston will not be upset by the Islanders or Pittsburgh in a likely opening match–up. From my perspective, the Bruins are not only the runaway best team in the NHL, but the best–suited to craft a long playoff odyssey. Boston’s in–your–face style has routinely bested Toronto in four playoff clashes since 2013, all of them going the distance; none of them annexed by the Leafs in the crushing onus of Game 7. Though the Leafs have acquired some depth and experience on the back end (even if none of Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson or Luke Schenn would be higher than fourth on Boston’s blue line), Toronto is still uber–dependent on its forward nucleus to march through the playoffs. And, we all know what William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have not accomplished in six attempts.
How the trend can change this spring is both mystery and fantasy.