It’ll Be All Brad… All the Time

TORONTO (Apr. 20) — This prediction is too easy… and, quite frankly, too predictable: If the Toronto Maple Leafs get tormented by Brad Marchand, yet again, golf season around here will start early. Yet again.

No player in the National Hockey League since Hall–of–Famer Dino Ciccarelli, more than 30 years ago (with Detroit), has so routinely discombobulated the Maple Leafs, physically and emotionally. Marchand, the Bruins’ veteran, plays Daddy to the blue–and–white–clad Torontonians in just about every important situation involving the teams. Why that should change in the upcoming Stanley Cup series cannot be answered. Because it won’t.

Marchand is a button pusher. And, the Maple Leafs are the flight deck of an Airbus–380. They possess hundreds of emotional knobs, dials and switches. All of which bad Brad understands how to work and manipulate. He gets under the skin of Leafs Nation like nobody else. It begins on the ice, then echoes noisily through the fan base. If he’s allowed to roam free and bitch–slap the Leafs once more, the Bruins will advance, rather easily, to Round 2 of the playoffs. Contrarily, were Marchand to be somehow neutralized, the odds substantially narrow.

Toronto, as we know, possesses enough top–end talent to compete for the Stanley Cup. What it has lacked, for much of the past decade, is the three D’s:  drive, determination… and a deterrent. At no point, in fact, have the Leafs been able to dissuade Marchand from his obvious pursuit — annoying them to distraction (a fourth ‘D’). Want a fifth? Boston ultimately prevails over Toronto because playoff hockey is part of its DNA. The Leafs, until now, have been wired to excite the masses with gaudy personal achievement between October and April. Once the Stanley Cup chase begins, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander (not so much John Tavares and Morgan Rielly) gradually prove they’d rather not get involved. Marchand will do his utmost to ensure the Leaf stars wither, yet again, under the playoff spotlight. If he succeeds, massive change (off the ice) will soon follow.

Any incident that approximates Marchand taunting the Leafs bench from the ice will lead to ruin for Toronto. This happened several times during the regular season. Only Ryan Reeves chirped at Marchand. The other Leaf players either chuckled (ex–teammate Tyler Bertuzzi) or blankly stared past the Bruins’ antagonist. If Marchand is allowed to establish the tone of a game, the Leafs will lose. Plain and simple. Otherwise, it’s kind of a saw–off. Especially up front, where Matthews, if occasionally moved, can match David Pastrnak in goal scoring. If the entire Core-4 is properly engaged, there’s no reason the Leafs cannot stay with the Bruins. The problem exists behind center ice, where Toronto pales in comparison to many teams, particularly Boston. While the Beantowners have a pair of No. 1 goalies (Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark), the Leafs offer game–by–game question marks with Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll. Potential exists for either Toronto netminder to perform brilliantly, but there’s no pattern. From one night to the next, we simply cannot predict how the Leafs will fare between the pipes.

That was hardly the case when such figures as Mike Palmateer, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour wore the blue and white jersey. None competed for the Stanley Cup in our town, but they ventured to within striking distance. And, there was never ambiguity as to which goalie would start a playoff match. Right now, a reasonable onlooker has to choose Boston over Toronto at the game’s most–important position. Until shown differently.

The Leafs blue line continues to be a work in progress, as for the better part of 50 years. Though neither club possesses a Norris Trophy candidate, the Toronto defense hardly strikes fear in the opposition. After a full season shakedown, the Leafs enter the playoffs with a top six of Morgan Rielly, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jake McCabe, Simon Benoit, Joel Edmundson and Tim Liljegren. Bigger and a little “snottier” than in most years, but still mistake–prone and structurally inferior. I was impressed by McCabe late in the season. He flaunted a bit of nastiness around the net, which the Leafs will require, in spades, against Boston. Rielly was ominously erratic in his own zone for much of the schedule. The Leafs actually played some their best hockey with Morgan absent from the line–up for 10 games. He did, however, elevate performance in the opening–round victory over Tampa Bay last spring and will need to step up again, big time, against the Bruins. The Boston defense features Charlie McAvoy, the equivalent of Rielly, but is deeper and more physical with McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Hampus Lindholm and veteran Kevin Shattenkirk. Again, the Bruins do not have such a dominant figure as Zdeno Chara on the blue line. Therefore, Boston won’t likely win the Stanley Cup. But, countering the Leafs and capturing the NHL title aren’t related.

It is, however, Marchand who creates more exasperation for the Leafs than all the other Bruins combined. My way of attempting to neutralize him is unorthodox, yet a solid hunch. If I were Sheldon Keefe, I’d have little Nick Robertson on the ice as often as possible against bad Brad. Robertson can skate with Marchand and is willing, in my view, to incite the Bruins’ pest. In order to neutralize Marchand, an opponent has to similarly pester him. Not an easy task, but neither is it inconceivable. Robertson, if deployed as a “shadow”, might be able to turn the trick.

There is also, as always, the plausibility for the big–money men on the Leafs to control a Stanley Cup round.

Toronto management (past and present) has chosen to make it or break it with the core players, figuring the club will not likely again feature three–such gifted performers at the same time. Thus, the mega–contracts that have locked in Matthews and Nylander (Tavares has one season left on the seven–year pact he signed as a free agent in July 2018). Marner can join the group at any point after July 1, when he is eligible to sign an extension. It likely won’t take long. Especially if the club’s nucleus can finally dominate in the spring — an unfulfilled wish throughout the decade–long Brendan Shanahan era. Marner, by himself, can extend a playoff series against a favored opponent. Even with Matthews scoring 69 goals, Marvelous Mitch is Toronto’s most–elite and indispensable component. If he can finally put it together when it counts, Marchand may not be quite the elephant factor in this series.

WEEKEND NOTES… It stands to reason that if the record–setting Bruins of last year (65–12–5, 135 points) can be bounced from the opening round of the playoffs, the current club (26 points inferior) is even more vulnerable. Especially without veteran leaders Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci (now retired). But, it doesn’t always work that way. Last spring, Boston entered the Cup tournament against Florida having not played a meaningful game in roughly five months. Beyond late–November of the 2022–23 schedule, it was clear the Bruins would rocket to the apex of the NHL standings. After building a 3–1 series lead over the Panthers, Boston could not close the deal. Suddenly needing to win was foreign to a club that finished atop the league by a whopping 22 points. Florida triumphed three times in succession, including twice at the TD Garden. Such a phenomenon has occurred with other teams in the NHL, and in other professional leagues. The 62–13–7 Detroit Red Wings of 1995–96 were defeated by Colorado in the Stanley Cup semifinals. The 62–16–4 Tampa Bay Lightning, 21 points beyond the second–best team in 2018–19, lost stunningly in a first–round sweep against Columbus. In football, the 16–0 New England Patriots of 2007 were beaten in Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. The Seattle Mariners, in 2001, led Major League Baseball with 116 wins, tying the modern–day record. But, they were rather easily subdued in five games of the American League Championship Series by the New York Yankees. So, it appears to be nearly impossible for a runaway team to flip the switch in the playoffs. That’s why the Bruins will be better–prepared for the Leafs, starting tonight, than against Florida last spring. Boston went to the final day of the regular schedule, this week, not knowing where it would place and which team it would encounter in the opening round. All Bruin games were important. That should better position the club this time around… Myopic Leaf observers lauded the club, earlier in the week, for choosing to have radio announcers Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph on site for all playoff games, rather than cheaply ensconced in a sound studio with television feed. The fact is, however, that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment got thoroughly embarrassed, a year ago, when Bowen consigned the series–winning overtime goal against Tampa Bay to Morgan Rielly, who dominated the TV screen after John Tavares had fooled Andrei Vasilevskiy with a turn–around shot in overtime of Game 6. The fallout was more than sufficient for MLSE to drop the needless frugality and ensure that Bowen and Ralph were on site for the next round against Florida. As they will be for as long as the Leafs hang around this spring… Once more, it appears as if the Toronto Sun will be at a sizable disadvantage during the Bruin series. At least, at the beginning. The Toronto Star has beat–writer Kevin McGran and columnist Rosie DiManno in Boston for tonight’s opener. The Sun will again compel Lance Hornby, Terry Koshan and Steve Simmons to cover the series off television. Which is doable for games, but nearly impossible when absent for practices and morning skates. The travel ban at Postmedia remains in effect. To the detriment of readers… Neither does it appear the Globe and Mail will travel Leafs writer Marty Klinkenberg early in the series. He, too, must watch on TV. All of the normal suspects will continue to follow the team throughout the playoff run, though objectivity takes a beating with Luke Fox (Sportsnet) and Mark Masters (TSN). Both are paid by the Leafs to be nice. Underrated is my former FAN–590 colleague, David Alter, who covers every Leafs game for The Hockey News/Sports Illustrated. David has been around the club a long time. When he chooses to write with a critical eye, he can bring it. I suspect Jonas Siegel, another Leafs media veteran, will travel for The Athletic… Being hobbled, as he evidently is, might explain the humiliating last month of the schedule for William Nylander, who couldn’t be stopped while gunning for the eight–year, $92–million contract extension he signed on Jan. 8. Unless he was seriously banged up, Willie should be concerned and ashamed over compiling zero goals and a paltry four assists in the final 11 Maple Leaf games. It doesn’t auger well for the playoffs. Nylander won’t dress tonight… The Norm Rumack/Howard Berger podcast will not likely start during the 2024 Stanley Cup chase. Too much job conflict for both of us. But, there’s always next year. Especially in Leafs Land.


For those concerned the Leafs are entering the Stanley Cup hunt after losing their last four games of the season, may I remind you of April 1978 and another looming disaster. In their best season of the Harold Ballard era, the Buds (under rookie coach Roger Neilson) motored to a 19–6–3 record in their first 28 games of 1977–78. After that, Toronto limped through the schedule at 22–23–4 while losing 10 of its final 12 matches. During the last three weeks of the schedule, it appeared the Maple Leafs had sorely misplaced their mojo.


Then came the time of season that matters.

Suddenly, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming and Co. reawakened and destroyed the Los Angeles Kings (7–3 and 4–0) in a sweep of the best–of–three preliminary round. After dropping the first two games of the Cup quarterfinals on the road to the New York Islanders, the plucky Leafs rebounded to win four of the remaining five matches, legendarily sidelining their favored opponent when McDonald beat Glenn Resch in overtime of Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum. Along the way, Salming sustained a terrible eye injury, getting accidentally poked by the blade of New York’s defensive forward, Lorne Henning. Borje was absent for Games 4–7 of the Islander series, then for all four encounters against Montreal in the playoff semifinals — the farthest the Leafs had advanced since winning the mug 11 years earlier. Defense partner Ian Turnbull performed brilliantly against the Islanders, but the Maple Leafs, sans Salming, were destroyed by the dynastic Canadiens. The ’78 Cup tournament showed, however, that a poor conclusion to the schedule doesn’t necessarily equate to post–season failure.


NEW YORK RANGERS over Washington in 5.

CAROLINA over New York Islanders in 5.
FLORIDA over Tampa Bay in 6.
BOSTON over Toronto in 6.

DALLAS over Vegas in 7.
Nashville over VANCOUVER in 6.
EDMONTON over Los Angeles in 6.
Colorado over WINNIPEG in 6.

Home–ice teams in CAPITAL letters

STANLEY CUP PICK: Dallas over Florida.


2 comments on “It’ll Be All Brad… All the Time

  1. Well Howard I am in my seventies so my memory isn’t quite as good as it used to be but I’m thinking of the previous seven seasons and I don’t remember any series starting game as pathetic as this one. You have an encyclopedic recall of everything Leafs so I was wondering if I am right?
    So as usual I had my hopes up and I really thought that this time the Leafs were playoff ready had added toughness or some “snot” as Treliving called it. I know it is only game one, but let’s get serious, they suck and won’t beat the Bruins. Well at least it doesn’t hurt as much as it used to but I never thought when I was a 15 year old kid cheering on the Leafs that was going to be it. I guess I will keep pulling for the Leafs even though I know they need another ten year rebuild plan. In the meantime I will be pulling for the Sens and patiently waiting for the Leaf Cup win in 2034.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.