Atlantic Division Rivals: A Changing Season for Leafs-Bruins?

Once again, the Bruins proved their worth in 2013-14 finishing first in the Atlantic Division, first in the Eastern Conference, and first in the NHL – winning the Presidents’ Trophy. While most of the league stayed competitive with the Bruins over the past few years, the Leafs are one team that has struggled against the big, bad bears with an all-time record of 264-279-98-8 against their Original Six rival.

Last season, the Leafs’ were forced to play the Bruins with the memory of their historical 2012-13 game seven collapse hanging over them. Instead of folding and allowing the Bruins to trample over them, as they had the past two seasons, the Leafs were able to finish the year on even terms in their season series.

Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Atlantic Division, NHL, Tuukka Rask, James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk fights for position in front of Boston’s Tuukka Rask. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

The team’s battled to a 2-2 record with the Bruins only outscoring the Leafs 14-11 over the four-game series. It was the first time since 2010-2011 that the Leafs have had an even or winning record against the black and gold. Phil Kessel played a huge role in the four games against his former club scoring a team high five points (0g-5a) over that span.

Now while both teams are having interesting offseasons – the Leafs staying relatively quite and the Bruins right up against the cap – what will new season bring in this battle of the forest? Will the Leafs finally block out their shady past in this rivalry, or will the Bruins continue to rule their falling foes? Whatever the case, here’s a look forward to what fans of this rivalry should expect in 2014-15.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Changing of the Guard

While the seasons have changed, most would expect the Leafs to do the same. For starters, the Leafs added some winning experience to their front office when they introduced Brendan Shanahan as their President of hockey operations.

“And into this steps Shanahan. He has built a department, has helped re-imagine the game – he led the group that loosened the bonds of obstruction after the 2004-05 lockout – and has spent the last three years developing a thick skin, which he did not always carry with him during his playing career. People who know him say he’s got a sharp mind, and is relentless,” writes former National Post columnist Bruce Arthur.

Yet fans are already questioning the direction of the Leafs this offseason. Sure, they’ve made some noise with a couple trades and some free agent signings, but the questions surround the significance of these moves by general manager Dave Nonis and his team.

Backend Changes

While the centre position seems to be the focal point for many, the Leafs decided that changes to their defensive core were the most affordable. They started this revamping by trading long-time blueliner Carl Gunnarsson to the St. Louis Blues for stay-at-home defenceman Roman Polak – a move that opens up opportunities on the top pairing for young guys like Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner.

Most recently, the Leafs avoided arbitration bringing back Cody Franson with another one-year deal. Franson who had an up-and-down season last year said on TSN 1050 that he was thankful to avoid arbitration and happy to re-sign with the Leafs – the team he wants to be with for a long time.

Revolving Door With the Bottom Six

Maple Leafs, Atlantic Division, NHL, Boston Bruins, Leo Komarov
Leo Komarov was a great acquistion by Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, but without a change to the core of the team, how can anyone be sure they have actually improved? (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs brought back a familiar face trading minor leaguer Jerry D’Amigo for former Leaf Matt Frattin before signing the new acquisition to a two-year deal. But it was free agent frenzy that had people questioning the direction of the team. With some big named free agents on the market, the Leafs only signed two players – veteran Stephane Robidas who is coming off a year where he suffered two broken legs and former Leaf Leo Komarov who’s returning to the team after a year in the KHL.

Since July 1, the Leafs have also added centre Petri Kontiola from the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk. While Kontiola did have a brief stint with the Blackhawks in 2007-08, most people remember him for his interview at the 2014 World Championships.

The Leafs also signed centre Mike Santorelli and re-signed Troy Bodie. While both are not top end additions, they can slide in with the third and forth lines.

Leafs Changing Colours

While the blue and white haven’t brought in too many new faces, it’s the ones they said goodbye to that have changed the complexion of the team. After a short stint with the Leafs to close out the season, Tim Gleason signed back with the Carolina Hurricanes with Jay McClement and Drew MacIntyre following in his footsteps.

After a great season in 2010-11 where he had 57 points (30g-27a) in 82 games on a line with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin signed a massive deal with the Islanders to play alongside his former mate – Grabovski.

But it doesn’t stop there. The Leafs also lost Mason Raymond to Calgary, Dave Bolland to Florida, and last year’s AHL defenceman of the year T.J. Brennan who also went to the Islanders.

But what all of these players have in common – aside from Brennan and the Carolina trio – is that they all moved on a day when money was seriously tossed around. That’s not the way that Shanahan wants to build his team. Instead, he’s preaching patience.

“Shanahan, as president of the hockey team with arguably the biggest fan base in the world, is in the unenviable position of having to change a culture inside the business while convincing those who are fans of the business that he is doing it right,” writes Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star.

Boston Bruins

The Key is the Core

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins, NHL, Niklas Svedberg
Niklas Svedberg should win the back up job in 2014-15 behind Tuukka Rask. (Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bruins came into the offseason in a similar spot – with tons of restricted free agents, questions surrounding some of their UFAs, and not a whole lot of wiggle room in terms of the salary cap. In fact, rumours swirled around possible trades that would clear up space for a team that had to sign two of their young up-and-coming defensemen – Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski.

While the Bruins have been able to sign quite a few of their RFAs, they’ve yet to really add a bigger name to their lineup. In fact, aside from their re-signings of Matt Bartkowski and Jordan Caron to a one-year deals, most of their acquisitions aren’t household names.

The Bruins – who’s core is still very much in tact – will have one new face on opening night. That player, however, is still to be determined. But with Chad Johnson jumping on the Islanders signing frenzy, the Bruins will have someone new backing up Tuukka Rask next season. Could that be recently re-signed goalie Niklas Svedberg? Possibly.

Svedberg posted great numbers in 2012-13 with the Bruins’ AHL affiliated in Providence. He recorded 37 wins in 48 games with a 2.17 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.

“Even though the job appears to be Svedberg’s at this point, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said during a conference call with the media that the rookie goalie still needs to earn the backup role. Either way, Chiarelly believes the 24-year-old netminder is ready for the NHL.

Unless Svedberg is not prepared for training cam, or struggles, the job is his to lose,” writes Joe McDonald from ESPN Boston.

Looking Elsewhere

Along with Johnson, Boston also decided that they wouldn’t be bringing back agitator Shawn Thornton – who signed in Florida. While he did bring a lot of intensity to the Bruins’ lineup, the likelihood of usefulness changing just wasn’t there.

But the Bruins’ biggest loss this offseason was their inability to bring back veteran Jarome Iginla who signed a three-year deal with Colorado. While he may no longer be the quickest player on the ice, Iginla does still have to ability to perform offensively as he showed with his 61 points (30g-31a) for the Bruins in 2013-14.

“On a great possession team, you can find guys to, in effect serve as Iginla’s legs. He doesn’t drive possession anymore, but the hands are still there. In the right place – on a great possession team – you can incorporate him and expect to do well with others doing the possession work for him. Your possession numbers won’t be as high as they might be with another player but Iginla’s still a pretty gifted finisher,” writes Sportsnet’s Tyler Dellow.

So how will these two teams – quite similar to their last season rosters – matchup in 2014-15?

A Season of Change For Leafs-Bruins Rivalry

As I mentioned earlier, Boston was the best team during the regular season in 2013-14. At least that’s what we can tell from the overall points. While they finished the year with 117 points and 54 wins, the Leafs were well behind with 84 points and 38 wins (only 29 of which came in regulation or overtime).

But when the Leafs took on the Bruins, something changed. They played harder, tougher and actually gave themselves a chance – for the most part. While they lost defensive forwards like Kulemin and McClement, the addition of Polak could give the Leafs that depth on the back end that they’ve been seeking for so long – and who could make a difference if the Leafs are to come out on the winning end of a tough game seven next time.

James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Atlantic Division
The Leafs need to grow in skill and experience to take the next step. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

On the other side of the coin, the Bruins’ core has remained relatively unscathed and has proven time and time again that they are unmatched when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins do have some aging players – Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and Chris Kelly – but they’ve worked in the young players in the right way. Assuming they’re able to sign Krug and Reilly Smith, Boston should be among the top teams again in 2014-15.

For the Leafs, the addition of Robidas – even though questionable and rather pricey – should add a dressing room presence for a team that is clearly looking to get younger and build from their prospects out.

What’s more interesting is how the Leafs expect to fill their open roster spots this coming season. There’s been a lot of talk about William Nylander and his impressive play in development camp, and Shanahan has noted that he’s not opposed to bringing in some younger players to gain NHL experience.

“These kids that are here right now, you have to also create some spots for them,” said Shanahan in an article by theScore’s Thomas Drance. “You’ve got to have a few holes there with the big club so that not only these guys, but our [American Hockey League] guys who are in the gym in the mornings know that there’s a reason to be working out this summer, that there’s an opportunity and there’s a job to be won possibly.”

The Leafs and Bruins will take play each other four times again in 2014-15 and don’t expect them to be quiet affairs – even with the departure of Shawn Thornton. Next to Ottawa and Montreal, Boston is a close third in terms of the Leafs’ rivals.

For the Leafs to impress next season, they will have to get by the Bruins. As for the Bruins, the pesky Leafs – and Leo Komarov – could be a thorn in their side this upcoming season.

Other Atlantic Division Rivals

Atlantic Division Rivals: Part II (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Atlantic Division Rivals: Part III (Montreal Canadiens)


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