Marner, JVR and the Toronto/Boston Rivalry

The Toronto Maple Leafs have got some great storylines going right now. James van Riemsdyk is making news almost every night, Mitch Marner is proving his importance to this team and their postseason chances and the rivalry between Toronto and Boston sports teams looks to start a new chapter this season.

James van Riemsdyk is Lighting it Up

JVR has five goals and one assist in the past two games, giving him 31 goals and 16 assists on the season. The 31 goals lead the Leafs and have him currently tied for 11th in the league. He also leads the Leafs in power-play goals with nine and shots with 205, most of which have come from within a few feet of the net.

James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

His proficiency in front of the net is one of the major reasons the Leafs top power-play unit (JVR, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly) is one of the best in the league. Oddly, the second unit, that features Auston Matthews and William Nylander, has not been particularly effective and I believe a lack of net-front presence is one of the reasons. It would be nice to see Mike Babcock double shift JVR on the power play to try to give a jump-start to the Matthews unit. Fitness-wise he should be capable of doing it since he doesn’t exactly move around much while he’s out there.

Five-on-five, the JVR and Bozak line heating up is crucial for the Leafs. In a matchup game in the playoffs, the Matthews and Kadri lines will usually get the most difficult assignments, which means JVR and Bozak should be playing against one of the opposing team’s weaker groups. They need to exploit those matchups and score some goals for the Leafs to have success.

Unfortunately, JVR is likely to be a victim of the salary cap this offseason and not be re-signed by the Leafs. I use the term ‘victim’ lightly because he is going to get paid. I completely agree with Pierre LeBrun’s assessment of his comparables and what he’s likely to get this offseason:

It makes sense that the Leafs need to let him go to free agency because they can’t afford him, Marleau, a centre to replace Bozak, some help on defence AND new contracts for Nylander, Marner and Matthews under the salary cap. It will be a huge loss for the Leafs because, despite their fantastic depth on the wing, none of that depth is able to fill the role JVR plays in front of the net, banging in garbage goals.

The Importance of Mitch Marner

Marner started off the year cold with six points in his first 14 games, but since then he has 53 points in 57 games. That’s an elite pace. Like JVR, Marner is a huge reason for the Leafs’ success on the power play and it’s often Marner faking a shot and sliding a perfect pass over to JVR for a tap-in goal. I occasionally watch non-Leafs games and I have fun laughing at their feeble attempts to enter the zone while thinking of Marner and Nylander using their speed and slick stickhandling to breeze into the zone, making forecheckers and defenceman alike look foolish in the process.

Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates past Matt Niskanen #2 of the Washington Capitals during the first period in the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

While Matthews and Frederick Andersen have received most of the attention as the Leafs MVPs (rightly so), Marner deserves a ton of credit as well and has been the Leafs’ second-half MVP.

Toronto vs. Boston Rivalry

I’m mostly talking about the Leafs and Bruins here, but also touching on the other major sports as well. I’m also going to make a statement that tons of people are going to disagree with –> Toronto and Boston do not currently have a rivalry.

The reaction from a typical Leafs fan at that statement is probably “What! I hate the Bruins and all of the other Boston sports teams too!” but that hatred is only one direction at the moment. Toronto vs. Boston has been decidedly one-sided in sports over the last twenty years.

In hockey, the Bruins beat the Leafs in a heartbreaking playoff series in 2013, the only series the two teams have played against each other since 1974. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 while the Leafs have been mostly irrelevant in the salary cap era (until now of course).

The Bruins were also on the good side of one of the worst trades in Maple Leafs history, receiving Tuukka Rask (the current NHL all-time leader in save percentage) for Andrew Raycroft, not to mention managing to get the draft picks that gave them Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton in return for Phil Kessel.

Tuukka Rask Bruins
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Looking at other sports, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have never met in the playoffs and I don’t believe the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox have either. The Boston teams, which are all in the same division as Toronto, have had more recent success though with the Celtics winning the NBA Championship in 2008 and the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004, 2007 and 2013.

Toronto doesn’t have an NFL team but many Torontonians cheer for the Buffalo Bills, who are stomped on every year by Boston’s beloved Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The only league that Toronto has bragging rights is Major League Soccer, where Toronto FC was the greatest team in the history of the league last season.

Related: Bruins & Leafs Rivalry Revived in Playoffs?

At this point, I feel the need to add to my statement. Toronto and Boston do not currently have a rivalry… but they’re about to. The Raptors and Celtics have the best two records in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, play each other twice down the stretch leading into the playoffs and may face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bruins and Maple Leafs are on a collision course to face each other in the NHL playoffs. The Leafs are basically locked into the third seed in the Atlantic Division, and with the Bruins recent injuries, it’s highly unlikely they will catch the Tampa Bay Lightning for first. That means the Bruins and Leafs will very likely face each other in the first round.

Nazem Kadri Toronto Maple Leafs
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Chances are, a Leafs and Bruins playoff series will go six or seven games and be full of hatred, as both teams have villains and bruisers, including the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and David Backes and the Leafs’ Nazem Kadri, Roman Polak and Matt Martin. Grab your popcorn, it’s going to be fun to watch.