Bring on the Stanley Cup.
Well, first, bring on the Boston Bruins.
That was the chest-pounding message Nazem Kadri delivered to upper management moments after the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Bruins 4-3 in a playoff-like game on Saturday night. It was a statement win. Not only did the Leafs prove they could beat a team that they will likely face in the first round of the playoffs, but they also did so without the help of injured centre Auston Matthews.
With the trade deadline approaching, the significance was not lost on Kadri.
“We want to go for it,” he said. “We legitimately have a chance. We have a long way to go. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
When asked to elaborate on what “go for it” meant, Kadri responded: “We don’t want to get bounced in the first or second round.”
Message received. The next morning, the Leafs traded for Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec, who now becomes the best fourth-line centre in the NHL. Not to be outdone, a Bruins team that had relied heavily on one line for offence this season acquired secondary scoring in the form of New York Rangers forward Rick Nash.
It’s hard to evaluate each team independently, since barring a late-season collapse by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs and Bruins will be playing against each other in the first round. Heading into Monday’s trade deadline, Toronto is in second place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of Boston, although the Bruins have played four fewer games.
Both teams are amongst the hottest in the NHL these days, with Toronto having won 13 of its past 15 games and Boston losing only four times in regulation since mid-December. It’s unfortunate that two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference will have to play each other in the first round. And yet, it promises to be one of the most anticipated series’ of the playoffs.
So who made the better trade? Well, that might not be decided until the teams meet in April, which can’t come soon enough.
Here’s what we know right now: Toronto and Boston addressed similar areas of weakness in completely different ways.
In Nash, the Bruins went big and nabbed the No. 1 name available on the rental market. But they also got a past-his-prime winger who has 18 goals and 28 points this season and turns 34 around the time of the Stanley Cup final. Of course, if the Bruins can get that far in the playoffs, it will be worth it.
Boston, which also signed Brian Gionta following a three-week stint representing the U.S. at the Olympics, finally has scoring depth. While Patrice Bergeron (27 goals), Brad Marchand (24) and David Pastrnak (22) have combined for 73 goals this season, no other Bruin has scored more than 12 goals. Nash might not be the same player who scored 42 goals in 2014-15, but he is an improvement on David Backes and has more experience than rookies Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk.
“I’ve only been here five minutes, but I can feel the (Cup) buzz,” said Nash, who was held without a point in his Bruins debut, a 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. “I wanted to go to a place that wanted me and had a great chance to win. I think Boston fits both those perfectly.”
Still, it was a huge gamble for an older team that had to give up a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and a potential NHL prospect in defenceman Ryan Lindgren, as well as Matt Belesky, Ryan Spooner and a seventh-round pick in 2019.
The Leafs were far more conservative on Sunday. Then again, their needs were much different.
While the young and emerging team is still looking to potentially add a defenceman before Monday’s deadline, Plekanec gives Toronto depth and flexibility down the middle with little to no risk. All it cost was a second-round pick in 2018 and a couple of minor-league prospects (winger Kerby Rychel and defenceman Rinat Valiev) who were not going to ever play for the Leafs.
At the same time, you get what you pay for. No one is going to confuse the 35-year-old Plekanec, who has six goals and 24 points this season, with Pittsburgh’s Derick Brassard. But he is an upgrade over fourth-line centre Dominic Moore, someone who can kill penalties, make plays and be moved up or down in the line-up depending on the situation. Think of it as Brian Boyle, 2.0.
With Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Plekanec down the middle, Toronto now rivals Pittsburgh for the best collection of centres one through four in the NHL. That’s no small feat. Against the Bruins, the added depth could become a difference maker, especially if the top two lines cancel each other out because of line matching, as Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said on Saturday.
In other words, Plekanec is better than Boston’s fourth-line centre, Sean Kuraly (five goals and 11 points).
That’s the end game here. Beating Boston. While Kadri’s eventual goal is to win a championship — not “get bounced in the first or second round” — you likely have to get past the Bruins to do it.
Sunday was a small step towards that.
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