Slay the bear. That’s been the Leafs objective all year. Everyone has known for months that Toronto and Boston were going to meet in the first round of the playoffs again.
The entire regular season was essentially a formality to determine which team would get home ice advantage. And here we are. It’s mid-April and the Leafs are heading to Boston to face the challenge they’ve been waiting for since this time last year.
The Leafs got dropped in seven games last year after putting together an admirable comeback, working their way back up from 3-1 down in the series. That said, the fact the series went seven games probably flatters the Leafs, as the Bruins were clearly the better team overall.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander were completely shut down by the Bruins’ checkers. The team didn’t have the depth to compensate for Nazem Kadri’s three-game suspension. The Leafs had zero answers for Boston’s excellent top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. Ron Hainsey and Morgan Rielly got dominated by that top line and no other defensive pairing was capable of taking on some of the minutes.
This year, though, the Leafs are bringing a much better and more experienced group to slay the bear.
Here’s what the Leafs rolled with last year…
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Patrick Marleau – Tomas Plekanec – Mitch Marner
Andreas Johnsson – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Kasperi Kapanen
Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey
Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev
Travis Dermott – Roman Polak
Compare that squad to the one they’re trotting out this time around…
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Andreas Johnsson – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
Trevor Moore – Frederik Gauthier – Connor Brown
Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey
Jake Muzzin – Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner – Travis Dermott
The key difference, of course, is the addition of John Tavares. The Leafs managed to add an MVP-calibre player in free agency over the summer, which instantly made them a better team than last year. Even though they also let good players in JVR and Bozak leave in the off-season, the addition of Tavares gives Toronto an elite veteran to lead their young group.
The other big addition was Jake Muzzin. Acquired prior to the trade deadline, Muzzin gives Toronto a deeper blueline than they had last year. Rather than having to trot out Roman Polak who was so frequently over his head in the playoffs last year, the Leafs now have a bonafide Stanley Cup-winning top-four defender to play against Boston’s top players.
And finally, there’s the internal progression of the team’s young players. While essentially replacing Tomas Plekanec and Roman Polak with John Tavares and Jake Muzzin is obviously massive, a wealth of Leafs are better players than they were this time last year. Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson both broke out with 20-goal seasons, mitigating the departures of JVR and Tyler Bozak. Travis Dermott has emerged as a legitimate top-four option, further deepening the team’s blueline.
That’s ultimately the big difference this year. The increased quality of depth. Adding John Tavares means more space for Matthews and Nylander. Adding Jake Muzzin means less pressure on Ron Hainsey. Internal progression means quality up and down the lineup.
It’s important to recognize that the Bruins are also a better team than they were last year. While Boston didn’t have a game-changing addition like Tavares, they made minor additions to add depth to their lineup and saw some internal progression from their young players.
Boston added Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson prior to the trade deadline, giving them two-thirds of a very solid third line. Young forwards like Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen had breakout seasons and young defencemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo now have more experience under their belts. The Bruins aren’t as much of a one-line threat as they were last year.
On paper, things look better for the Leafs than they did last year. Last spring, a young, inexperienced Leafs team with glaring holes and questionable depth got overwhelmed by a very well-ran Bruins team. The Bruins are still a very good team, but the Leafs, on paper, have taken a massive step forward from where they were at last spring.
While many are already giving the Bruins the win in this series, this better, deeper, and more mature Leafs is capable of slaying the bear.