Had fate twisted the other way in their 2013 playoff series, the Maple Leafs would’ve been even worse off than they are now, while the Bruins would be in better shape. Here’s why.
With 3:35 left in Game 7,
Matt Frattin had a chance to bury the Bruins. Taking advantage of a fumbling
Dougie Hamilton, Frattin stripped the Boston defenseman at the Toronto blueline and charged up the ice with the opportunity to extend what was already a shocking 4-2 lead for the Maple Leafs. But Frattin’s backhand attempt went wide of
Tuukka Rask’s net, and the Bruins weren’t dead yet. You know what happened next. Boston scored twice in the waning minutes to send the game into overtime, then broke the hearts of Leafs Nation when
Patrice Bergeron pounded a rebound past a prone
James Reimer. The Bruins, heavy favorites entering the series, narrowly escaped a massive first-round upset. Boston went on to lose in the 2013 Stanley Cup final.
Until this season, when the B’s missed the playoffs, Boston seemed to be a model power franchise in the East, while Toronto, as expected, regressed into a lottery team soon after the crushing loss. But what if Frattin had scored on that late breakaway? History, inarguably, would have been altered. And that opens up a dizzying array of future scenarios. Because if Toronto beats Boston, they probably also beat the New York Rangers in the second round (in the lockout-shortened season, the Leafs had taken two of three from the Blueshirts) before likely falling to Pittsburgh in the conference final. In retrospect, it would be too optimistic to take one run during a shortened, havoc-filled campaign as indications that Toronto was built to be a long-term threat in the East, but other teams have fallen for such folly since. Colorado, for example, parlayed an incredible season from goalie
Semyon Varlamov into a Central Division title in 2013-14, only to fall in the first round of the playoffs to Minnesota, the superior puck-possession team of the two. But instead of pulling back in the summer, the Avalanche tried to reload by bringing in veterans such as
Daniel Briere and
Brad Stuart – all short-term fixes, and Colorado missed the playoffs altogether this season. For the sake of whimsy, however, let’s dig into the idea Frattin scores on that rush and the Maple Leafs eliminate the Bruins in that Game 7. How would the paths of Toronto and Boston have changed?
TORONTO In some circles, that Toronto even pushed Boston to seven games and held a lead late into the third period was viewed as the worst thing that could have happened to the organization at that point, because it gave the braintrust a false sense of hope. Instead of recognizing the Leafs were a poor possession team in need of a drastic remodelling, Toronto merely tweaked things that summer, bringing in veterans such as
Dave Bolland and
David Clarkson. The Clarkson contract ended up being a disaster, while Bolland’s effectiveness was limited by injuries and he was soon gone for sunnier locales (literally, to Florida). Reimer’s fall from grace in Game 7 led to the
Jonathan Bernier trade, costing the team Frattin,
Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick.
Now, imagine if Reimer helped carry the Leafs past Henrik Lundqvist and New York. Falling to Pittsburgh’s big guns in the hypothetical conference final is no shame, rendering the Bernier trade unnecessary (plus Frattin is probably a folk hero at this point, so you can’t trade him). So your goalies in Toronto remain as Reimer and Scrivens.
Leo Komarov, an instant fan favorite thanks to his grinding, agitating ways, took a one-year hiatus back to the KHL after the Boston loss. The Finn was able to pick up a bigger paycheck with Moscow Dynamo and, as expected, returned to Toronto this past season. If the Leafs had gone further, perhaps Komarov sticks around, weighing a potential Stanley Cup appearance against the cash. Bolland certainly doesn’t come to town if Komarov is already there. Under coach Randy Carlyle, the line of
Mikhail Grabovski and
Nikolay Kulemin was criminally underused, despite the fact they had the best advanced possession stats on the team. In that playoff series against Boston, their offensive zone starts were all below 30 percent. Assuming the Leafs make more headway in the playoffs, perhaps it’s the case that the whole line doesn’t get jettisoned that summer and Toronto figures out that the whole top-six/bottom-six concept is pretty much dead in today’s NHL. The danger of course, is that a brush with actual glory – rather than just projected – would have pushed the Leafs further in their quest for a short-term winner. Who knows what sort of kooky signings or trades that burned draft picks (the Leafs have chosen in the second round just once in the past four drafts and didn’t have one this year either, though they did have a second first-rounder from Nashville) would have been made? Perhaps on top of Clarkson, the Leafs had gone further in their search for Carlyle-friendly vets and
Brenden Morrow comes to town as well. In that alternative world, the Leafs are worse off, because a marginal improvement would not have saved the franchise from mediocrity, but it might have cost them draft slots. Getting
William Nylander eighth overall in 2014 will help the future, as will whoever the Buds take with the fourth selection this summer. And without the total meltdowns of the past couple years, the need for invasive surgery may have been ignored even longer by the corporate board-roomers that run the team. That means no Brendan Shanahan, no house-cleaning.
BOSTON One change that definitely would have occurred involves the
Jaromir Jagr trade with Dallas. The Bruins sent a conditional second-round pick in 2013 that turned into a first-rounder because Boston made it to the conference final. Dallas then used that selection to take center
Jason Dickinson. Assuming the Bruins would have made the same pick, that’s a pretty good young asset right there. The Bruins had a lot more to lose in 2013. Expectations were much higher, and the heat on coach Claude Julien had already flared up in the past. So if Boston loses to Toronto, Julien most definitely would have been fired. This is even bigger in light of recent events, as it is expected new GM Don Sweeney will probably keep Julien on, despite the Bruins missing the post-season altogether this season. Sweeney, of course, replaced Peter Chiarelli as GM. Chiarelli also may have been given his walking papers with a loss to Toronto, which would have affected Sweeney, since the B’s may not have thought the former defenseman was experienced enough back then as he is now. The biggest player news would have been in net. Since Boston did escape the Maple Leafs, Rask was given a second chance to help his team make that run to the Cup final. Keep in mind it was
Tim Thomas who won the Bruins the Cup in 2011 and that Rask was the goalie of record when Boston collapsed against Philadelphia the year prior, blowing a 3-0 series lead in the second round. So there were questions about Rask in Boston (and in some corners there still are). In reality, Rask parlayed his Cup final run into a mammoth eight-year, $56-million deal. He was coming off a one-year “show me” contract worth $3.5 million, and a first-round playoff exit would have seriously dented his bargaining power. So let’s say the B’s have the upper hand in negotiations now and still have reservations. Now Rask only signs a three-year pact with a $4-million cap hit. That gives Boston more cap room elsewhere – something that became a big problem in the ensuing two years. Some of the cracks in the Bruins’ roster that led to this year’s swoon still wouldn’t have been avoided, however.
Zdeno Chara may have been slowing down, but there was still a lot to like about the captain, and maybe
Milan Lucic’s lack of production this season was an aberration that didn’t lead to him being dealt to Los Angeles.
Tyler Seguin still gets dealt because there were questions about how he fit in town. If Boston flames out against Toronto, the B’s probably don’t look like the same contender destination that enticed Iginla as a free agent. Between the money hypothetically saved on goaltending and ‘Iggy,’ Boston finds a way to keep
Johnny Boychuk this past summer and maybe the B’s don’t fall apart at all this year. Naturally, anything could have happened to these two teams since that fateful Game 7. But it is interesting to see what success or failure can mean to franchises with different goals and expectations. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, however, Seguin still turns into a star for Dallas. That was just destined to happen.
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.