Burnside: Well my friend, the holidays won’t be all that cheery for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who seem to follow up even the smallest glimmer of hope with long periods of brutal play. After getting waxed by Calgary and Vancouver last week, they were smoked 6-3 by the red-hot Atlanta Thrashers at home Monday night.
At the same time, their Northeast Division foes the Boston Bruins, a team that will forever be linked to the Maple Leafs thanks to the Phil Kessel trade, seem to be a team adrift, albeit slightly north of the Leafs in the standings. With their desultory 3-0 loss to Anaheim at home Monday, the Bruins have lost four of five and sat in eighth place in the East as of Tuesday morning. Are you surprised by either team’s wobbles as we head for the holiday break?
LeBrun: Let’s start with the Leafs, who have gone 8-17-4 since their 4-0-0 start, which had people dancing in the streets here in my town. As I said at the time of their 4-0-0 start, they were not THAT good. But I also believed they had improved on last year’s 29th-place team, and I thought in the weaker Eastern Conference they could compete for the eighth and final playoff spot. Well, this morning they are 10 points out of that playoff spot and it’s delusional to think they have any chance of making that up from here on in. The fans know it, which is why they threw waffles on the ice again last night (only in Toronto). The thing that’s bizarre about this Leafs team is that there are periods in a game where it shows it can compete with almost anyone. Toronto had the red-hot Thrashers on the ropes in the third period last night but couldn’t complete the comeback. That inconsistency is not surprising, really, given that Toronto has the youngest roster in the NHL.
“We are playing a solid 50-54 minutes a night. That’s not good enough,” Leafs president and GM Brian Burke told me via e-mail this morning.
Losing eats away at Burke like few others. I suspect he won’t stand pat come January and February and will shake up this roster if things don’t turn around.
Burnside: Yes, it will be interesting to see what Burke does with his lineup, although I think people may be expecting too much. Tomas Kaberle appears content to play out his career without ever really playing in meaningful games (what a waste) and the rest of Burke’s assets will yield draft picks beyond the second round in my estimation. For me, it’s got to come back to coach Ron Wilson at some point. No appreciable improvement in important areas like team defense and special teams since his arrival. At some point, it’s not just the lack of talent.
But let’s move on to the Bruins, another team that has the resources (thanks in part to the Leafs) to be active at the trade deadline. There is something lacking for me when it comes to the Bruins. They have lots of parts up front but no real game-breaker. And the blue line is pedestrian at best. Way too much pressure on Tim Thomas to shoulder the burden for this team to be considered a Cup contender for my liking.
LeBrun: I think there’s more firepower up front in Boston than you think, but I agree on the blue line, that’s where the B’s must try and add a piece before Feb. 28. Right now it’s just amazing how flat the team looks.
“We’re going through a phase where we’re trying to re-establish our identity,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told me over the phone this morning. “We’re not playing a consistent game from period to period to period. It seems like a feeling-out period right now.”
What really caught my attention last week was when team president Cam Neely went on local radio and, if you read between the lines, seemed to be second-guessing coach Claude Julien’s approach. Surely Julien isn’t on the hot seat in Beantown given everything he’s done there?
“Claude is a very good coach and he’s going to figure out a way out of this,” Chiarelli told me. “He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.”
Funny how things change. The Bruins had missed the playoffs two straight years before Julien arrived. Now they’re sitting eighth, in a playoff spot, and people are upset in that market. That’s because the team has shown the potential to be among the best in the conference.
“Expectations are high and rightfully so,” Chiarelli said.
Burnside: I think the world of Claude Julien, but he still carries the stink of the Bruins’ monumental collapse against Philadelphia in the playoffs last season just as do the rest of the Bruins. They were a team that crumbled in the face of adversity in that second-round series and I’m not sure I see a team that has all that much resolve this year. Look at their recent play and they don’t seem, for the most part, to be able to go that extra inch in games. Maybe it’s just a midseason ripple, but when you’re carrying baggage like the Bruins are, I think it’s fair to ask tougher questions about the make-up of the team. The good thing for Chiarelli is that he has options in terms of draft picks and the like that he could dangle for a player like Joni Pitkanen or even Kaberle, whom he tried to acquire at the draft in Montreal a couple of years back. No question there is significant pressure on the Bruins to prove they are something more than what they’ve shown thus far.
LeBrun: The good thing for Boston is that Montreal is only two points ahead for the Northeast Division lead with the B’s having a game in hand. The Canadiens have dropped four of five heading into tonight’s game in Dallas. The Habs are only a .500 team away from home and play the next six games on the road after dropping the trip opener in Colorado on Sunday night. A long way of saying that the Bruins could be in first place in a matter of days and fans in Beantown will have something new to talk about. (ESPN)