Now that general manager Brian Burke is finished celebrating his third anniversary with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he can turn to the first real test of what he built against a team that has become his nemesis.
It is not that the Boston Bruins did anything to raise Burke’s ire. It is just the Bruins seemed to figure in most of the important moves in Burke’s rebuilding plan – so beating them in an NHL home-and-home series that starts Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre will be meaningful in more ways than the obvious one.
That, of course, is the Maple Leafs’ rise to first place in the Eastern Conference’s Northeast Division cannot be taken seriously unless they put in a good showing against the defending Stanley Cup champions, who waxed the Leafs 6-2 and 7-0 in their first two meetings this season.
A sweep of the Bruins is not to be demanded – after all, they are the hottest team in the NHL with 11 wins in their last 12 games – but the Leafs do have to put up a good showing.
The subtext to all of this is Burke, Phil Kessel and Joe Colborne.
Burke’s biggest move since he became Toronto GM on Nov. 28, 2008, was to trade two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Bruins for Kessel. The media and fans beat him over the head repeatedly with this one when the winger did not pay immediate dividends.
The baying hounds were only slightly appeased last February, when Burke traded defenceman Tomas Kaberle to the Bruins for Colborne (whom the Bruins took 16th overall in 2008), plus first-round and second-round picks. Burke turned the second-rounder into defenceman John-Michael Liles and used the first-round pick to help parlay his way to 22nd overall in June’s entry draft, where he took power forward Tyler Biggs.
Kessel is now leading the NHL in scoring, Liles is a big part of the Leafs defence with 16 points, and Colborne looks good with four points in five games since his promotion from the AHL farm team.
Thus, it is not a stretch to imagine Burke will get an extra frisson of pleasure if the Leafs equal or better the Bruins this week.
This cannot be said for sure, as Burke did not respond to a query about the matter. Perhaps he was too busy talking to Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray about winger Bobby Ryan, who is said to be available thanks to a need to solve the Ducks’ struggles.
With six regulars out with injuries, topped by goaltender James Reimer, the Leafs do have a built-in excuse if they flop against the Bruins. But they are not looking at it that way.
“We’re viewing it as a little bit of a measuring stick because we’ve been winning games with all the injuries,” head coach Ron Wilson said. “The nice thing for us is we’re playing the Bruins and we’ll not be as tired as we were in [the two losses] One was back-to-back and the other was our third game in four nights.”
The players certainly don’t need to be reminded of what is at stake.
“We’re well-aware they came in our building the last time, handled us pretty well and embarrassed us in front of our home fans,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “They’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league in the last month, and we feel pretty confident about our game, so it’s an exciting game to be part of.”
Reimer, who has been out since Oct. 22 with a concussion, will take the next step in this series toward a return. Wilson said Reimer will serve as the backup to goaltender Jonas Gustavsson in the second game (Saturday), paving the way for a start next week.
“We haven’t set a timetable yet, it just based on how I feel out there,” Reimer said after a spirited practice Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of getting the timing back. A few more practices and we should be ready to go.”
While centre Dave Steckel (hand) and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson (finger) are also close to a return, it looks like they will sit for at least one more game.