Bruins

Bruins must slow Leafs' Mitch Marner before NHL playoff series slips away

Bruins must slow Leafs' Mitch Marner before NHL playoff series slips away

Mitch Marner is a great scorer, but it was his toughness that stole the show for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the dying seconds of Game 3 on Monday night.

The 22-year-old forward blocked two David Pastrnak shots in the final seconds of the third period to secure the Leafs' 3-2 victory, giving them a 2-1 lead in their first-round 2019 Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

Marner's offense has been a driving force for the Leafs in this series versus the Bruins. He scored two goals in Toronto's Game 1 win and added an assist in his team's Game 3 triumph. He's also posted 13 shots on goal through the three games. Marner now has 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 10 career playoff games against Boston dating back to last season's first-round matchup.

The postseason isn't the only time Marner shines against the B's, though. He's scored 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 12 career regular-season games versus Boston. 

Toronto's top line is outplaying Boston's top line by a considerable margin. Marner and his center, John Tavares, each have three points in the series. They found the scoresheet in both of the Leafs' wins and were held scoreless in the Bruins' lone victory in Game 2.

Marner was drafted No. 4 overall in 2015 by the Leafs and has increased his scoring total in each of the last two seasons. The 2018-19 campaign was his breakout, evidenced by a team-leading 94 points (26 goals, 68 assists) in 82 games to help Toronto notch back-to-back 100-point seasons for the first time in team history.

The Bruins have mostly matched up the Patrice Bergeron line, one of the best defensive trios in the league, against Marner, and the results haven't been positive for Boston. Marner is driving puck possession above 57 percent (using the Corsi-For percentage stat) during 5-on-5 play versus the Bergeron line in this series, per Natural Stat Trick. Anything over 50 percent is good, and 57 percent is quite good. Sure, the sample size is very small (three games), but it highlights a matchup that will have a profound impact on the outcome of the series.

Marner is the engine driving the Leafs, and if the Bruins don't slow him down, Toronto likely will march past Boston and into the Eastern Conference semifinals.

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Bruins' 2020 Stanley Cup odds, projected point total rank among NHL elite

Bruins' 2020 Stanley Cup odds, projected point total rank among NHL elite

Winning back-to-back championships is one of the most difficult feats in sports.

But perhaps just as hard is making it back to the championship after losing the season before.

That's the task ahead of the Boston Bruins, who look to rebound in 2019-20 after a heartbreaking loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Bruins have had a quiet offseason to date, losing Marcus Johansson to free agency but mostly keeping their squad from 2018-19 intact. That team finished second in the NHL with 107 points, and SuperBook USA in Vegas projects the B's to be another regular-season powerhouse this season.

Boston is tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the fourth-highest projected point total with 100.5, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights.

The Bruins' odds to win the 2020 Stanley Cup reflect those point totals, although the B's are listed below the Avs at 14/1.

Interestingly, the Bruins and Blues both have seen their odds decrease slightly from last month, when Boston was pegged at 10/1 and St. Louis was listed at 14/1.

The most notable free-agent names are off the board, so barring a trade, this is the core Bruins roster you'll probably see come October. And Vegas expects the B's, Lightning and Leafs to once again be the power players in the Eastern Conference, which should make for a very competive Atlantic Division.

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Could the Bruins have been players in the Lucic trade talks?

Could the Bruins have been players in the Lucic trade talks?

The Edmonton Oilers were finally able to move a difficult contract this weekend when they shipped Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames for James Neal in a rare trade between Battle of Alberta rivals.

Calgary also received a conditional third-round pick in 2020 along with the Oilers retaining 12.5 percent of the remainder of Lucic’s contract, which will see him at a $5.25 million cap hit with the Flames for the next four seasons. The Oilers are rid of the Lucic contract, but they’re still on the hook for four years of Neal, 31, at $5.75 million after he, too, showed serious signs of decline last season with the Flames.

These are the kinds of “no real winner” trades that the Bruins would have to engage in if they wanted to move 35-year-old David Backes in the final years of his contract. Sure, the Backes contract has never been good value and it became something else last season when the power forward’s production dropped to just seven goals and 20 points in 70 games amid concussion issues on top of decreased production.

Lucic, 31, had similar numbers last season with six goals and 20 points in 79 games with the Oilers, and it’s been clear for a couple of seasons that his best days are behind him as one of the NHL’s premier power forwards. The argument could be made, though, that those heavy skating legs might have been energized a bit by a return to Boston and certainly his fighting, snarling game is a little more in line with what the B’s need to protect some of their younger players these days.

Could the Bruins have engineered a similar trade involving Backes with the Oilers to get Lucic back at $5.25 million with Edmonton retaining some salary thus saving the B's almost $1 million cap space the next couple of seasons?

Absolutely.

The question becomes whether it would have been worth it to take on a couple more years of Lucic when Backes is going to be finishing up his deal two seasons from now and becomes a prime buyout candidate at this time next year.

This is why it’s become almost impossible to move Backes. It’s going to be very difficult to find a deal for another problem contract where the B’s aren’t inheriting more years indebted to the player coming back in a trade. Or it’s going to take a first-round pick sweetener for another team to accept the Backes contract along with Boston potentially picking up some of the money.

One of the few remaining players out there the Bruins could potentially swap bad contracts for is old friend Loui Eriksson with the Vancouver. It was Backes who the B’s signed when Eriksson walked in free agency, and the 34-year-old Swedish winger hasn’t come close to repeating his final Boston season while with the Canucks.

Eriksson had 11 goals and 29 points in 81 games for Vancouver last season and has been pretty consistent while averaging 10 goals and 25 points in his three underperforming seasons with the Canucks. Again, though, the Bruins would be taking on one additional season at the $6 million cap hit in 2021-22 if they were to do an even swap of Backes-for-Eriksson if both teams signed off on the one-for-one trade.

Even that doesn’t make sound business sense for the Black and Gold if they can just squeeze one more season of productivity out of Backes as a bottom-six winger willing to stand up for his teammates and show leadership.

What does all of this mean?

It means the Bruins aren’t going to find many, if any, realistic trade scenarios with Backes that are going to help their bottom line on the salary cap. They may just need to make the best out of one more season with No. 42 and then revisit things again next summer when there could be a few more options at their disposal.

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