The Toronto Maple Leafs are the biggest reason why the Toronto Maple Leafs are gasping for air in their NHL playoff series with the Boston Bruins.
If it had not been for the Leafs' generosity at the trade table over the last seven years, the Bruins probably would not have such a wide edge in talent today. And they might not have won the 2011 Stanley Cup, although that is a tougher argument to make.
The largesse started in June of 2006 when former Leafs general manager John Ferguson, who spent much of his tenure in a fruitless chase for a goaltender, traded Tuukka Rask, whom he drafted in the first round the year before, for another goaltender, Andrew Raycroft. Brian Burke replaced Ferguson and continued the gift-giving when he sent first-round picks in 2011 and 2012 and a second-rounder to the Bruins for right winger Phil Kessel.
Those draft picks turned into Tyler Seguin, who played a big role in the Bruins' Cup win at the tender age of 19 and is now established at left wing on their top line, and defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who will make his NHL playoff debut against the Leafs on Saturday night in Game 2 of the series. Kessel was a non-factor in Game 1, as he always is against his former team.
You can also throw in fourth-line winger Shawn Thornton, another key performer in the 2011 playoff drive who was also front and centre Wednesday night in the Bruins' 4-1 mugging of the Leafs. He and linemates Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paillé knocked a lot of Leafs down and chipped in a goal.
Thornton, 35, was drafted by the Leafs in the seventh round in 1997 but never made the team. After four seasons with their St. John's farm team, he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Actually, Thornton can also thank Burke for finally making the NHL at 29 and getting a Stanley Cup ring. When Burke was running the Anaheim Ducks, he signed Thornton as a free agent in 2006, and he gained notice as a hard-charging checker in the team's 2007 Stanley Cup win before moving on to the Bruins as a free agent the following season.
Another oddity is that Rask is the only member of that group who did not grow up as a Leaf fan in the Greater Toronto Area. Seguin is from Brampton, Ont., Thornton is from Oshawa, Ont., and Hamilton is a Toronto kid.
Not that any of them spends much time thinking if circumstances were a bit different they could be playing for the Leafs in this series.
"I don't think about it at all," said Hamilton, 19, who is coming off a successful rookie season on defence and would have looked awfully good on the Leafs' shaky blueline. "For me, I got drafted by Boston and that's pretty much it. Obviously you hear about the trade stuff, but I don't think about it like that.
"Yeah, I think as a kid you dreamt of playing for the Leafs. I think every Toronto kid did the same thing. I always wanted to play for the Leafs, to be a Leaf. As I've gotten older, I was drafted by Boston and I'm pretty happy with where I am now."
Seguin, though, admits to being excited about seeing the team he cheered for as a child back in the playoffs for the first time since he was 12.
"It's kind of almost a weird feeling, maybe a little bittersweet," Seguin told The Boston Herald. "I grew up watching them my whole life. I'm excited they made the playoffs. They had a great year. I'm excited to be playing them."
Actually, Seguin and Rask are always glad to play the Leafs. For just as Kessel disappears every time he sees the Bruins (three goals and nine points in 22 regular-season games), Seguin and Rask step up. In 16 regular-season games against the Leafs, Seguin has 16 points, and in 11 appearances against the team he never played for, Rask has an 8-1 record, 1.46 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.
Hamilton, who did not play in the first game because head coach Claude Julien said he needed a rest, is expected to replace Andrew Ference in Game 2. Ference is serving a one-game suspension for hitting Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski on the head with his elbow on Wednesday. The Bruins will probably make one other lineup change, replacing left winger Kaspars Daugavins on the third line with Rich Peverley.