Maple Leafs mean business with Ryan O'Reilly blockbuster

The Leafs front office has done all it could to help this team finally break its playoff curse.

In a potentially franchise-altering trade that may define his legacy, Kyle Dubas swung for the fences and the Toronto Maple Leafs are materially better on Saturday morning with this year’s playoffs carrying terminal implications for several parties involved.

Dubas acquired Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for 2023 first- and third-round picks, a 2024 second-round pick, along with Mikhail Abramov and Adam Gaudette. Minnesota will receive a 2025 fourth-round pick, while also sending forward prospect Josh Pillar to Toronto.

During his press conference coming out of the All-Star break, Dubas slyly indicated the Maple Leafs wouldn’t mortgage their future to chase a championship, hinting that Toronto would avoid going after one of the biggest names on the market.

​​"In regards to rentals, I can't see that happening," Dubas said. "But with regards to other options, I don't think you say no off the hop to anything. But those are very important pieces to us."

You have to appreciate the duplicity to some degree. Dubas doesn’t owe the media unrelenting honesty at all times and he swung a massive trade that could cement his future with the Maple Leafs. He did extremely well to get the Blues to retain 50 percent of O’Reilly’s salary, while the Wild took on 25 percent of his $7.5 million cap hit. It was a clever piece of business that allows Toronto to add merely $3.125 million in cap space and it satisfies all ends of the viewing spectrum, while rendering this Maple Leafs team as the most potent and flexible unit of the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era.

“I would’ve dealt the picks instead of the prospects, mainly because we know our prospects," Dubas said Saturday.

The players, meanwhile, should get a boost from this big acquisition as they head into the final stretch of the season.

“It sends a strong message and gets the group energized,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said Saturday morning.

Toronto now boasts tremendous lineup flexibility among its forward corps — this very trait was one of Tampa Bay’s defining qualities during its back-to-back Cup wins — and will push O’Reilly down as a third-line centre, or he could be used as a top-six wing. O’Reilly’s counting stats — 12 goals and 19 points — aren’t going to blow anyone away, but he still carries a reputation as one of the NHL’s preeminent defensive forwards, while winning 51 percent of his faceoffs. St. Louis controlled just over 50 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when O’Reilly was on the ice, but he’s either going to play against inferior opponents as a centre, or turbo-charge one of Toronto’s two nominal scoring lines as a winger.

“The centre depth is important. You look at the depth at centre ice in our division, the foundation of depth is in the centre of the ice. To have those options… We can try different things and have a little extra time here now," head coach Sheldon Keefe said.

O’Reilly and Acciari increase the depth of a hyper-competitive race for a place in the lineup among the forward corps and concerns about Toronto’s bottom six not producing enough offence are at least temporarily alleviated. Toronto isn’t getting the 2019 playoff MVP version of O’Reilly, but it doesn’t need that version of him.

A smart move for veteran forward Ryan O'Reilly could make the difference in a do-or-die season for the Maple Leafs. (Reuters)
A smart move for veteran forward Ryan O'Reilly could make the difference in a do-or-die season for the Maple Leafs. (Reuters)

Acciari is an underlooked component of this trade, but he slots in nicely for the Maple Leafs’ bottom six. He’s posted 10 goals and 18 points in 54 games, he blocks shots, he ranks eighth in the league with 166 hits at 5-on-5, and he can play either centre or wing. It immediately bumps Wayne Simmonds and Pontus Holmberg out of the lineup, and it’s likely he’ll cut into Zach Aston-Reese’s minutes. This is undoubtedly a more well-rounded group with a higher ceiling with O’Reilly and Acciari aboard.

O’Reilly’s playoff pedigree is self-evident, but there are reasonable concerns: his 2.78 expected goals against per 60 is about league-average among players with 400 minutes played or greater at 5-on-5. He is just coming off a major foot injury. If you’re among the critics who wanted the Maple Leafs to get tougher or another two-way forward in the playoffs, that end of the bargain is satisfied. Toronto gets another former captain in the room, so there’s certainly no absence of accountability or leadership. There are no more excuses for this group.

Dubas may not have been lying about acquiring rentals, either. O’Reilly’s contract is slated to expire at the end of the year, but who says the Maple Leafs can’t retain him? He’s 32 years old and while he’s a stellar two-way force, he is admittedly facing some age-related decline. Not only that, but would O’Reilly be amenable to a hometown discount in the same vein as Mark Giordano? That's a discussion for another day, but there was a desire from O'Reilly and his family to come home, according to TSN's Carlo Colaiacovo.

This Maple Leafs team now has nine players from southern Ontario and is full of graduates from the Greater Toronto Hockey League, with dreams of winning the first Cup this city has seen since 1967.

It's going to be a treacherous road ahead for the Leafs, however, with the Tampa Bay Lightning almost certainly the first obstacle in their way. Tampa Bay became the class of the Eastern Conference not only because of its resounding star power and lineup flexibility, but also because general manager Julien BriseBois inherently realizes that not all first-round picks are created equal. He went all-in ahead of their first Stanley Cup victory in 2020, trading first-round picks for depth forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. In 2021, he parted with his first-round pick in a three-way deal that brought David Savard to Tampa. And he pulled the trigger again last season, sending a first- and third-round pick and a pair of prospects to Chicago for Brandon Hagel. It worked out as well as possible the first two times, and while Hagel didn't provide immediate returns last season, the 24-year-old is on pace for 30-plus goals and 70 points with a $1.5 million cap hit through next season.

It’s nice to discuss prospects and the salary cap and the machinations of the league, but they’re never as important as the immediate future. If Dubas has emulated BriseBois’ principles, it may be the final step in getting the Maple Leafs over the hump, which feels critical with the GM playing out the final year of his contract.

And now the arms race has begun. New York made its move for Vladimir Tarasenko, Toronto has pushed its chips in for O’Reilly and Acciari, while New Jersey, Boston and Carolina could swing for Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson ahead of the NHL trade deadline. It is going to be a star-studded battle to the death in the East, but the Leafs have the weapons to emerge victorious. There are no excuses left for Dubas, but he’s done everything he could to turn this team into a perennial contender.

“It’s not about me and my status. It's about what's best for the team, and that's what we'll continue to look at,” Dubas said earlier this month.

Toronto has gone all-in with O’Reilly aboard, it now boasts the deepest centre group in the league and there are no obvious flaws to glare at. There are some factions of the fan base who’ll need their trust restored and that may only come with a first-round victory. The only thing that could restrain anyone from embracing this team is the immediate playoff history.

These may be famous last words, but burn the history books — this is a Maple Leafs team that can win it all. The future for Dubas, and the organization at large, is riding on it.