June 13th, 2024

Leafs ‘energized’ by O’Reilly deal as Dubas takes big swing ahead of trade deadline

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on February 18, 2023.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews (34) brings the puck down the ice as St. Louis Blues' Ryan O'Reilly (90) defends during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in St. Louis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jeff Roberson

TORONTO – Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is in near-constant communication with his head coach.

When the messages started to dry up Friday afternoon and into the early evening, Sheldon Keefe had an inkling there could be news coming down the pipe.

“I know Kyle well enough now,” said Keefe, who has been joined at his GM’s hip professionally for more than a decade. “When he gets quiet, I have a pretty good sense some things are happening.”

And happen they did.

Dubas took part in some late-night shopping Friday ““ the trade was announced shortly before 11 p.m. ET ““ acquiring centres Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues in a blockbuster deal that left little doubt his Leafs are going for broke in 2023.

The swap gives Toronto a significant boost, especially on the defensive side of the puck, to a forward group already led by offensive dynamos Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

O’Reilly helped St. Louis capture the Stanley Cup in 2019 with a Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance as playoff MVP. The gritty Acciari has been involved in long post-season runs with the Boston Bruins, including two series that eliminated Toronto.

“I felt the move was important considering the market, going through all of our options, continuing to watch where our own team was at, and where we’re headed,” Dubas told reporters at a Saturday morning press conference in the bowels of Scotiabank Arena. “Ryan O’Reilly’s pedigree speaks for itself, but his defensive prowess, his playoff performance, what he brings to our centre position, and what he will bring to our team on and off the ice, we thought was vital.

“Especially with the level of competition that we’re going to face.”

The deal, however, isn’t without risk.

The Leafs gave up four draft picks, including their 2023 first-round selection, in a swap that also involved the Minnesota Wild some 14 days before the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline for two players set to become unrestricted free agents July 1.

Dubas parted with his 2021 first-rounder for Nick Foligno in a deal with Columbus two years ago that didn’t pan out, and had to use his 2022 selection as a sweetener for Chicago to fix the Petr Mrazek signing gaffe.

“I’d be lying to sit up here and say that isn’t a concern,” Dubas, who pounced Friday after watching the likes of Bo Horvat and Vladimir Tarasenko come off the trade board in recent weeks, said of emptying his draft-pick bin. “I would much rather keep the young players that we’ve got signed.

“The picks are a little bit like the mystery box ““ you can have the mystery box or you can have the prospects.”

Tavares didn’t learn of the acquisition of O’Reilly, who also won the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2019, and Acciari until Toronto’s captain looked at his phone Saturday morning.

“Pretty good wake-up,” he said. “Really exciting for our team, our group and, no doubt, our fan base.

“Sends a strong message and gets the group energized.”

O’Reilly, 32, had 12 goals and 19 points in 40 games with St. Louis this season, and just returned to action after recovering from a broken foot, while Acciari, 31, registered 10 goals and 18 points in 54 contests.

“Puts everything in perspective in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who joked reporters will have trouble with two similar names on the same roster.

Keefe got word of the trade Friday as he was driving home from his son’s hockey game.

“Tough to sleep,” he said. “Just trying to think about all the different options that it presents.

“You’re thrilled to be able to make your team better.”

The Leafs plan to move their new forwards ““ O’Reilly and Acciari were expected to dress Saturday against Montreal ““ around the lineup to see where they best fit.

Both can play centre or the wing, meaning O’Reilly could find himself flanking Matthews or Tavares at different points over the next few months as Toronto, which has lost six straight series, prepares for what looks like another first-round playoff matchup with Tampa Bay.

“We’re a team that believes in ourselves,” said Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, acquired at last season’s deadline. “Making additions like that is just management’s way of telling us that they feel the same.”

Dubas, who’s in the final year of his contract, said he would have made the same trade regardless of his status beyond this season.

He added there weren’t any discussions about signing O’Reilly, who’s from Clinton, Ont., about 200 kilometres west of Toronto, to an extension.

At least not yet.

“I like people to live together before they get married,” Dubas said. “You want to make sure that the mix is right in the house before you commit to being together for a long time.”

This move was about the now for a team that needs to ““ has to ““ get over its playoff hurdle, especially with no guarantee Matthews and Nylander will be Leafs beyond the 2023-24 campaign.

“We’ve been in the top-five in the standings, we’re there again this year,” Dubas said. “You’re trying to win the Stanley Cup. There’s a lot of points along the way and people will laugh at that, scoff at that. And that’s fine, but we’re trying to win.

“Anything short of that, I think we’ll all be disappointed.”

Dubas took his shot late Friday. He’ll know soon enough it was the right call.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2023.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

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