In the 11 months between when the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a first-round series to the Tampa Bay Lightning and then won one, Kyle Dubas was cooking.
It started with a busy summer and didn’t slow down much from there.
For years, the Maple Leafs' front office has been operating between two opposing forces: Optimizing the roster pieces around the locked-in core while remaining compliant with a slow-rising salary cap.
For Dubas, that required subtracting from his group in-season with the trades of Rasmus Sandin and Pierre Engvall in order to execute a larger-scale overhaul during a busy deadline period. You don’t typically see a general manager pursue the amount of roster shakeup the 2022-23 Leafs endured while still inside a contention window.
Somewhat incredibly, just 10 players who dressed for Saturday’s series-clinching 2-1 victory in Tampa played in the Game 7 loss against the Lightning last spring.
The influx of newcomers made a difference.
Steven Stamkos actually felt the Lightning put forth a stronger performance the second time around, but noted, “That’s a really good hockey team over there. This year they’re an even better team. They made some really good moves at the deadline, brought in some really good players.”
As the Leafs prepare to open the second round against Florida on Tuesday night, here’s a closer look at what the seven players acquired since mid-February have brought to the team, ranked by impact on the organization’s first playoff series victory since 2004:
Acquired: Feb. 17 via St. Louis Blues
Playoff stats: 2 goals, 7 points, 13 shots, -1 (6 games)
There’s an aura about the Factor.
And there was calm and confidence found in his demeanour after the Leafs got spanked 7-3 in the series opener against the Lightning. That immediately set off alarm bells around the city, but O’Reilly helped make sure they didn’t ring too loudly in the dressing room.
“We were kind of dipping our toes in. That happens,” he said.
The 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner had six shots in the team’s bounce-back Game 2 and a three-point effort in Game 3 – capped by the game-tying goal in the final minute with Ilya Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker.
O’Reilly is viewed as a zero-risk player, one who head coach Sheldon Keefe trusted to eat tough defensive zone shifts while helping insulate his wingers from trouble. That included a run with rookie Matthew Knies and a look alongside Michael Bunting after Bunting returned from suspension and a healthy scratch in Game 6.
When all was said and done, O’Reilly played more minutes than any Leafs forward besides Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and he produced seven points in the six-game series.
Acquired: Feb. 28 via Vancouver Canucks
Playoff stats: 0 points, 7 shots, 34 hits, +6 (6 games)
A playoff breakthrough like this one was literally years in the making for a 33-year-old defenceman who has continued to reinvent and refine his game.
When Schenn won Stanley Cups with the Lightning in 2020 and 2021, he did so as a depth piece that was in and out of the lineup and played as little as four minutes when he did dress.
Part of his reason for leaving as a free agent after the second Cup was to seek out more opportunity with the Vancouver Canucks, while also getting the chance to live and play closer to family and his offseason home in Kelowna.
The Lightning could have used Schenn back in their lineup during Round 1.
He played a regular shift alongside Morgan Rielly all series long — seeing over 20 minutes in a Game 3 overtime victory — and was rock solid in games where mistakes can be fatal.
The goals were 7-1 with him on the ice in all situations. The team’s expected goals and shot rates at 5-on-5 were strong, too.
In a series where the Leafs were too often hemmed in by the Lightning’s forecheck, Keefe said Schenn “was as good as any guy we had in moving the puck out of our own end.”
He was far more than just a feel-good story after rejoining the organization that drafted him fifth overall in 2008.
Schenn also brought a useful physical presence, doling out 34 hits while stepping up to fight Tanner Jeannot in Game 2 and policing former teammate Pat Maroon at every turn.
Acquired: Feb. 27 via Chicago Blackhawks
Playoff stats: 0 points, 8 shots, 32 hits, -1 (6 games)
It was a long wait for the left-shooting defenceman to get his first taste of action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A mere 10 years and 504 games.
Playing alongside T.J. Brodie on a pairing that soaked up tough assignments, McCabe appeared to get more comfortable as the series went along. He played the fourth-most minutes on the team overall and saw a game-high 27:22 in the series-deciding Game 6 — stepping into a more pronounced penalty-killing role with Justin Holl scratched and Brodie and Schenn getting sent off for minors.
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He also threw some big bodychecks in the series, stepping up and catching Lightning forwards by surprise in open ice on multiple occasions.
Expect McCabe to remain an important player when it comes to keeping the puck out of the Leafs' net in Round 2, especially if Holl remains a scratch.
Acquired: Feb. 17 via St. Louis Blues
Playoff stats: 2 goals, 5 shots, 42 hits, even (6 games)
The man affectionately known as “Cookie” has quickly earned Keefe’s trust.
With the Leafs playing a chunk of Game 6 against the Lightning with a lead, Acciari saw more minutes than John Tavares and William Nylander, among others.
Acciari has been there before, having reached the Stanley Cup Final with Boston in 2019, and he tends to inflict a cumulative toll on opponents across a best-of-seven. He threw a team-high 42 hits against Tampa without taking a penalty.
He also blocked 11 shots, served as a secondary faceoff option (going 11-for-21) and managed to score two goals.
Those tallies should merely be considered a bonus given his role.
Signed: April 9 via University of Minnesota
Playoff stats: 3 assists, 5 shots, 12 hits, +3 (5 games)
The kid has been better than advertised.
In fact, Knies found himself playing alongside fellow Arizonan Auston Matthews by the time the Lightning series finished up.
He also has the distinction of earning an assist on John Tavares’s series-clinching overtime winner, working the puck back to him on the wall before the captain cycled out front and scored.
GAME WINNER!— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 30, 2023
LET’S. GO. LEAFS. NATION!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/dkttq8eBpW
Knies has had a mind-bending month – from losing the NCAA Championship game in overtime at Amalie Arena on April 8 with the University of Minnesota, to signing his entry-level contract with the Leafs the following day, to being on the ice for all three of Toronto’s overtime-winning goals in Tampa during the first round.
He made some mistakes with the puck, including failing to get a clear on Tampa’s tying goal in Game 6, but he was a positive contributor overall. The Leafs outscored the Lightning 6-2 during his minutes in the series.
Tavares, his current landlord, said Knies hasn’t been overwhelmed by the experience: “Sometimes in a situation like this, being a bit naive is kind of good. You don’t maybe understand the full circumstances or certain things you haven’t experienced yet, so there’s not maybe a lot of analyzing or overthinking.”
Acquired: Feb. 27 via Chicago Blackhawks
Playoff stats: 1 assist, 5 shots, 10 hits, -3 (5 games)
It was a tough series for the Leafs' fourth line to gain any traction, and it appears that Lafferty will be scratched for Game 1 against the Panthers after being removed alongside linemate Zach Aston-Reese for the clincher in Tampa.
The challenge for him and others on the fringes is making a mark in limited minutes.
Lafferty’s most memorable moment against the Lightning came in Game 3 when he cross-checked Ross Colton in the side of the head during a battle at the side of the goal, earning a roughing penalty and a $3,108.11 fine from the NHL’s department of player safety.
An excellent skater, he’ll have to wait for his opportunity to reclaim a role in the bottom six.
Acquired: Feb. 28 via Washington Capitals
Playoff stats: 0 points, 0 shots, 1 hit, -1 (1 game)
The veteran dressed as the seventh defencemen in the series-clinching game against Tampa, seeing just 7:38 of total ice time after not playing at all for three weeks.
It’s hard to glean too much from that tiny sample.
Gustafsson remains a useful depth option, however, who possesses playoff experience and can capably fill power play minutes should injuries or poor performance necessitate it down the line.