The debate about whether the Toronto Maple Leafs have enough edge, grit and character required to get over the hump in the playoffs has basically played on loop within the two-week periods each spring when they’ve failed to get the job done.
That conversation was also raging in November 2019, when Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as head coach and the Leafs' brass met reporters for a makeshift press conference in Arizona. That meeting in the desert became as much a state of the union as a discussion about coaching.
It was there that team president Brendan Shanahan pushed back on those who “too simplistically” characterized the organizational vision as one built around speed and skill, mentioning Toronto also endeavoured to display a modern version of fortitude that didn’t require a bunch of heavies.
“I think that our interpretation of toughness and grittiness might be different from someone who played in the 70s and 80s — or coached then,” Shanahan said. “If you even look at Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy and had an exceptional playoffs, I see him as a guy that is tough and gritty. But he had four penalty minutes in the playoffs.
”I think the definition and how we define that to our players is it’s about winning battles and being mentally tough, making a mistake and not becoming weak or small because of it.”
The Leafs felt a little more stout waking up Saturday morning with knowledge that O’Reilly and Noel Acciari are heading into the battle with them this spring.
O'Reilly and Acciari were acquired from the St. Louis Blues in a late-night moonshot by Kyle Dubas. The general manager parted with most of his remaining draft capital and cap space by sending out a 2023 first-rounder, 2023 third-rounder, 2024 second-rounder, prospect Mikhail Abramov and minor-leaguer Adam Gaudette.
The deal also involved Minnesota (which received Toronto's 2025 fourth-rounder) in order to lower the cap charge on O’Reilly to the lowest level possible.
Ryan O'Reilly finds some space and buries the biscuit. 🎶 pic.twitter.com/LJyHl5gE6W— NHL (@NHL) December 28, 2022
For the gain of two rental players, it was a bold move — the kind Dubas himself had publicly indicated a week earlier he was reluctant to make.
But it also addressed clear needs for a team sitting tied for fifth in points percentage (.673) but still staring down the barrel of a first-round matchup with the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning.
An informal poll of five rival executives came back overwhelmingly in favour of Toronto’s decision to pursue the Blues forwards rather than some of the more sexy names available on the trade market.
“Exactly what they needed,” one rival exec wrote in a text.
The Leafs are not getting the 2019 version of O’Reilly — the guy who anchored the Blues' top line and played 21 minutes per game while leading them to a Stanley Cup — but they now unquestionably boast the deepest roster of centres they’ve had in more than a generation.
Someone will have to be shifted to the wing with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, O’Reilly, Acciari and David Kampf all excellent in the faceoff dot.
That represents important depth in case of injury and a coach’s dream if everybody stays healthy, especially a coach who mixes and matches as often as Keefe does. Expect him to experiment with a number of different lineup formations over the remaining 27 regular season games.
The new additions will also be welcomed by assistant coach Dean Chynoweth, who oversees a penalty kill that currently ranks 13th in the NHL. He’s getting two more experienced veterans to deploy.
How the trade is ultimately judged will hinge heavily on O’Reilly, who recently missed six weeks with a broken foot and has seen his production plummet this season.
There will be some in Leaf Nation concerned about the similarities to Dubas’s Nick Foligno acquisition in April 2021 — another veteran rental brought in for multiple picks including a first-rounder, only to be hobbled by a back injury that rendered him unable to make any impact at all in Round 1.
However, there should be some comfort found in the fact O’Reilly comes with a much higher ceiling and played well in the three games following his return. He’s also said to be eager to play near his hometown of Varna, Ont., which could potentially extend his stay with a contract extension down the line.
In truth, all that really matters for this team is the here and now.
The Leafs are gearing up for their seventh straight postseason appearance and still looking for the franchise’s first series victory since 2004. In O’Reilly, they’ve added a perennial Selke Trophy candidate known for his strong 200-foot play and a former Cup-winning captain who ticks all of the boxes when it comes to leadership and experience.
Acciari also boasts extensive playoff experience, including two series victories over the Leafs during his time in Boston, and is a player that one rival scout called the “perfect fourth-line centre.”
“Hits hard and plays safe,” he added.
In short: The kind of players who define what the Leafs have been trying to become for years.