TORONTO – If you were caught off guard by the three-team blockbuster deal that came down late Friday night, bringing St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly and teammate Noel Acciari to Toronto for a package of picks, you were far from alone.
Even Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was surprised by the news. The bench boss was driving home from his son’s hockey game when he learned of the deal and admitted Saturday morning he was too excited to sleep.
Can you blame him? It’s easy to get caught up dreaming about his real-life lineup – one that now boasts the deepest pool of talent down the middle of any team in the league.
“You think about, as a coach, all the different options that it presents you and excited about it,” said Keefe.
“You’ve just got so many options now with such an abundance of depth at centre and we can do lots of different things,” he continued. “I suspect between now and the end of the regular season we’ll try a number of different things and try to get, A, a feel for what’s our best mix and then B, potential adjustments and different looks that we can throw out.”
The mixing-and-matching is already well underway, and we’ll get our first glimpse in a matter of hours. Keefe confirmed both players will be in the lineup Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens. He said the two now-former Blues were flying from St. Louis to Toronto Saturday morning and despite the tight turnaround were both “adamant and excited to get right in.”
O’Reilly brings to the Maple Leafs a two-way game known for being one of the best in the league. The near-perennial Selke contender (and winner of the award in 2018-19) drove the Blues through their Cinderella run in 2018-19, earning Conny Smythe Trophy honours enroute to hoisting the Stanley Cup. That reputation for being a playoff performer is what had his new head coach buzzing with excitement Saturday morning.
“There’s certain players that seem like a playoff guy and there’s certain players you can say are playoff guys,” said Keefe. “And I think he’s done more than enough in his time in the playoffs – and not just the year he wins the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe. He’s one of the rare guys that actually has a higher points per game in the playoffs than he does in the regular season. So there’s just a lot that he brings on both sides of the puck.”
That excitement was palpable among the Leafs’ players, too, management’s message coming through loud and clear that this team, this year, is capable of going all the way.
“It’s a big move for us and it’s a move that as players we look at it and it kind of tells us where we’re at and kind of puts everything in perspective in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “The belief in the team that the organization has, where we’re trying to go, adding players that can help.”
(It wasn’t lost on anyone in the room, either, that we’ll all be triple-checking our i’s and e’s and fighting autocorrect with Rielly and O’Reilly on the same roster. “You guys are in trouble,” Rielly joked.)
“I think an easy way to look at is, your team got better,” said Rielly, who added he found out about the deal when the rest of his teammates did late Friday night. “We added two guys that are good players and that’s a great feeling. The group that we had, prior to this trade, had belief and was motivated to play well and to make the playoffs, try to make a playoff run. Then you add players that are here to help you do that, it’s a good feeling.
“It makes you very excited about the possibilities of what our group can accomplish,” he continued. “Just to have that internal belief within the organization that we’re capable of being a team that can maybe go on a run or at least give us a chance to, is a good feeling.”
O’Reilly, of course, brings more than playoff prowess and an elite two-way game. The now-former Blues captain also brings another leadership voice into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room.
This is the third consecutive year Dubas has acquired another team’s captain in a deadline move. Asked Saturday morning about the leadership O’Reilly brings into a room that already has plenty, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares told reporters “I don’t think you can ever have enough.”
Tavares said he appreciates having another leader in the room, another voice with another perspective, and is looking forward to learning from a fellow leader.
“It’s an opportunity for me to learn and grow.”
Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, who wore the C with the Calgary Flames during his tenure out west and was also named the first-ever captain of the Seattle Kraken during his short time there, shared that sentiment.
“Obviously he’s a guy well-respected around the league for a long time. He plays the right way, he plays hard and it’s going to be a huge addition to our team,” Giordano said following the Maple Leafs’ optional morning skate.
Praise for Acciari was also plentiful – every player who spoke was quick to point out his skillset and physicality. The Maple Leafs all know firsthand from his years with Atlantic Division foes Boston and Florida how hard he is to suit up against.
“Talking to our players today, they’re excited about O’Reilly for obvious reasons but Acciari’s a guy who, hearing the excitement from them, that speaks to how much they respect his game and how hard he is to play against and the experience that he has in the playoffs as well.”
That term – “hard to play against” – is music to Leafs fans’ ears, and the first words uttered by every one of his new teammates who spoke pregame on Saturday.
“Oh, he’s a hard guy to play against as well,” said Giordano. “Really finishes every check, on the body a lot. He’s one guy, for sure, when he’s out there you know he’s out there. He’s forechecking, he’s always got a good stick and extremely hard to play against so obviously excited to have him as well.”
Tavares also spoke highly of Acciari’s physical game.
“He’s a real solid player. He’s always been very difficult to play against, the consistency he plays with, the physical nature of the game,” he said.
They’ll all get their first look Saturday night against the Canadiens.
In net, Joseph Woll will get the start with Erik Källgren backing him up. Ilya Samsonov (illness) was present at Saturday’s optional morning skate and Keefe said the netminder is “feeling better” but it remains unclear if he will be available for Sunday’s contest in Chicago.