Late on Friday night, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas took his big swing at the trade table in 2023 — the biggest swap of his tenure.
It was a three-team trade that involved the St. Louis Blues, and the Minnesota Wild for salary retention. In the trade, Toronto sent prospect Mikhail Abramov, AHL forward Adam Gaudette, their 2023 first-rounder and 2024 second-rounder, and Ottawa’s 2023 third-rounder to the St. Louis Blues, and got Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari in return. The Blues retained 50 per cent of O’Reilly’s $7.5 million cap hit. The Leafs also sent the Wild their own 2025 fourth-round pick to retain an additional 50 per cent of O’Reilly’s cap hit, meaning the Leafs get the defensive forward for just $1.875 million against the cap.
Interestingly, both O’Reilly and Acciari are pending UFAs, which were the kind of assets Dubas recently said he would not move his first-rounder for.
“In regards to rentals, I can’t see that happening,” Dubas said of moving his first-rounder or prospect Matthew Knies.
This is the big splash the Leafs were after, though, and these two players add much greater lineup flexibility, experience, and specific elements that tend to shine through even brighter in post-season hockey.
In O’Reilly, the Leafs get someone who has been one of the best defensive forwards in the league for years, a Selke Trophy winner in 2019 who has been a top-five finalist for the award four years running. He’s excellent on the faceoff and will be a big presence on the PK.
The added bonus on O’Reilly is that the Leafs can use him in a couple of different places, depending on how they want to line match. O’Reilly could start as the third-line centre and move David Kampf down to the fourth, or he could be placed on the second line as the left winger (or, possibly, bump John Tavares to the flank).
And while O’Reilly is having a down year like the rest of the Blues, there is reason to believe he could bounce back offensively on a better line. O’Reilly excelled next to David Perron last year with 37 assists, but hasn’t had the same type of finisher with him this season and has just seven assists in 40 games.
When O’Reilly was on the ice at 5-on-5 this season, the Blues had a team shooting percentage of just 7.97, the lowest mark of his career since he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Similarly, Blues goalies struggled to just an .872 save percentage with O’Reilly on the ice at 5-on-5 — by far the lowest of his whole career.
So is O’Reilly’s struggles the result of a 32-year-old player showing decline, or is it at least partly due to some bad luck and grinding through on a non-playoff team?
Dubas is betting on the latter.
O’Reilly missed over a month of games in 2023 with a broken foot, but has returned to play three games and posted a point in each, showing no lingering effects.
The last time O’Reilly was traded — from Buffalo to St. Louis — he went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Blues won the Stanley Cup.
These Leafs hope to be so lucky.
In Acciari, the Leafs get a bottom-six grinder who can block shots, throw his body around and, like O’Reilly, either be used to win faceoffs down the middle, or as a presence on the wing.
Without much cap space remaining, Dubas has taken his big cut with this trade and, seemingly, has given a vote of confidence to his group of blueliners. Sure the Leafs could still add some depth to that position, but the GM decided he needed more of a physical presence and centre depth up front, and some valued post-season experience to boot.
If the Leafs are to make another big move in the last couple of weeks before the March 3 deadline, it would require another roster player or two to move out.
So are O’Reilly and Acciari the answer for a team looking to break through with post-season success? Are these the pieces the Leafs needed to get a leg up on divisional foes Boston and (likely first-round opponent) Tampa Bay?
Scout Jason Bukala shares his thoughts on the deal…
Armchair general managers who also consider themselves die-hard Maple Leafs fans are buzzing following Toronto’s trade with the St.Louis Blues.
I’m not here to fan the flames, but I am comfortable presenting the pros and cons of this deal and what it means for the Leafs this spring – and into the future.
This is what an “all-in” roster looks like:
After this trade, the Leafs now have nine players on their roster who will become unrestricted free agents this summer.
The Leafs’ most pressing RFA scenario exists with Ilya Samsonov. If the team goes on what they hope will be a long playoff run, Samsonov will be looking for a raise this off-season as well.
Keeping with the “all-in” theme, here is what is left of the Leafs’ draft board for the next three seasons:
Out of a possible nine picks over the first three rounds of the next three drafts, Toronto is left with a total of four now. The good news is they still have their first-round selections in 2024 and 2025. Another layer of bad news is they only have one of their fourth-round picks in the next three drafts.
The draft cupboards are bare.
A story for another day is the reality that the Leafs have very little coming through their prospect pipeline, too. Having said that, they did not include Matthew Knies (their top prospect) in the deal with the Blues, and that’s a positive.
Just the facts
1. Adding Noel Acciari in this deal cannot be understated. He was leading the Blues with 168 hits. His physical presence, and flexibility to play both the wing and the middle, is a significant add for the Leafs.
2. Who led the Leafs in hits this season before adding Acciari? Would it surprise you to hear it’s Rasmus Sandin with 113?
3. The most physically punishing Leafs forward so far this season has been Zach Aston-Reese, who has 112 hits, followed by John Tavares (80) and Auston Matthews (60).
4. Sheldon Keefe and his staff run set plays off face-offs all over the ice. Adding Ryan O’Reilly and his 54 per cent success rate will assist with game planning. Acciari isn’t far behind. He’s won 53 per cent of his draws this season.
5. Special teams (and goaltending!) can win playoff series on their own. O’Reilly averages over 18 minutes of ice time and easily slides into the Leafs special team units. Acciari averages just shy of 15 minutes of ice time. I would be surprised to see him on one of the Leafs power-play units, but he will definitely add a layer to their penalty kill.
6. Acciari isn’t a huge shot blocker. He’s been credited with 55 so far this season. But it has to be reassuring to know Matthews doesn’t have to lead the team in the category going forward. Matthews currently sits with the most shot blocks by a Leaf forward with 65. Incredibly, Alex Kerfoot and Aston-Reese are tied for second with only 32 blocks. Shot blocks are a big part of the sacrifice come playoff time.
7. I’m concerned about O’Reilly’s foot speed. He’s certainly not a burner in open ice. What I’m not concerned about is his leadership and character. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner.
8. O’Reilly’s foot speed only matters if the linemates he plays with are not transporting the puck in transition. I anticipate a couple of burners flanking O’Reilly.
9. With all due respect to Adam Gaudette and Mikhail Abramov, time will tell if they become more of a storyline in this deal. In my opinion, they are what they are – organizational depth pieces and not NHL players.
10. Toronto adds prospect Josh Pillar in the deal. He’s an interesting piece to monitor. Pillar might end up being a player who can play an energy game at the pro level. He competes and plays quick, but he’s not dynamic offensively.
11. The fourth-round pick that Toronto sent to the Minnesota Wild in the trade was due to the fact the Leafs wanted to take on as little cap hit as possible in relation to O’Reilly. Minnesota absorbed $1.875 million of O’Reilly’s cap hit. Considering around 65 per cent of the salaries have been paid to players by this time in the year, the Wild are on the books to pay only roughly $657,000 of O’Reilly’s salary for the rest of the season. The Wild essentially purchased a fourth round pick in 2025 for that money.
12. If the Leafs don’t win a playoff round this season this trade borders on catastrophic for the depth of the organization.
Does the deal make sense?
Yes. It’s time to push all the chips in the middle of the table and see if this core is capable of going to another level, or levels. But one round is not good enough come spring. This group has to go on a deep run.
Did the Leafs give up too much?
No. It’s time! And they added to their NHL roster without subtracting.
Long ago, the organization invested a lot of money, and hope, in their core forwards. They have built this team around Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. An argument could be made that Morgan Reilly is also part of that core on the back end.
The Leafs have tried adding veteran leaders in the past. Players like Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton (amongst others).
They also tried to become a harder team to play against with Wayne Simmonds in the lineup.
So far, the results speak for themselves. Toronto hasn’t accomplished anything but regular season success. And for the record, nobody will remember this team in 20 years due to their regular-season point totals.
I like this trade. I feel like the team is closer to where it needs to be. It will, of course, be endlessly debated until Leafs Nation sees the results they are desperately hoping for this spring.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are now a harder team to play against after this trade. Acquiring Acciari and O’Reilly brings more depth and roster flexibility.