‘We’ll still be busy’: Why Maple Leafs made McCabe trade, and may need one more move

SEATTLE – Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty, the newest Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks escapees, are already airborne for Seattle. 

Hobby guitarist Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari are getting amped up for Monday night’s team outing to the Bruce Springsteen show. 

And general manager Kyle Dubas, having already signed off on two blockbusters, is standing inside the Four Seasons, back against the wall and eyes on the prize. He considers if he has one more encore in him ahead of Friday’s trade deadline.

“I think we’ll still be busy and active and try to find if there’s any way that we can continue to improve. It’s at the balance now where you (ask): ‘Are you changing the group too much?’ ” says Dubas. 

“Every year we’re in it, with where we’re at right now, we have to give the team the best chance to win.”

For executives — and so many diehard, cap-studying, rumour-soaking fans — this is the most exciting time of the hockey calendar.

“How do we situate ourselves to best compete? Because just being a fun matchup and being fun to watch isn’t good enough for us,” Dubas says. “It’s trying to win.”

If this regular-season superpower blows up in smoke, it won’t be for lack of trying. At least on the front office’s part.

Since taking his current position as the Maple Leafs’ deal broker, Dubas has traded his first-round picks in 2019, 2020 (later recouped in the Kasperi Kanapen deal), 2021, 2022, 2023 and now 2025 in an effort to give the Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner–William Nylander–John Tavares–Morgan Rielly core repeated opportunities to defeat its greatest nemesis: Round 1.

With fellow Atlantic Division titans Boston (Dmitry Orlov, Garnet Hathaway) and Tampa Bay (Tanner Jeannot) loading up for April, too, Dubas refused to rest on the laurels of his O’Reilly and Acciari rentals, as seamlessly as the new forwards have embraced their roles.

While Julien BriseBois was hawking long futures to bring in Jeannot Sunday night, Dubas went sleepless in Seattle, pushing McCabe and Lafferty across the finish line.

In 204-pound McCabe, Dubas has landed his Jake Muzzin replacement. Or, rather, his best bang-for-buck option. Term and price are key.

The Blackhawks will eat 50 per cent ($2 million) of McCabe’s cap hit this year as well as for 2023-24 and 2024-25, giving Toronto a top-four shutdown left shot at an extremely team-friendly price.

McCabe kills penalties, blocks shots, and throws hits. He happily starts his shifts in the D-zone yet hasn’t been overwhelmed with minuses despite spending his entire career with non-playoff teams. He’s been on Dubas’s wish list since 2021’s free agency, when McCabe was coming off an ACL injury.

“He’s played very well. He’s mostly been with Seth Jones there in Chicago and done a very good job for them. So, it gave us a good chance to see how he would play against top competition each night,” Dubas explains.

As for McCabe’s zero games of playoff experience — very un-Muzzin-like — Dubas points to former Leaf Ron Hainsey, whose long-deferred first postseason taste resulted in a Stanley Cup with the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I actually went back and forth with Ronnie this morning about that. You never know. You’d love to have guys who’ve all won before and all done it, but I just think the way (McCabe) plays is the best projection of how he’s going to be in those moments. 

“He plays with high pressure physically. (He’s) competitive and doesn’t really give an inch to people — and that’s what we’re going to need in those moments.”

Lafferty, 27, will also be used in those moments. 

He, too, arrives with term, one more season at a modest $1.15-million hit. Lafferty is flying high with a career-best 10 goals and 21 points this season. Like Acciari, he brings speed and versatility and net-crashing to a Toronto bottom six that could use another competitive forechecker.

A centre-wing hybrid, Lafferty will make Alexander Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall expendable next season, if not this one.

“There’s no reason for us to really beat around it: We’ve wanted to become more competitive,” says Dubas. He points to the greasy brand of goals Lafferty, O’Reilly and Acciari can finish. 

“Something we feel like, in those big moments, we’ve needed and maybe we’ve lacked a little bit of, to just kind of push us over the top,” Dubas says.

“We know we have guys that can score from anywhere at the top of the lineup. It’s finding guys that can chip in more from the bottom, and we think Noel and Sam can do that.”

Even with retained salary, Dubas’s latest swing leaves the Leafs so tight to the cap ceiling ($2.77 million) that something must give to slide goaltender Matt Murray off long-term injured reserve this week — which the GM hopes is still the plan.

(Our opinion: With Murray’s availability in question, there is still time to explore the rent-a-goalie market.)

“We went through this last year, to where we thought we were gonna have to make another move, and then Rasmus Sandin got hurt in Nashville (right before the Mark Giordano trade) and missed the remainder of the year,” Dubas reminds. 

“An old friend of mine always used to say, ‘When time is on your side, use it.’ So, we’ll do that here. But we kind of know where everything is at. We’ll see what happens in the subsequent couple games here in Edmonton and Calgary and then be able to adapt from there.”

The East is a beast. 

Excellent, stacked hockey clubs will get shredded early. 

The task is monumental and painfully overdue.

But Dubas, chips pushed in, believes it is his “duty” to give the Maple Leafs their best chance at getting over the hump once and for all.

“You’re going to have two teams that are in the top six, if it finishes this way, playing in the first round. Which is great for the fans, but it’s really tough when you’re competing,” Dubas says. 

“But I think we relish it. And I think we need it, actually. I think of all teams, we should be embracing it and being ready to go for it.”

Is it April yet?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *