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Smart, aggressive roster moves give Maple Leafs best chance in daunting playoff bracket

VANCOUVER — Behind closed doors, the talks were honest, the priorities set in advance.

Deep into another relatively smooth and successful regular season, Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs identified the areas they could better set themselves up for the Eastern Conference playoff gauntlet.

Size. Checking. Nastiness. Desperation. Defence. Experience. Depth.

In headline-snatching waves, Dubas flung futures to add versatile two-way forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from St. Louis; speedster Sam Lafferty and cycle-stuffer Jake McCabe from Chicago; then hit leader and nostalgia king Luke Schenn from Vancouver and power-play quarterback Erik Gustafsson from Washington.

Out went Rasmus Sandin, Pierre Engvall, and Joey Anderson — all younger, all carrying more hope than hurt at this stage in their journey.

You can call it a win for old-school, meat-and-potatoes hockey over the charts and graphs crowd.

Or you can call it a smart, aggressive roster adjustment, a skill-versus-will balancing in the face of the Herculean task that awaits: three-time finalist Tampa Bay, perhaps followed by an all-time Boston squad.

These are deep and determined and mean hockey clubs that have trudged the path and will not be skilled to death.

But as the new-look Leafs showed Thursday in Calgary, grinding out and locking down a 2-1 road win in a Darryl Sutter type of game, coach Sheldon Keefe saw the best third period of his tenure.

Dubas saw a glimmer of a trade deadline well done, a group better suited to springtime.

“A little bit more competitive with a little bit more sacrifice. Willing to put themselves on the line to win pucks. Do the right things defensively that aren’t necessarily the fanciest or the sexiest things in the game — but they contribute to winning,” Dubas said in Vancouver, after Friday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline passed.

“I just sense that with the players we’ve added, and also with the growth of some of the guys internally, we’re just far better in that realm.”

The catch, of course, is that Tampa Bay (Tanner Jeannot) and Boston (Dmitry Orlov, Tyler Bertuzzi, Garnet Hathaway) got better in that realm, too.

But the Maple Leafs — an organization that seemed to be forever seeking the next Nic Petan, Denis Malgin or Tyler Ennis — have churned most of all.

“The guys we’ve added bring lots to our team. Lots of character. Lots of grit. Lots of versatility. Lots of experience,” Keefe said.

“We might have doubled the amount of children we’ll be bringing into the family rooms for home games. That speaks to the experience that you’re bringing in.”

If the family room feels the patter of mini sticks, the dressing room feels the giddy ripple of management shifting the earth.

“We’re all in,” O’Reilly said. “That’s an exciting thing. We’ve got a great team here and a lot of good pieces, and it’s time to put in the work and start building it.

“You just feel it. That sense that, hey, we’re building something. We’re looking to go the distance.”

After tweaking his top six and bottom six, left defence and right defence, Dubas said he was happy with the roster he has handed to Keefe for a stretch run and beyond.

And, yes, that includes the guys in masks: Ilya Samsonov, enjoying a career year; Matt Murray, soon to be returning from a lengthy ankle injury; and prospect Joseph Woll, as promising a third-stringer as you’ll find.

“I’m very confident in our goaltenders,” Dubas said. “How confident are you that they can do it in the end and pull through? Matt has done it in the past. And there weren’t really other guys available that have. And we believe in the potential of Ilya and Joe both.”

Some wondered if the GM would deal from a blue line that now runs nine NHL bodies deep, but the cap space is still open to sign top prospect Matthew Knies and give him a look before playoffs.

And the recency bias of having to plug holes in November when a string of injuries to the back end struck prompted Dubas to take Gustafsson over a secondary, lower draft pick from the Capitals in the Sandin trade.

“We’ve had some arduous times in terms of who’s been available for our D. I’d rather have the guys and sort through a little bit of competition,” Dubas said.

Watching his players closely, on and off the ice, Dubas trusts that the leaders will welcome in all these fresh faces, that they can handle the turnover knowing that change is intended for the better.

“We have to let it settle and let these guys roll. We’ve addressed what we think they need. Now let’s let them and the coaches get to work,” Dubas said.

The architect can now take a breath before the next stage of anxiety — the watching and hoping — sets in.

Dubas has modified his vision. He believes he has constructed the most competitive version of the Maple Leafs possible, from what the market presented.

“We know how hard it’s going to be. The easiest way to put it is: Hard things are hard,” Dubas said.

“It’s a tough road, and we know that. But I think knowing that is important for our group. We need that because we have to show we can overcome that. And we have to push through.”


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