First impressions on Ryan O’Reilly and the new-look Maple Leafs

The Leafs lineup is looking very different after a slew of trades in the days leading up the NHL trade deadline.

Ahead of Friday’s trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs have undergone an extreme makeover, acquiring six new roster players, while sending back three players to various teams during a two-week span.

Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari joined the Maple Leafs from St. Louis on Feb. 17 in exchange for 2023 first and third-round picks, a 2024 second-rounder, as well as Mikhail Abramov and Adam Gaudette. Minnesota received a 2025 fourth-round pick for brokering the deal, while Toronto received prospect Josh Pillar.

Toronto wasn’t done after the O’Reilly trade, gaining defenceman Jake McCabe, forward Sam Lafferty, a conditional fifth-round pick in 2024 and a conditional fifth-round pick in 2025 from Chicago in exchange for a conditional 2025 first-round pick, 2026 second-round pick, Joey Anderson and Pavel Gogolev. Chicago elected to retain 50 percent of McCabe’s salary for this season, along with the next two seasons.

Kyle Dubas kept going, acquiring defenceman Erik Gustafsson and a 2023 first-round pick from Washington in exchange for defenceman Rasmus Sandin. The pick sent to Toronto originally belonged to Boston and was acquired by Washington in the Dmitry Orlov trade. Luke Schenn will return to Toronto as the team sent a third-round pick to Vancouver in order to facilitate the reunion.

Pierre Engvall was then shipped to the New York Islanders for a 2024 third-rounder. We’d be stupid to bet against the wheeling-and-dealing Dubas, but it appears that the Maple Leafs have their playoff roster set.

The Maple Leafs have been among the most active teams ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and the moves are already paying off on the ice. (Reuters)
The Maple Leafs have been among the most active teams ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and the moves are already paying off on the ice. (Reuters)

Here’s how the new additions have fared through their first looks with the team, with McCabe and Lafferty suiting up against Edmonton on Wednesday.

The Ontario Line could be an elite two-way unit

It was initially thought that O’Reilly would shift down to third-line centre, but instead, Keefe elected to move John Tavares to the wing for a supercharged line that would become one of the most defensively responsible forward units in the league. This line would play four games together, before Keefe decided to experiment with William Nylander and moved Mitch Marner into a comfort zone with Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews.

O’Reilly developed a well-earned reputation as one of the best defensive forwards in hockey, winning the Selke Trophy in 2019, but this season, he briefly descended into a league-average defensive player. Marner and Tavares are within the top-80 of all qualified players when it comes to expected goals against per 60, so O’Reilly would surely benefit from playing with two elite wingers, and this line sports the potential to be the best two-way group in the league.

Tavares-O’Reilly-Marner barely made a dent during their first game together, but Toronto still skated away with a 5-1 victory over Montreal. And the reverse proved true during their second outing: the Maple Leafs were largely uninspired in a 5-3 loss to Chicago, but the Ontario Line registered their first goal together while controlling 66 percent of the expected goals. Then came the onslaught.

We’ll group O’Reilly’s first two goals together as Marner is the common denominator with primary assists. The threat of both O’Reilly and Tavares crashing the net allowed Marner to operate with a ton of space, which is a death sentence for Buffalo. It also showcased the thinking behind Tavares’ move to the wing: he’s used his size and innate hockey sense to seal off the wall on the forecheck and he’s a threat to come off the wing and glide into prime goal scoring locations, which has been his best asset since he was a prodigy in the OHL.

The Ontario Line’s chemistry continued to grow against Minnesota, controlling 66 percent of the expected goals, with a plus-two shot differential at 5-on-5. O’Reilly provided Toronto with further flexibility throughout the lineup, but what stood out was his dominance in the faceoff circle, winning draws at a 15-2 clip in regulation, before William Nylander scored one of the best goals of his career for the OT winner. Tavares took just six faceoffs, so I asked Sheldon Keefe about what goes into the decisions behind which nominal centre takes the draw.

“I just leave it to them to discuss it,” Keefe told Yahoo Sports Canada. “It’s a combination of keeping the opponents on their toes a little bit, they’re not always seeing the same centre. And also we want to keep John in rhythm taking faceoffs. Stay consistent with it. You never know when you’re going to rely on him and need him for a faceoff. And then power play, specifically, he starts the power play for us on the draw. You don’t want it to be where he steps up for a big draw on the power play and he hasn’t taken one all game. We’re trying to make sure he stays with us and gets some reps. O’Reilly has been out of this world.

“We got lots of options there, we want to keep John in a little bit of a rhythm there, making sure he gets some reps.”

After six games together — four paired as a line — the Ontario Line registered five goals with three against, while continuing to share an increased defensive conscientiousness, controlling 51 percent of the expected goals in all situations. Keefe said he wanted to experiment with his line combinations, and he did immediately after Friday’s 2-1 win against Minnesota.

Nylander breaks up the Ontario Line

William Nylander has been outstanding for the Maple Leafs, he has consistently driven the offence so it figures he’d get a shot with O’Reilly and Tavares. It paid immediate dividends during a 5-1 victory over Seattle, registering two goals with zero against. And once again, Tavares’ ability to generate offence from the wing was on full display, O’Reilly disrupted the Kraken with two expert screens, while Nylander hummed as a threat, circling the faceoff dot looking for clean shooting lanes.

O’Reilly couldn’t have boxed out the Kraken defense any better than this, while Kraken defenceman Carson Soucy couldn’t outmuscle Tavares, who dipped in from the slot, as Mark Giordano notched his fourth goal of the season.

On this goal, O’Reilly is the nominal centre, but Tavares provides immediate puck support and tips it back to the since-departed Rasmus Sandin, who swings the puck to Justin Holl. Holl is prone to holding on the puck for way too long, but he makes the correct play here, Nylander deftly tips his shot and with O’Reilly commanding attention with an expertly placed screen, Tavares punished Seattle’s defense on the rebound for an easy goal.

Keefe will be encouraged to burn the tape from Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to Edmonton, but the O’Reilly line was one of the lone positives, registering five shots with three against, and since they didn’t score any goals, we’ll throw out the expected goals splits. We only have a two-game sample after all, but it seems evident that pairing Tavares and O’Reilly’s strengths make them a nightmare to contain with the slot, in the low cycle, with either nominal centre boxing out defenders, while an elite playmaking wing in Nylander or Marner will wreak havoc with extra time to navigate space.

Acciari is a wrecking ball for the fourth line

Noel Acciari finally played a bad game for the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, but he’s largely been an invigorating force for a dormant fourth line. Acciari scored an ugly goal vs. Chicago by driving the net, and it’s exactly the type of grimy offence Toronto will need from its bottom-six in the postseason.

Keefe was impressed immediately by Acciari, praising him for his contributions to his line alongside Zach Aston-Reese and Alexander Kerfoot prior to the Feb. 21 victory vs. Buffalo.

“The Acciari group, that's the best our fourth line has looked all season.”

O’Reilly rightfully won the headlines for his hat-trick against Buffalo, but he passed the team belt to Acciari post-game.

Acciari has been an excellent addition to the penalty kill — he saved Toronto at a crucial juncture of the third period against Minnesota on Feb. 24, allowing Mitch Marner’s third-period minor to register as a blip in the radar. Toronto controlled 88.2 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick when Acciari was on the ice Friday, while Minnesota didn’t record a shot during his 10 minutes at even strength.

He also hits like a truck and he hits consistently. If you’re in the camp that insisted Toronto needed to get tougher, look no further than Acciari.

During 47 minutes at 5-on-5, the Aston-Reese-Acciari-Kerfoot line accounted for 72 percent of the expected goals, without registering a single goal for or against — Acciari’s goal isn’t accounted for here for pedantic reasons, as David Kampf was on the ice. This combination is one Keefe will want to reinstall immediately, as Acciari wasn’t nearly as effective without Kerfoot on Wednesday night.

Lafferty’s speed is an asset for Maple Leafs

“The thing that really stands out is his speed,” Keefe said of Lafferty upon being acquired. “He’s right up there with the fastest players in the league, so he gets on top of you really quickly both ways — whether that’s on the forecheck or tracking coming back, getting in behind defencemen to generate some offence.”

Lafferty’s elite speed stands out immediately, but it’s perhaps the only thing that stands out about him. He seemed like an inessential piece for the Maple Leafs, but perhaps my initial assessment — that Lafferty can skate like the wind and do little more — was incorrect.

Lafferty and O’Reilly were two of three Maple Leafs with a positive expected goals percentage when on the ice at 5-on-5 vs. Edmonton — the other one being Kerfoot, who has unfairly been subject to rampant trade speculation. The newly acquired centre/winger used his speed to set up a dangerous chance for Aston-Reese but put it out of his reach, during his lone flash play of the evening.

“I thought the new guys played fine but it’s the guys we regularly count on that weren’t good enough,” Keefe said post-game via Sports Illustrated’s David Alter.

We’ll need more than a one-game sample from Lafferty. His pace and versatility evidently stands out to Dubas and Keefe. Perhaps Lafferty will get shifted up to the third line, in order for Acciari to stabilize the fourth unit once again.

McCabe had a brutal start and Toronto may need to reshuffle entire defense

Jake McCabe’s brutal start to the evening set the tone for Toronto on Wednesday. He took a bad penalty three minutes into the contest, tripping Philip Broberg behind the net, and Connor McDavid capitalized on the ensuing power play. McCabe was paired with T.J. Brodie and we don’t anticipate this pairing lasting too long.

It’s not entirely on McCabe, who logged solid underlying numbers on a horrific Chicago team, but there’s a domino effect that occurred when he didn’t play well, and Justin Holl got eaten alive while paired with Morgan Rielly, to the tune of three goals against.

Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson are joining Toronto shortly, and with nine NHL defencemen on the roster, McCabe and the rest of Toronto’s defense may be getting a complete reshuffle.

"It's a good problem for me to have, and we'll find ways to get everybody involved,” Keefe said prior to Wednesday’s game via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

Josh Wegman of theScore floated the idea of a Rielly-Schenn pairing and that could work, given that Schenn helped shelter Vancouver star Quinn Hughes from tough assignments. Mark Giordano has been consistently stellar with whomever he’s paired with, and he may be back with Timothy Liljegren once again, or you could flip McCabe to Giordano’s opposite side and see what happens against Calgary. Holl submitted a shambolic performance and he may be banished to the press box, while Schenn and Gustafsson get first looks.

McCabe will certainly have better nights, but his brutal first impression was emblematic of Toronto’s treacherous night overall against Edmonton.