The Atlantic Division in the NHL was already a hell gauntlet. With the Boston Bruins suddenly turning into a team of frost giants that can skate (then again, it’s probably likely frost giants could always skate, given the conditions in the Jotunheim), it’s only become more so. It’s just three teams right now, but for either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Toronto Maple Leafs, they know they’re going to have to beat the other two to get far enough in the playoffs to consider it “a run.”
The Leafs struck first during the weekend, trading a collection of draft picks and a middling prospect to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari. O’Reilly is four years removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as he dragged a rather unimpressive Blues team to a Cup — over the Bruins funny enough — and though he might not be that player anymore he’s still highly effective.
There’s been a lot of talk about O’Reilly’s lack of production in St. Louis this year, but that’s a false flag. Sure, O’Reilly only had 19 points in 40 games with the Blues, but that had more to do with the Blues’ incompetence than O’Reilly’s. The Blues only shot eight percent with O’Reilly on the ice. It was especially acute on the power play, where the Blues’ shooting percentage was cut in half with O’Reilly on the ice. He’s just not racking up the free points with the man advantage that he used to. That won’t be a problem in Toronto, where he might only be on the second unit and they don’t need him to be on it at all.
Everything else for O’Reilly looks in line with what he’s always been. His shots per 60 minutes at even strength, his expected goals, and his attempts are all in line or even better than what he’s done the past few years. And all that has maintained its level while O’Reilly’s usage greatly changed, meaning that he went from starting about half his shifts in the offensive zone to less than a third. The Blues were using him as a glorified checking center, and yet he was still creating and getting the same amount of chances when he was deployed as a more offensive weapon.
Which gives the Leafs options. They could still use O’Reilly as that, leaving Auston Matthews and John Tavares to only focus on one half of the ice, and making David Kampf one of the best fourth-line centers around. So far, that hasn’t been what coach Sheldon Keefe has opted for, instead putting O’Reilly between Mitch Marner and John Tavares, but that might change come the spring.
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But will the Thunder get them?
What anyone wants to know is how this will change the first-round matchup with Tampa, because the Leafs and Bolts have been locked into that for weeks now. Should they deploy both Tavares and O’Reilly at center, they’re certainly deeper than Tampa up front. Nick Paul is a really nice player to have, but he’s not O’Reilly as a third center. If Toronto just wants to get in a firefight and load up their top six with Tavares moving to a wing on O’Reilly’s line, they still match up pretty well with Tampa’s top six.
Was a center Toronto’s most glaring need? No, because as always they’re going to try and win a playoff series with a confounding vortex in the crease. Matt Murray is hurt again, and Ilya Samsonov has seven playoff starts to his name. Samsonov has been very good this season (10 goals saved over expected) but this is the Leafs in the playoffs and we know what a crushing, Atlas-like burden that is for a goalie. Few teams have a sure thing in net, though. Sadly for the Leafs, they’ll be seeing one in the first round.
It could also be argued that what the Leafs could have really used was another d-man. They’re still tossing out Mark Giordano on their second pairing, who is three days older than water. Justin Holl remains a dolt. Is Morgan Rielly really a true No. 1? The Leafs have what looks like three second pairings, which is good in one sense but who is dominating a game when they need it?
That said, a game-changing goalie wasn’t on the market anywhere, and the price and fit of an Erik Karlsson or Jakob Chychrun would have been near impossible for Toronto. O’Reilly certainly helps, and while everyone went agog for the price, the picks, and middling prospect they gave up aren’t going to help the Leafs in the next two years before Matthews hits free agency and Toronto enters its event horizon.
Is it enough? You can line up the Leafs and Bolts any way you want, and at the end, you’ll still be staring at Samsonov vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy. The only team to beat the Lightning in a series in three years had greater depth at forward and a generational talent in defense to make up for the deficit they had in goal. The Leafs may now have the greater depth at forward, but they don’t have that d-man. Is that forward advantage big enough to overcome their deficit in net? If O’Reilly can channel 2019 for 10 days, very maybe. If he can’t…well, it’s a spring tradition, isn’t it?
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