The Leafs don’t need to make the playoffs to justify the Boyle trade

Even if you predicted the Leafs would be this competitive in their first season after picking Auston Matthews, you have to admit it’s made for a strange year. There’s no greater example for this than the fact Toronto is an apparent buyer at the trade deadline, while the Tampa Bay Lightning – a pre-season Cup favourite – are selling off. 

But while the trade that sent Brian Boyle to Toronto yesterday seems to hint at Leafs management being in “go for it” mode to an extent, this deal doesn’t signal them veering off path or taking a shortcut like front offices past, and I’d argue that whether or not this team is successful in its run for a playoff spot shouldn’t make or break our opinions of this trade.

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If we push the human element aside, it’s easy to get caught in this thinking that the formula for rebuilding is simple: Be terrible, accumulate picks, hit the simulate button for three or four seasons like you’re playing a video game, then boom, Cup window. But if the Leafs sleepwalk through these formative years of the young core players and only sell off at every deadline to accumulate more picks or other futures, that’s not good for anyone. And this goes hand in hand with an emerging thought that if you’re not a true contender, why bother buying at all? Sure, the team didn’t mind tumbling down the standings last season, but now with a foundation in place, from here on they’ll want to strike a balance between maximizing every season without mortgaging their future. The Boyle deal is an example of that.

Now, admittedly I’m taking a fairly big picture look at a somewhat minor trade, and stringing moves together is often a flawed method of evaluating deals. [Think of the Edmonton writers who argued Hall-for-Larsson was actually somehow a ten player deal that included Connor McDavid]. We don’t need to do that here, because the Leafs paid a reasonable market price for Boyle. But it’s worth noting that their past deals set them up to do so without incurring much risk or hurting their ability to keep adding at any level.

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By unloading so many veterans at last year’s deadline and just generally accumulating (and using) so many picks over the last two summers, Toronto really put themselves in a position to pay the price for Boyle and still go into the draft with essentially a full cupboard. As it stands right now, they’re only missing a pick in the third round, and I think it’s reasonable to expect them to add more selections before draft day rolls around. 

I think what this comes down to is that, by acquiring Boyle, the Leafs are basically telling this young club that they have their backs for this final stretch. If they make it, great. If not, this run will still be an exciting time for a developing group. Will the deal look better in hindsight if they get in? Of course. The same goes for whether the team can secure Boyle – a pending unrestricted free agent – for a season or two beyond this one. But falling short in either of those situations won’t make this a poor deal either, because there really isn’t enough at stake, and the Leafs’ build to this point has facilitated that. 

This isn’t an “all in” deal like the Capitals made with Shattenkirk or the Wild pulled off for Hanzal. Those types of moves will come for the Leafs later, maybe even as soon as next season. But this is a nice heat check in the meantime. 

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