Ranking the Maple Leafs’ six 2023 trade deadline acquisitions by performance
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson3 months ago
Led by former general manager Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs went on a tear at the 2023 trade deadline, making a number of acquisitions to beef up the team for what they hoped would be a long playoff run. Between the acquisition of a former Conn Smythe winner in Ryan O’Reilly, a replacement for Jake Muzzin in Jake McCabe, and the reuniting with former fifth overall pick Luke Schenn, the Maple Leafs had a clear type for the players they were looking to add.
If the amount of online discourse in the past three weeks or so didn’t give it away, the Maple Leafs evidently didn’t meet the expectations they had set for themselves. They broke the 18-year curse they were dragging behind them, but didn’t make much of it. We’re not going to focus on that here, though. Instead, we’re going to grade each of the deadline acquisitions based on the impact they made during their time in Toronto, and if they’re a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA), decide whether or not it’s worth it to bring them back.
1. Luke Schenn (Pending UFA): A+
I have to be honest, when the Maple Leafs acquired Schenn, I kept my expectations low. It was a great story at the time, given his history and connections to the team, but I don’t think anyone was expecting him to fill anything beyond a bottom pair role. Not only did he take on a much bigger role than expected, his on-ice contributions had a ripple effect.
For starters, he brought some much-needed bite to the back end. McCabe is certainly no slouch in the physicality department, but he also wasn’t the league leader in hits at the time like Schenn was. That said, his contributions spanned beyond his ability to throw a hit, and arguably none was more prevalent than the impact he had on Morgan Rielly’s game in the playoffs.
Rielly was under the microscope for much of the season due to a slight setback offensively, glaring defensive mistakes on a more frequent basis, and the fact that he was in the first year of a seven-year contract. That said, part of those fallbacks can be attributed to the lack of a consistent partner throughout the season. Once Schenn joined him on his right side, it was like a match made in heaven. He especially came alive in the playoffs, scoring four goals and finishing with 12 points in 11 games, including a point in every game except for two.
If Schenn doesn’t command a massive raise from his $850,000 cap hit this season, the Maple Leafs shouldn’t think twice about bringing him back.
2. Ryan O’Reilly (Pending UFA): A-
The big fish of the trade deadline, and the move that confirmed the Maple Leafs’ intention to go all-in at the deadline. As I said off the top, O’Reilly was a Conn Smythe winner with the St. Louis Blues on their Cup run in 2019, and although he was having a down year for his standards when Toronto acquired him, he was the exact type of player Toronto needed.
A Frank J. Selke winner in 2019, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward, O’Reilly gave the Maple Leafs the deepest depth up the middle they’d ever had, a far cry from the days when Tyler Bozak was their top line centre. On top of this, he also rediscovered his offensive game after the trade, finishing the season with 11 points in 13 games as a Leaf, and he kept up that production for the most part in the playoffs, with nine points in 11 games including a clutch goal in Game 3.
The Maple Leafs worked some cap gymnastics to get O’Reilly’s $7.5 million cap hit down below $2 million, but it won’t be that simple this summer. While it’s not entirely out of the question that he takes a hometown discount to stay in Toronto, he could also easily command more money playing elsewhere, and at the same time, it probably wouldn’t be smart for them to lock the 32 year-old into a long term deal. That said, they should obviously explore the option anyways, given the impact he made in his short time there.
3. Noel Acciari (Pending UFA): B+
The only thing keeping Acciari’s grade below an “A” to me was his lack of offense. His five points in 23 regular season games and two points in 11 playoff games were slightly below what I expected from him. To be fair, he wasn’t expected to bring much offense to begin with, and to his credit, he did everything else asked of him just about perfectly, which is why the “B” shouldn’t be looked at as a bad thing.
Acciari showed up to Toronto and instantly established himself in his role of a high-energy, bottom-six checking forward. He finished the regular season with 244 hits, good for tenth in the league, and threw 78 hits in 11 playoff games for the Leafs. And, while he didn’t score much, his goals did seem to come in timely moments. He added an element of bite to the Maple Leafs’ bottom six that they didn’t have with players like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev, and it clearly helped them in the postseason.
Acciari said he would “love” to return to Toronto, and assuming the Maple Leafs share this interest, there should be no reason the two sides can’t come to an agreement. Unless he commands a massive raise up from his $1,250,000 cap hit, which I can’t imagine he will given his established role as a bottom six forward, he should be a no-brainer to re-sign this offseason.
4. Jake McCabe (2 years remaining at $2 million): B+
It almost feels criminal to put McCabe on the bottom half of this list, considering how important his role with the team was, so I’m going to give him a tie with Acciari. A physical, defensive-minded defenseman standing at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds is exactly what the Maple Leafs were missing on the left side of their defensive corps in the absence of Jake Muzzin, and for the most part, he delivered.
McCabe ate up some heavy minutes with the Maple Leafs in the playoffs, averaging over 20 minutes a night alongside T.J. Brodie. You can imagine he was driven to make an impact, given the fact that he was a veteran of over 500 regular season games without a single game in the postseason. He made some panicked plays at certain points and occasionally found himself out of position, but overall, he did everything they acquired him to do.
Even if his on-ice play had some kinks, his contract makes up for it in a big way. He’s under contract for the next two years at a cap hit of only $2 million per year thanks to the magic of salary retention, so his role in Toronto will remain a big one for the next two years.
5. Sam Lafferty (1 year remaining at $1.15 million): C+
Acquired in the deal with McCabe, Lafferty was the Acciari to his O’Reilly (if that makes any sense). Point is, he was a nice compliment to a trade for somebody who had bigger expectations. A speedy forward having somewhat of a breakout year in his second season with the Chicago Blackhawks, he was acquired with the task of doing pretty much the same thing that Acciari was acquired to do, carrying the edge in speed while Acciari had the edge in physicality.
Either way, he did a pretty good job in the end. Although he was pretty quiet offensively and didn’t operate like a wrecking ball in the physicality department, his speed was noticeable on every shift and he made the Maple Leafs harder to play against every time he was out there. With a full 82-game season plus pre-season and training camp ahead of him in 2023-24, I’d imagine he’ll be more comfortable with the system next season.
6. Erik Gustafsson (Pending UFA): C
Gustafsson is a tough one to judge because he didn’t really bring that much to the Maple Leafs in his short time here, but not because he was ineffective. Rather, he didn’t get the ice time to make a notable impact. For starters, the Maple Leafs already had Rielly running the power play and taking the brunt of puck-moving on breakouts, which is exactly the role Gustafsson thrives in. That said, the gripe about someone being in his role doesn’t quite matter as much when you consider that he was barely playing to begin with. That said, he did score a goal in the playoffs, which is something not every acquisition can say they did.
The Gustafsson deal was a weird one from the beginning. Moving on from Rasmus Sandin was one thing, and was necessary to bolster the back end and make room for McCabe and Schenn. But for the return to be a first round pick as well as an offensive defenseman, who despite having more points than any Leafs defenseman at the time, didn’t really have a spot on the team to begin with, it made the move a bit of a head scratcher from the start. Regardless, the move was made, and despite him being one of the more skilled players they acquired at the deadline, it feels extremely unlikely that he re-ups in Toronto this offseason.
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