One side effect of the current NHL Playoff schedule is the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning can say that they have known who their Round 1 opponent will be since the start of the new calendar year. Barring a sudden collapse or unexpectedly long winning streak, they will be facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second straight season. Yes, it does feel a bit silly that one of the best regular-season teams in the league will be out in Round 1 again, but them’s the breaks, as they say.
Related: Grading the Maple Leafs’ Blockbuster Trade for Ryan O’Reilly
A quirk of this scheduling, however, is the fact that the Lightning can stare down their rival and wait to counter their moves as the 2023 Trade Deadline approaches. This weekend, the Maple Leafs threw what could be a knockout punch as they acquired Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues. While this was an expensive deal in terms of futures, Toronto got a proven leader who has experience not just winning a Stanley Cup, but being the key figure who propelled his team to this championship.
This acquisition is one that will have the Lightning’s attention. There’s a chance that this move will be a perfect fit for Toronto and help them reach their goals of getting past more than just Round 1 of the postseason. There’s a chance that this move will struggle with nagging injuries and not make the expected impact for a deal this large. There’s also a chance that this move will be just a depth piece that doesn’t change the complexion of the team and they repeat history once again. So, let’s look at what these new players can bring to Toronto.
Maple Leafs Add More Talent With O’Reilly and Acciari
If there’s one thing the Maple Leafs will never be questioned on, it’s their top-end talent. With superstars like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares, the team is a venerable murders row of elite scoring, However, there has been some questions about their depth, as they heavily rely on that top talent to drive play at both ends of the ice.
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With the acquisition of O’Reilly and Acciari, the Maple Leafs have added a top-six centerman who has been one of the best two-way forwards for the better part of a decade, and a bottom-six forward that will slot into the lineup as needed during the postseason.
If things work perfectly, then this really is an ideal trade. A healthy O’Reilly adds an immediate sense of legitimacy to the Maple Leafs’ roster, as his leadership and drive are unquestioned, especially when he is engaged in the postseason. Acciari, on the other hand, is just a good all-around player who will likely only chip in a few goals, but those goals are often timely ones that can help change a game.
Besides this, the Maple Leafs made this deal by just giving up draft picks. They didn’t have to trade a top prospect or reach into their depth and deal a current roster player. In all, it’s impossible to look at this trade and not see it as a massive win for Toronto.
Despite all of this evidence to the contrary, though, as someone who covers the Lightning, I can’t say that I’m more worried about facing the Maple Leafs in Round 1 now than I was on Friday morning.
Lightning Have Answers to Maple Leafs’ Challenges
If you’re the Lightning, seeing the Maple Leafs add O’Reilly and Acciari doesn’t really change how they should approach the 2023 Playoffs. Before the trade, this was one of the most talented rosters in the league, and after it, they are still one of the most talented rosters in the league, just with even more.
However, so are the Lightning. For every superstar player Toronto throws on the ice, Tampa Bay can match them with their own superstar and incredible depth. We also know that they will likely make at least one trade to increase this depth before the March 3rd deadline, and general manager Julien BriseBois will have a little bit of time to find the perfect counter to the Maple Leafs’ acquisitions.
Over the last few seasons, the Lightning have given fans plenty of reasons to trust their ability to beat the best teams in the league, as they have found a way to do so time in and time out despite the odds. So, while the Maple Leafs may have made one of the biggest splashes of the deadline, I’m still resting easy with high expectations for Tampa Bay heading into the trade deadline and the playoffs beyond.