Maple Leafs’ 3 Up, 3 Down: O’Reilly, Muzzin, Murray & Acciari

The NHL Trade Deadline is slowly creeping up and while speculation and armchair general managers continue to throw out half-hearted, half-thought out proposals, news continues to break as teams attempt to add those final pieces to their lineups heading into the postseason.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs and Kyle Dubas, stealing the headlines just two weeks before the deadline may not have been on their minds, but it didn’t stop the Maple Leafs’ GM from making a major deal midway through February.

Toronto Maple Leafs 3 Up, 3 Down
Toronto Maple Leafs (The Hockey Writers)

That, along with some of the implications, crack the top three ups and downs for the Maple Leafs over the past couple of weeks as we check in on the team’s latest three up and three down.

Plus One: Ryan O’Reilly Paying Dividends

After acquiring Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues, the Maple Leafs have been fortunate enough to witness the play of a revitalized O’Reilly after a slower start to his 2022-23 season. Surely, it helps that he’s lined up alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner, but O’Reilly has played with an extra jump in his step since coming to Toronto.

He’s averaged over 16 minutes of ice-time in his three games so far and is 69.8 percent in the face-off dot. He’s added some physicality to the Maple Leafs’ second line and has five even strength points for the Maple Leafs — including a hat trick against his former team on Feb. 21 in Buffalo.

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The small offensive surge gives O’Reilly 24 points in 43 games this season and five in three games since the trade. The pace might be too much for him to continue with for the remainder of the season, but if the Maple Leafs can get even half the production they’ve seen thus far from the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner it’ll make for a solid acquisition for the Maple Leafs heading into the playoffs.

Minus One: Jake Muzzin Out for the Season

The Maple Leafs did get some bad news on the injury front on Feb. 22 as the team announced that Jake Muzzin would be out for the rest of the season and playoffs suffering from a cervical spinal injury.

Muzzin — who has only suited up for four games this season — had one assist in those four games before the injury took over. The loss of Muzzin leaves a major physical gap on the team’s blue line, a role they have struggled with over the past few years. While it does leave some space within the cap for Dubas to make a move, surely the team would prefer to go into the playoffs with Muzzin fully healthy.

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The injury is something that Muzzin has been dealing with for some time and the team announced he would be reevaluated at training camp in September, but no update beyond that.

With Muzzin out, calls for players like Luke Schenn and Jake McCabe might be a little louder as the NHL’s Trade Deadline quickly approaches. As for Dubas, he will surely be working the phones trying to get something done before the Mar. 3 deadline.

Plus Two: Keefe Has Lineup Flexibility

Looking back on the O’Reilly acquisition, the move actually provides the Maple Leafs and coach Sheldon Keefe with a ton of lineup flexibility. For starters, having O’Reilly play in the middle between Tavares and Marner, gives them two natural centres on the same line in case one is tossed from the dot.

While moving Tavares to the wing might be somewhat unconventional for the Maple Leafs’ captain, it has proven to be a smooth transition so far. Chemistry aside, the line has clicked quickly since O’Reilly’s acquisition and seems to be a fit for Keefe moving forward.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Still, if they decide to spread out the offence over three lines, Keefe could move O’Reilly to the third line and move Tavares back to the middle to create more depth opportunities in the homestretch of the season and into the playoffs.

The flexibility is something that most head coaches would love to have, and with three star centres down the middle, this could prove to be the deepest team the Maple Leafs have had going into a playoff run — at least in recent memory.

Minus Two: Do the Maple Leafs Have Questions in Net?

One move the Maple Leafs likely aren’t going to make heading into the deadline is moving on from their duo in net. Ilya Samsonov has played solid hockey this season for the team on his contract, while Matt Murray has held up his end of the bargain when healthy.

The only issue here has been the health of Murray so far this season having dealt with two separate injuries this season. The latest has Murray out of the lineup and on long-term injury reserve with Joseph Woll taking his spot on the roster for the time being.

Related: Maple Leafs Need Depth Over Big Names at Trade Deadline

While a concrete option in net next to Samsonov would be ideal for the Maple Leafs heading into the home stretch of the season, trading for an upgrade is unrealistic for the team considering what assets they would have to give up.

On top of that, Dubas has shown his loyalty over his time with the Maple Leafs and considering he had enough faith to run with Murray to open the season, there’s no reason to believe that Murray isn’t in the plans for the Maple Leafs when he’s healthy and ready to rejoin the team.

Plus Three: Acciari Adding Sandpaper to Maple Leafs Lineup

Along with O’Reilly, the Maple Leafs brought in Acciari who has revitalized the team’s fourth line. The 31-year-old has averaged nearly 14 minutes in his three games with the team since coming over and even tallied a goal with his new club in a losing effort against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Noel Acciari Toronto Maple Leafs
Noel Acciari, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

While he’s listed at under six feet, Acciari has added another layer of sandpaper and grit to the Maple Leafs’ lineup, as it’s something the Maple Leafs have missed in recent years — especially against teams like the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning.

In fact, with 13 hits in three games, not only is Acciari averaging over four hits per game but he’s quickly climbing up the Maple Leafs’ list in that category. As a Bruin, he was thorn in the side of the Maple Leafs for parts of four seasons. But this time around Acciari is making his presence felt for the blue and white.

Minus Three: Maple Leafs Need Killer Instinct

It’s a conversation that happens almost yearly with this team and it’s about having that killer instinct — that shutdown game that can be implemented when the team has a lead late in games.

Once again just 24 games out from the playoffs and the conversation is a talking point again. The Maple Leafs have lost some winnable games over the past month to teams that are in the midst of the Connor Bedard sweepstakes and it’s the difference between a contender and a team that has the potential to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs once again.

Related: 4 Maple Leafs’ Trade Targets From Canucks-Blackhawks Game

Games like the 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 21 or the 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 11 are so frustrating for this fan base. Even the loss to Chicago on Feb. 19 or the nearly blown lead against Buffalo on Feb. 21 leave a sick feeling in the guts of those cheering this team on. What can they expect come playoff time?

That’s one of those key elements to their game that they have to figure out, and soon. The comments about “it was 4-1” have swirled around this team for too many years and it’s the same old story — the Maple Leafs can’t close it out.

Well, this year they will need that to change.

As for now, the Maple Leafs are trending in the right direction. But as many will say, it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season if you can’t get it done come playoff time. So, with the deadline right around the corner, all eyes are on Dubas and the Maple Leafs as the expectation is there will be at least one more deal that should shake up this team. What that’ll be, we’ll find out in only a matter of days.

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