Flashbacks to Nick Foligno might be the centrepiece of what’s causing the panic within Leafs Nation when it comes to the most recent injury news surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. After all, Kyle Dubas traded a first-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft for Ryan O’Reilly — and, of course, Noel Acciari — and news broke earlier in the week that O’Reilly wouldn’t be back until just before playoffs. That’s if everything goes according to plan.
But the news that he was being placed on long-term injury reserve sent a wave of panic through Leafs Nation. Many reverting to the idea that this team is cursed, while others just braced themselves for disappointment and readied their jerseys for another first-round burn.
That was exponentially heightened when it was also revealed that captain John Tavares wasn’t quite feeling himself after taking two big hits against the Vancouver Canucks on March 4 and as a precaution sat out against the New Jersey Devils this week — news that has since become a moot point with Tavares’ return to the lineup.
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While there is some concern around the O’Reilly injury and ultimately the Maple Leafs centre depth as a result, it’s time to let the initial panic pass and weather the storm for a fanbase that has suffered layers and layers of disappointment over the past two decades and beyond.
For Maple Leafs, Timing is Everything
Sure, there’s no ideal time to see a player on your roster injured, let alone a player that you traded for to fill a gap for a playoff run. But it might not be the worst time for O’Reilly to sit out. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be much nicer to have him playing and building chemistry with his new teammates, but considering the given timeline for his return he will still get some game time in before the team heads to the playoffs.
In a situation like this, it’s an earlier-the-better type of mentality. If O’Reilly got injured two weeks after the actual incident, we’d be talking about the real possibility that he misses some playoff time which isn’t what the Maple Leafs want to hear.
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“Obviously when we get him, you get excited and you know what he can bring, so to lose him certainly it’s tough and disappointing,” said Sheldon Keefe following the injury to O’Reilly. “But we acquired him to be healthy, ready to go for the playoffs and you know, that will be the case. So, to that end, it’s not bad in terms of what the bigger picture is, and especially with the nature of the injury, he won’t miss much time actually on the ice and skating and, and all of that.”
O’Reilly has five points in eight games with the Maple Leafs since the trade, including a hat trick against his former team — the Buffalo Sabres. While the Maple Leafs could surely use his presence in the lineup, Keefe’s comments on having him at full health come playoff time has to be the focus for the organization and its fans alike.
In fact, the Maple Leafs are 2-0-0 since the injury with wins against tough opponents in the Devils and the Edmonton Oilers.
All things considered, O’Reilly’s injury might be more of a blessing in disguise at this point in the season.
Maple Leafs Can Evaluate Depth
With the injury, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity to reevaluate what they have within their system. While Wayne Simmonds is the lone call-up that remains with the big club at the moment, the Maple Leafs have a chance to get more playing time for guys like Alex Steeves and Pontus Holmberg who’ve both impressed in their limited NHL time so far in their careers.
Steeves continues to be a player that gets a lot of attention while playing with the Toronto Marlies and, while he hasn’t had a consistent run with the Maple Leafs just yet, could offer some speed and intangibles to the Maple Leafs lineup in O’Reilly’s absence.
The 23-year-old currently has 17 goals and 45 points in 55 games with the Marlies and one assists in six NHL games over the past two seasons. He’s on pace for a 20-goal season and 56 points for the Marlies this season.
As for Holmberg, he has five goals and 13 points in 24 games with the Marlies and has another five goals and 13 points in 37 games with the Maple Leafs this season. That’s not bad considering he’s a former sixth-round pick.
Another option, which we’ve seen the past couple games for the Maple Leafs, is a lineup that sees the Maple Leafs carry 11 forwards and seven defensemen. This would allow for more playing time for guys like Luke Schenn, Justin Holl and Jordie Benn as the season winds down and the playoffs inch closer.
Maple Leafs Are Already Tempering the Storm
The anxiety in Leafs Nation is all too familiar. It’s the same feeling that sets in prior to the season, right around this time each year and on any poor run of games strung together by the team. It’s also the same heart-pounding anxiousness that this fan base gets when the puck drops on the NHL playoffs.
That said, the team has strung together two wins so far without O’Reilly — including a seven-goal performance against the Oilers on Saturday night.
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While his grit and experience is surely missed in the room and on the ice, for now, to have a healthy Conn Smythe winner in the lineup when the playoffs kick off has to be the focus for the Maple Leafs.
As for their first-round opponent, their fate is essentially set in stone at this point, so to panic at the thought of playing the final bunch of games without O’Reilly shouldn’t set in for Leafs Nation. In fact, knowing that he could possibly be back before the end of the regular season should offer fans a sense of relief.
Get him healthy. Get him ready. When the playoffs start and the Maple Leafs need his Stanley Cup experience, O’Reilly should be ready to go and can help Leafs Nation breathe more calmly knowing that they’ve got a healthy veteran.