BUFFALO, N.Y. — Come April, the Toronto Maple Leafs will once again have to confront the long-nagging questions of how they’ll attempt to avoid turning a dominating regular season into yet another early playoff exit.
A promising glimpse of an answer, perhaps, began to emerge over a four-day stretch in which the Maple Leafs won two of three with a new-look lineup featuring centers Ryan O'Reilly and Noel Acciari, who were acquired in a trade with St. Louis.
With O’Reilly centering Toronto’s second line, and Acciari centering the fourth line, their presence provided coach Sheldon Keefe an extra level of flexibility and an additional dynamic dimension to a talent-laden roster that already includes four 20-goal-scorers.
Toronto’s newfound potential was on display in a 6-3 romp over the Sabres, when the O’Reilly line combined for four goals and 13 points, and staked the Leafs to a 3-0 lead 7:14 into the game before Buffalo registered its first shot on net.
“Obviously, it was that line that broke out tonight. The next night it might be the Matthews’ line,” Keefe said, referring to the top line centered by Auston Matthews. “But as I said to the guys, that’s what it is supposed to look like in terms of a team game. … That’s as dominant as we’ve been all season long, so it’s tremendous to see.”
The challenge for Keefe becomes building on that performance and continuing to develop roster-wide chemistry to finally begin fulfilling the long-awaited expectations of mounting a playoff run that doesn’t end in the first round.
The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004, when they needed seven games to eliminate Ottawa before losing to Philadelphia in a six-game second-round matchup. They’ve since lost seven consecutive first-round series mostly in dramatic collapses, including six ending in a decisive Game 5 or 7.
The frustrating track record is one general manager Kyle Dubas alluded to after completing the trade in giving up four draft picks, including a first-rounder this year, two minor leaguers and a prospect in a deal that included Minnesota picking up 25% of O’Reilly’s salary.
“We’ve been in the top five of the standings, and we’re there again this year,” Dubas said of a team that’s finished no worse than third in its division in each of the previous six years. “So there’s a lot of points along the way, and people will laugh at that, scoff at that, and that’s fine. We’re trying to win. And that’s the message.”
At 35-15-8, the Leafs’ 78 points match their best through 58 games of a season, and they are second in the Atlantic Division. With division-leading Boston enjoying a 13-point lead over the Maple Leafs, Toronto appears locked into facing Tampa Bay in a rematch of last year’s opening round, which the Lightning clinched in Game 7 by rallying from a 3-2 series deficit.
The trade for O’Reilly was the latest in a string of high-profile mid-to-late season additions the Leafs have made which have failed to pan out come playoff time. Last year, it was adding defenseman Mark Giordano. Two years ago, Toronto acquired center Nick Foligno. In 2020, Dubas landed defenseman Jake Muzzin.
And those don’t include the offseason free-agent splashes the Leafs made in signing Patrick Marleau in 2017 or current captain John Tavares a year later.
O’Reilly, in the final year of his contract, represents the short-term key to the trade. He’s a respected two-way center, who was the NHL’s top defensive forward in 2019, the same year O’Reilly earned playoff MVP honors for the Stanley Cup champion Blues.
From Ontario, and with his mother having once worked the concession stands at Maple Leaf Gardens, the 32-year-old O’Reilly is fully aware of the pressures of playing in Toronto and what it would mean to bring home a title.
“We have a ton of good pieces here and it’s a great team,” O’Reilly said, while declining to look too far ahead.
“I’ve got to take it day by day and work and push myself to be better, and try to help elevate this team to take another step,” he added. “I’ve got so much excitement being here. … I’m just going to feed off that and try to make an impact any way I can.”
In welcoming O’Reilly, Tavares agreed to make the switch from center to left wing on a line rounded out by Mitchell Marner.
“When Kyle and management make a move like that, obviously it sends a strong message,” Tavares said. “The belief in the team, and what we want to accomplish, and just where we’ve gotten to to this point, so we’re really excited about it.”