The Boston Bruins' path through the Eastern Conference to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final just got a lot more difficult.
The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired centers Ryan O'Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues on Friday night in a blockbuster trade that involved multiple prospects and draft picks, as well as a third team in the Minnesota Wild. The Leafs gave up a 2023 first-round pick but held on to their best prospects.
The Leafs will enter the weekend 13 points behind the Bruins in the Atlantic Division, and they are only one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place. It's basically a certainty that the Leafs and Lightning will play in the first round for the second consecutive season, and now the battle for home ice advantage in that series has been heightened. Tampa Bay defeated Toronto in Game 7 on the road last year.
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The Leafs gave up a bunch of draft picks for two rentals. It's a bold move for them. How does this huge trade impact the Bruins ahead of the March 3 NHL trade deadline?
Here's a quick breakdown.
Leafs are a more formidable playoff opponent
Bruins fans can laugh at the Leafs all they want, but there's no doubt that this is the most talented and deepest roster Toronto has put together in a long time.
The Leafs rank seventh in both goals scored and goals allowed, and they own the league's sixth-best power play. They are No. 14 on the penalty kill, and the additions of O'Reilly and Acciari should help in that area. O'Reilly, when healthy, is among the top two-way centers in the league. He's also a former Selke Trophy winner. Acciari is a tough, reliable fourth-liner who can kill penalties and provide plenty of truculence.
Depth down the middle is essential for playoff success, especially if you have to play the Bruins and their three-headed monster of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle. After this trade, you could make a case that Toronto's depth and talent at center is as good or better than any other team.
- First line: Auston Matthews
- Second line: John Tavares
- Third line: Ryan O'Reilly
- Fourth line: Noel Acciari/David Kampf
This trade also gives the Leafs valuable playoff experience. O'Reilly helped the Blues beat the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final and he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He knows what it takes to battle through four rounds and get the job done. The Leafs haven't won a playoff series since 2004 and have been eliminated in the first round six straight years. O'Reilly will help the (mostly) young and inexperienced Leafs fight through the adversity of the postseason.
If the Bruins win their first-round series and the Leafs beat the Lightning, we would see these Original Six rivals square off in the second round. The B's beat the Leafs in Game 7 of the first round in 2013, 2018 and 2019. Given the quality and depth of the Leafs' roster after this trade, another seven-game series versus Toronto would be a grueling and difficult matchup for Boston.
The Bruins would have home ice advantage, though, barring a seismic collapse over the next two months.
Bruins could make a call to the Blues, too
The Blues appear to be in full sell mode right now. They traded star right wing Vladimir Tarasenko to the New York Rangers last week, and now O'Reilly and Acciari are gone.
Another center on the Blues roster rumored to be available is Ivan Barbashev. Acquiring the 27-year-old forward would give the B's a versatile, middle-six presence who can produce offensively, kill penalties and add toughness to the lineup. He also was on the 2019 Blues title team.
The asking price for Barbashev reportedly is a second-round pick and a prospect. Andy Strickland of Bally Sports Midwest reported earlier this week that the B's are "very interested" in Barbashev.
Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery was on the Blues' staff last season when Barbashev had the best year of his career with 26 goals and 34 assists (both career highs).
In addition to another forward, the Bruins also would be wise to bolster the depth of their blue line. Whether it's a major acquisition like Arizona Coyotes star Jakob Chychrun or a smaller depth move for someone like Luke Schenn of the Vancouver Canucks, another veteran presence on the back end would benefit the B's in the playoffs when injuries will inevitably be a factor.
One more matchup in April
The season series between the Bruins and Leafs, which Boston leads 2-1-0, concludes April 6 at TD Garden.
It could be an important game for both teams. The Bruins are pursuing the No. 1 overall seed and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs, and the Leafs are trying to hold off the Lightning for home ice in Round 1.