Now or never for Maple Leafs with Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari trade

This was Toronto GM Kyle Dubas slipping into the guise of the Tom Cruise character, Joel, in the classic movie “Risky Business.” 

This was Dubas going, “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the f–k, make your move.’ ” 

The arms race in the powerhouse East escalated late Friday when Dubas and the Maple Leafs paid a rather heavy price in future draft capital to obtain Cup-winning, character-guy, 200-foot forward Ryan O’Reilly and fourth-liner, in-demand Noel Acciari from the Blues. Both are rentals. 

If this is not now-or-never for the Maple Leafs, it is as close as it will ever come. The 32-year-old O’Reilly is having a down year in St. Louis, just as Vladimir Tarasenko was before he was traded to the Rangers. But O’Reilly has been one of the league’s most respected two-way centers for more than a decade. 

It remains to be seen whether O’Reilly will slot into the third center’s slot on the depth chart behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares or whether he might have more value playing on the left side with Tavares. 

Regardless, O’Reilly was obtained to give the high-end talented Leafs more grit and push-back that they will surely need to get through, presumably, Tampa Bay then Boston simply to reach the Eastern finals. 

O’Reilly also brings 2019 Cup championship pedigree to an outfit that has gone 0-5 in potential series clinchers over the past two years, 0-9 (!!!!) in potential clinchers the past five years and has not won a playoff round since 2004. 

Ryan O'Reilly
The Maple Leafs acquired Ryan O’Reilly rom the Blues.
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Noel Acciari
Noel Acciari
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He and Acciari — one of the fourth-line rentals in whom the Rangers had been monitoring — will add some muscle to the effort that will be necessary to survive in this Eastern meat grinder. There is likely more coming from a Toronto team that could have up to $2 million in cap space at the deadline but whose goaltending remains more of a question than an answer. 

The Rangers jumped the market a week ago by acquiring Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola. They’re not done. There will certainly be responses to that one and this one by the Bruins, Lightning, ’Canes and Devils. 

Never since the league doubled in size to 12 teams and split into conferences in 1967-68 has one conference had teams with the league’s six best records. That was the East as of Saturday morning, where the Bruins are on top with an .806 winning percentage that translates to 132 points and the Rangers and Leafs were tied for fifth at .673, translating to 110-point seasons. 

The Rangers made their big move, and now so have the Maple Leafs. There will be more to come in the East, where a team good enough to win the Stanley Cup could just as easily be bounced in the first round. 

We’re told that the Predators are attempting to negotiate an extension with pending restricted free agent Tanner Jeannot while they sort out on which side of the buyer/seller fence they reside. 

But if talks do not reach fruition, Nashville GM David Poile will be willing to engage with the several teams that have expressed interest in the hard-edged winger. Yes, the Rangers most certainly are among them. The price, however, is going to be set high. 

Marty Walsh, officially named the NHLPA’s executive director, is going to get on the road when he officially takes command in a month in an effort to energize a membership that has grown apathetic and complacent. 

It is, unfortunately, the wrong time of year for this, with players homed in on the stretch run in advance of the playoffs. The best time for union tub-thumping is in the offseason if the players would give up a few days of R&R to participate in summer meetings. That has not been the case going back for years, probably since the league — with aid from enemies within — all but broke the union in 2005. 

Marty Walsh
Marty Walsh was named the NHLPA’s new executive director.
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Walsh takes over a players’ association that, at least through the last round of collective bargaining, has gone full-tilt toward the minority of veteran, high-priced players on long-term contracts who made eliminating escrow the (lone) priority coming out of the pandemic as opposed to promoting a healthy market for the majority of athletes. Hence, the flat cap. 

Why the rank-and-file went along with it, I have no clue. But I do know that this went against the heritage of the NHLPA, where once upon a time, no less than the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier sacrificed their own interests for the greater good of the membership. 

It is not my union and it is not my money. But if Walsh can energize the base to look out for the majority rather than the elite, then the former two-term Mayor of Boston, Secretary of Labor under Joe Biden and card-carrying union member beginning at age 21 will have succeeded in Job 1. 

This, however, will be a challenge at least equal to the one Walsh will confront in the next round of CBA negotiations with the league and Gary Bettman in 2026. 

So Arizona and Columbus — limited to those two franchises at the moment — have somewhat cleverly found the way to tank in plain sight by scratching high-profile trade candidates weeks ahead of the deadline with no imminent deal in sight in either case. 

Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who apparently is the next coming of Drew Doughty considering the club’s asking price, has not played since Feb. 10 for “trade-related reasons.” The 24-year-old missed his fourth game Saturday at Los Angeles. There will still be five more to go before the deadline. If it goes to the end, Chychrun will have been scratched for nine games — nearly 11 percent of the full schedule. 

Blue Jackets defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov last played Feb. 11. The rental property will miss his third game Saturday at Dallas, with five more to go for Columbus before the deadline. As of Saturday morning, Columbus had descended to last overall, .016 percentage points behind/ahead of the Blackhawks for the lottery’s most favorable odds. 

The league’s competitive integrity is being tested here, though NHL headquarters generally only cares about that issue when it involves legislating against big-market teams’ spending power. What’s more, this is largely a copycat league. 

What if a dozen teams next year sit trade candidates a month ahead of the deadline? And how would Walsh’s PA respond to this chicanery? 

This just in: When Chychrun is finally dealt, he is going on an AHL conditioning assignment.

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