The Toronto Maple Leafs owed it to the players to make as many improvements as possible in order to set the stage for a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run, general manager Kyle Dubas said Monday.
By making a flurry of trades in the days leading up to the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, including the additions of forward Nick Foligno and goalie David Rittich, the Maple Leafs did just that.
“I felt that the group of players and coaches deserved every effort on our end, on management, to bolster the team and try to give us as great a chance as possible down the stretch in our division and into the playoffs,” Dubas said. “We were excited to be able to, we believe, add the pieces that will continue to enhance our ability to be as competitive as possible as we go into the playoffs and roll from there.”
The message has been received by the players, who understand that the additions signify the organization is all-in.
“It’s go time now,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said.
Toronto is battling history. It has not won a playoff series since 2004, when Rielly was 10 years old and playing minor hockey in the Vancouver area. Seventeen years later, the Maple Leafs feel it’s time to step on the gas pedal and change their fortunes.
It’s why Toronto was one of the most aggressive teams before the deadline.
The Maple Leafs on Friday acquired checking center Riley Nash in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On Sunday, they acquired Foligno from the Blue Jackets and forward Stefan Noesen from the San Jose Sharks in a three-team deal, then added goaltending depth with Rittich in a trade from the Calgary Flames. Then on Monday, Toronto acquired forward Antti Suomela in a trade with San Jose, and received left-shot defenseman Ben Hutton in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks.
Of the newcomers, Foligno, the former captain of the Blue Jackets, is poised to make the biggest impact.
Dubas and the Maple Leafs experienced firsthand how disruptive Foligno can be during the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Blue Jackets last season. He scored three points (one goal, two assists) in the series, which Columbus won in five games, and his persistent, physical forecheck had Toronto defensemen looking over their shoulders.
“The thing that I really felt that we needed from the beginning was to try to find a player that can play up and down our lineup,” Dubas said, “is a character guy of competitiveness and defensive responsibility, but also had the skill and ability to play with any of our any of our top three lines. That was accomplished with Nick.”
Foligno has scored 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 42 games this season and has scored 482 points (203 goals, 279 assists) in 950 regular-season games with Columbus and the Ottawa Senators. He also brings leadership to a team that now has four players who have been captains in the NHL: Foligno; center John Tavares, their current captain who was also captain of the New York Islanders; forward Joe Thornton, who was captain of the Sharks; and forward Jason Spezza, a former captain of the Senators.
“I’m looking forward to learning from him,” Tavares said. “You can never have enough experience.”
Foligno and offseason free agent additions Thornton and forward Wayne Simmonds bring a sandpaper element to a team in dire need of it. Dubas said playoff eliminations against the Washington Capitals in 2017, the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019, and the Blue Jackets in 2020 exposed a need for the Maple Leafs to no longer rely on a run-and-gun style.
“I think it’s just trying to learn from the way that things have gone poorly in the past number of years,” Dubas said.
“One of the things we talked about in the offseason was we just felt that we needed to become more versatile with the roster. We needed to add better experience and guys with more spirit and energy. And now it’s just trying to take the rest of the year and find what may be missing.
“Certainly when we get into the playoffs we are going to need all of those elements.”
Depth is at the top of the list.
“I don’t want this season for the group to come down to injuries or issues of depth or anything like that,” he said. “It’s hockey. It’s competitive. This schedule is going to be very compressed.
“The group had done such a strong job so far during the season, the way that they’ve played, the way that they’ve acted on and off the ice. And I looked at it as being my job to try to make sure that they had every chance possible to see it through, whatever that outcome may be in the end.”
Dubas particularly wanted to ensure Toronto was not caught thin in goal. With Frederik Andersen not having played since March 19 because of an undisclosed injury and Jack Campbell dealing with a lower-body injury the past two months, Rittich can provide security.
Dubas had no timetable for Andersen’s return but said he expects him back at some point.
“I’m convinced that Fred will play for the Leafs for sure,” he said. “Whether it’s in the next number of weeks or in the playoffs, that will be up to the medical staff and Fred to decide.”
Toronto (28-11-3) is first in the seven-team Scotia North Division, six points ahead of the second-place Winnipeg Jets, after a 4-2 loss at the Montreal Canadiens on Monday. The top four teams will qualify for the playoffs.
Tavares said he hopes the players brought in before the deadline will enable the Maple Leafs to have a long postseason run.
“It’s great that we have the belief in us from our management team,” he said. “It’s up to us to make the most of it.”