Leafs acquire McCabe, Lafferty from Blackhawks as Dubas takes another swing
Kyle Dubas swung for the fences by securing Ryan O'Reilly.
And while a subsequent move made Monday won't garner the same attention as adding a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the Maple Leafs general manager once again left little doubt playoff success-starved Toronto is going all-in this spring.
The club acquired defenceman Jake McCabe and forward Sam Lafferty in a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional first-round pick at the 2025 draft and a second-round selection in 2026, along with minor leaguers Joey Anderson and Pavel Gogolev.
"Another key addition for us," Dubas told reporters in Seattle, where the Leafs beat the Kraken 5-1 on Sunday. "Adds more of what we feel we're going to need to give our group the best chance."
With the NHL trade deadline set for Friday — and after that, a playoff rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning looming large just over the horizon — Toronto also received conditional fifth-round picks in 2024 and 2025.
Chicago will retain 50 per cent of the remaining salary owed to McCabe, who carries a US$4-million cap hit through 2024-25. The first-round selection heading to the Blackhawks is top-10 protected.
The most recent swap by Dubas, who's in the final year of his contract, comes on the heels of Toronto's move with St. Louis on Feb. 17 that saw the Leafs snag O'Reilly and fellow centre Noel Acciari for four draft picks, including their first-rounder in June.
O'Reilly and Acciari are set to become unrestricted free agents July 1, while Lafferty has two years remaining on a contract that carries a $1.15-million cap hit.
Dubas said it's no secret he's been looking to upgrade the tenacity — especially in the bottom-6 — of a forward group that boasts stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.
"There's no reason for us to really beat around it," he said. "We've wanted to become more competitive ... something we feel like in those big moments, that we've needed and maybe we've lacked a little bit. The thing about all three of the forwards we've acquired is they've all proven that they can score and they can score in tight at the net where we're going to have to find a way.
"We haven't found a way in key moments in the past."
After watching Toronto pick up O'Reilly and Acciari for what's hoped will be a long playoff run for a team that's lost six straight series, and hasn't advance to the second round since 2004, Atlantic Division rivals Boston and Tampa responded.
The Bruins acquired defenceman Dmitry Orlov and winger Garnet Hathaway from Washington on Thursday before the Lightning got forward Tanner Jeannot from Nashville on Sunday.
The arms race in the Eastern Conference has also seen the New York Rangers acquire forward Vladimir Tarasenko from St. Louis and New Jersey win the sweepstakes for former San Jose winger Timo Meier.
Heading into Monday night's action, the top-6 teams in the NHL standings were all from the East — Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto, Tampa and the Rangers.
"We have to focus on ourselves and worry about ourselves, and know it's going to be really tough," said Dubas, who has traded five first-round picks since January 2019. "We've been through it before. We know these are elite, elite competitors.
"We should be embracing it and be ready to go for it."
The rebuilding Blackhawks, meanwhile, are at the other end of the spectrum.
The franchise that won the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015 continues to tear its roster down to the studs, with Chicago also rumoured to be on the cusp of trading franchise icon Patrick Kane to the Rangers.
The 29-year-old McCabe had 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) in 55 games with the Blackhawks in 2022-23, and should provide Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe a dependable left shot with Jake Muzzin (neck) done for the year.
Selected by Buffalo with 44th selection in 2012, McCabe has 119 points (24 goals, 95 assists) in 483 career regular-season games.
Dubas said the Leafs looked at signing him in the summer of 2021 when he hit free agency following an ACL injury.
"Always liked how competitive he is, how physical he is in the neutral zone," Dubas said. "Combined with how he can defend and move the puck — seems to relish that role."
Lafferty, 27, put up 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 51 games with the Blackhawks in 2022-23.
He's registered 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists) in 191 career games with Pittsburgh, which drafted him 113th overall in 2014, and Chicago.
"Speed is the No. 1 thing he brings, but also the versatility," Dubas said. "Tenacity on the forecheck, able to create turnovers up the ice."
Dubas, who will likely have to make another move in order to become salary cap compliant with goaltender Matt Murray tracking to come off long-term injured reserve soon, said he would continue to look for upgrades as the deadline approaches.
He was also asked what the last few weeks have been like sitting in Toronto's under-the-microscope GM's chair for a club squarely in win-now mode.
"The most fun part of this," he said of making deals. "Whether you want to call it pressure or not, I don't know.
"But it's a lot of fun."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press