By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
Kyle Dubas made it clear he was not reacting to trades by division rivals in making the Toronto Maple Leafs’ latest move.
They certainly all go hand in hand in a competitive Eastern Conference.
The Leafs acquired forward Sam Lafferty and defenseman Jake McCabe from Chicago on Monday, in the aftermath of division-rival Tampa Bay making another pre-deadline splash and not long after NHL-leading Boston added size and toughness to bulk up for the playoffs.
Toronto sent a conditional 2025 first-round pick, a second-rounder in 2026, prospect Pavel Gogolev and forward Joey Anderson to the Blackhawks for Lafferty, McCabe and conditional fifth-round picks in 2024 and ‘25. Chicago is retaining half of McCabe’s salary.
Dubas, in his fifth season as Leafs general manager, said talks with Chicago counterpart Kyle Davidson predated trades by the Lightning and Bruins, but isn’t downplaying the value of keeping up knowing how difficult the first couple of rounds will be this spring.
“We have to focus on ourselves and worry about ourselves and know it’s going to be really tough,” Dubas told reporters in Seattle. “We’ve been through it before, and we know that these are elite, elite competitors.”
The Leafs look to again be on a crash course to face the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, after losing to them in a seven-game series last year. Tampa Bay on Sunday paid a hefty price for forward Tanner Jeannot, sending young defenseman Cal Foote and five draft picks — including a first in 2025 — to Nashville.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup back to back in 2020 and ’21 and went to the final in 2022. This move could set them up for another deep run, no matter the cost.
“The reality at the trade deadline is you’re going to have to overpay,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said at a news conference Monday in Tampa. “A lot had to go our way for us to accumulate such a critical mass of good players all at once. My job, my responsibility as the custodian for this group is to sometimes take risks to maximize our return for this era.”
Lafferty and McCabe to Toronto continued the flow of talent from sellers in the Western Conference to contenders in the East. Also Sunday, New Jersey acquired big winger Timo Meier from San Jose, and NHL-leading Boston got defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Garnet Hathaway from Washington on Thursday.
“Everybody wants to put all the really good players in the East on trades,” Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. “It’s amazing.”
Previously, the New York Islanders got 30-goal-scoring center Bo Horvat from Vancouver and the Rangers acquired prolific offensive winger Vladimir Tarasenko and hulking defenseman Niko Mikkola from St. Louis. The Leafs already traded for Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly and depth forward Noel Acciari to boost their chances of winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades.
But getting through the Atlantic Division with the Lightning and first-place Bruins and the East at-large with one of the Carolina Hurricanes, Devils or Rangers likely waiting in the conference final won’t be easy.
“The East, it’s a powerhouse,” Fitzgerald said Sunday night. “It’s really a powerhouse.”
And that’s even before the Rangers get Patrick Kane from Chicago, the last highly anticipated trade before the deadline Friday that is hinging on New York’s salary cap situation. But Fitzgerald also pointed out the Lightning are still the best of the East until someone beats them.
The Leafs would like to do that, and McCabe — signed for two more seasons after this one — certainly strengthens the blue line that has been one of their weaknesses. Lafferty, also under contract beyond this year, gives Toronto more forward depth.
The same goes for Jeannot with Tampa Bay in a trade similar to BriseBois getting Brandon Hagel from Chicago at the deadline a year ago. BriseBois in previous years acquired defenseman David Savard (2021) and forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman (2020) and lifted the Cup each time.
Detroit Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde, an assistant for the Lightning during their three trips to the final, told reporters in Ottawa: “I’ll never question Julien BriseBois.”
Based on history, he’s not wrong, and Tampa Bay might not be done.
“Never say never,” BriseBois said. “The focus has been on this trade the last little while. Now that we’re able to bring that to the final line, we’re going to reconvene today and look at whether there are other opportunities out there worth exploring.”
Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon said the same thing Sunday after acquiring 2019 Cup-winning forward Ivan Barbashev from St. Louis, and other rivals in the West are positioning themselves for additional moves given how wide open the conference looks. Edmonton is on the lookout for help on defense and has been linked to Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm, Minnesota has been stockpiling draft picks to make a splash and the L.A. Kings could get a goaltender if Seattle doesn’t beat them to the punch.
Winnipeg acquiring winger Nino Niederreiter from the Predators on Saturday woke up the West, and Dallas responded by getting four-time 20-goal scorer Evgenii Dadonov from Montreal, freeing up almost half a million in cap space in the process to crack the door open for more movement.
“It helps us if we are going to do any future moves,” Stars GM Jim Nill said at a news conference in Dallas. “If there’s something out there that can help us, we have the assets (and) we think it’s the right value, we’re looking at it.”
One deal that won’t happen before the deadline is San Jose trading Erik Karlsson, the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who is having a career renaissance and could win the award again at age 32. First-year Sharks GM Mike Grier knows it would be easier to make a big trade such as that in the offseason but could make a few more before Friday.
“Things happen fast this time of the year,” Grier said. “Teams are kind of prepping themselves up and it’ll pick up pretty quickly here, I would imagine, over the next few days.”
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.
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