Why the Maple Leafs should trade for Ryan O’Reilly

Former Colorado Avalanche, Ryan O'Reilly. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Ryan O’Reilly is available for the right price. He’s a young (and soon to be expensive) top-six centre on a team with two other top-six pivots, one of whom—Matt Duchene—is more productive offensively, while the other—Nathan MacKinnon—is the future backbone of the club. It’s unlikely the Avalanche are willing to hand $6-plus million yearly in cap hit to their third-line centre.

Colorado allowed Paul Stastny to walk last off-season rather than give him a hefty UFA contract and, in hindsight, probably regrets not trading him prior to last year’s deadline to recoup assets. The Avs are unlikely to repeat that mistake. So it’s likely O’Reilly is on his way to a new team—and rumours surfaced this past week of the Maple Leafs being a club the Avalanche have looked towards as a match in a potential deal.

Toronto is intriguing in the sense that the Leafs roster has more players of potential interest, and they are probably not thinking of starting from scratch at the moment—horrible losing streaks notwithstanding. Toronoto’s downward spiral of horrid puck-luck has a fanbase begging for change. Endless focus on the dedication, leadership, mental toughness and consistency has replaced calls for Randy Carlyle’s dismissal. A trade seems like a quick fix, though in reality, the wrong player won’t address the team’s underlying possession issues. But O’Reilly might be exactly the player the Leafs need to begin sorting out those issues.

In order to predict a player’s potential impact with a new team we can compare a skater’s shot-attempt counts for and against to what we would expect based on a player with comparably difficult minutes. The results—both for and against—are measured using delta Corsi (dCorsi) as shown below, and higher numbers are better. dCorsi Impact measures the number of extra shot attempts a player is helping to generate or prevent while on the ice.


As shown in the table, O'Reilly's total defensive dCorsi Against (dCA) Impact since 2005-06—which encompasses his entire career—ranks 19th among active NHL centres. That puts him alongside Mikhail Grabvovski, Mikael Backlund, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Kesler and David Backes. It should also be noted that O'Reilly has a successful history playing alongside another defensive forward currently patrolling the wing for the Leafs in Daniel Winnik.

In an admittedly small sample back in 2011-12, O'Reilly centered Winnik and then-rookie Gabriel Landeskog for a 32-game stretch. The line was basically a buzzsaw that ripped their opposition to shreds from a possession standpoint, finishing with numbers that ranked amongst the elite lines in the NHL that season as shown below. Winnik was traded to San Jose later in the season, but while that trio was together it was a force to be reckoned with in a tough Western Conference.


At the other end of the defensive-hockey spectrum we find Tyler Bozak, who has been miscast as a top-six centre in Toronto for years. Despite solid faceoff numbers and intermittent offensive production between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk that earn him occasional plaudits from fans, his results belie a player in far over his head at both ends of the ice.


When we adjust for his usage, Bozak actually has some of the worst possession results of any NHL centre over the past seven years—ranking 219th out of 224 NHL Centres in Total dCorsi Impact since 2005. Only Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Briere, Olli Jokinen, Mike Fisher and Gregory Campbell have worse Corsi differentials in comparison to expectations.

Nazem Kadri, on the other hand, has slowly been developing into not only a legit top-line centre, but one who can drive some serious offensive results.


Since 2011, Kadri has produced 5v5 points at a rate (2.09 pts/60) that compares favourably to the likes of Matt Duchene (2.13), Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar and Logan Couture. Also, as of this writing, his dCorsi Impact ranks sixth among NHL centres behind only Patrice Bergeron, Joe Thornton, Dominic Moore, Patrik Berglund and MacKinnon.

Kadri's scoring output and ability to push play offensively (he ranks third this year in dCF Impact amongst centres—generating shot attempts at an elite rate) while maintaining about average defensive results, would strongly suggest that he has far more potential as a first-liner than he is given credit for. The addition of a player like O'Reilly—whose dCorsi results have been significantly positive for much of his career—would be a sizable upgrade on Bozak defensively in the No. 2 spot.

Allowing O'Reilly to take on some of the tougher matchups from a checking standpoint could free up Kadri to play a more offensive role—similar to how Boston makes use of Bergeron to shelter David Krejci for more offensive production up the middle. Sheltering a scoring option like van Riemsdyk by playing him on a line with O'Reilly and Daniel Winnik could mitigate any obvious defensive deficiencies. Alternatively, giving more top 6 minutes on O'Reilly's wing to another responsible defensive player with some decent possession results like Richard Panik might allow the Leafs to truly shelter a top line.
At this point anything the Leafs can do to shake up the core bit and push play into the offensive zone more consistently will go a long way to improving their results. So far it looks like Peter Horachek has been able to stem the bleeding defensively, but until the roster is remodeled by adding players like O'Reilly it is unlikely they can shift up into the more competitive ranks of teams with possession rates over 50%.