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Maple Leafs answer Lightning by making trade with Blackhawks

Toronto’s expected first-round clash with Tampa turning into an arms race
FILE - Chicago Blackhawks center Sam Lafferty prepares to make a pass during an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, in Dallas. The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired forward Sam Lafferty and defenseman Jake McCabe from Chicago, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, their latest big trade that comes in the aftermath of division-rival Tampa Bay making another pre-deadline splash.(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired forward Sam Lafferty and defenseman Jake McCabe from Chicago on Monday, their latest big trade that comes in the aftermath of division-rival Tampa Bay making another pre-deadline splash.

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.

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 general manager 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 really is. 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.” 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.”

—Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

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