TORONTO — Even a surprisingly successful season wasn't about to throw the Toronto Maple Leafs off a patient plan of reconstruction.
The Leafs stayed relatively quiet on NHL trade deadline day, adding only veteran winger Eric Fehr to the mix in a minor trade with Pittsburgh. The move came two days after the acquisition of veteran centre Brian Boyle from Tampa.
There was no big splash, in other words, for a team that's still in the early stage of a promising long-term build.
"We're not going to get off-track on what we've set out to do and that is to establish a franchise that has the ability to sustain a competitiveness over a period of time," Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said after Wednesday's 3 p.m. ET deadline. "And we did not want to make any transactions that would get in the way of the development of our players."
Lamoriello said it was important for the club to add veteran experience in the 32-year-old Boyle and 31-year-old Fehr — 160 NHL playoff games combined — while noting that neither acquisition would take important minutes from key young players.
"I think what we've done right here is give them, that is our younger players, an opportunity to be around some people who have had the experience and also to help develop that culture of winning," Lamoriello said.
The addition of Boyle is far more notable than Fehr.
Head coach Mike Babcock had been shuffling through unsuitable fourth line centres all season, a void the American fills with instant credibility. Boyle lends size (six foot six, 244 pounds), face-off prowess (53 per cent), a hint of offence (13 goals) and a capable defensive-zone presence who can also kill penalties for Babcock and play net-front on the power play.
He struggled in his Tuesday debut for the Leafs — a 3-1 loss in San Jose — but offers a dependable presence at the bottom of the lineup.
"We were in need of that position," Lamoriello said. "I think we all know we were missing that."
A Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh last season, Fehr has struggled this year (43 per cent possession) and increasingly saw his role diminish with the Penguins. He recently passed through waivers.
The Leafs essentially added his contract to help the cap-strapped Penguins squeeze in defenceman Mark Streit from Tampa at the deadline — the deal also netting Pittsburgh little-used 23-year-old Frank Corrado. Toronto's price tag for the acquisition was a fourth-round pick and depth defenceman Steven Oleksy.
Babcock could use Fehr on a fourth line with Boyle and Matt Martin with penalty killing duties also potentially on the docket. That could mean fewer minutes potentially for 23-year-old Nikita Soshnikov and 23-year-old Josh Leivo, though both have probably earned the right to play ahead of their new veteran teammate.
Fehr's contract carries one more year with a cap hit of US$2 million and Lamoriello conceded his acquisition was based, at least in part, on requirements for the upcoming expansion draft.
Clubs have to expose two forwards who are under contract next season and played either 40 games this year or 70 games combined in the last two seasons — requirements Fehr meets.
The Leafs deadline approach in 2017 was markedly different from only one year earlier when a slew of veterans — including Roman Polak, James Reimer and Daniel Winnik — were sent out to playoff contenders for future assets.
If not selling this time around, Toronto also wasn't buying on big fish to complete a Cup contender (like Washington) nor sacrificing assets to improve playoff positioning (like Ottawa or Montreal), but just tinkering on the margins with Boyle and to a lesser degree, Fehr.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," Lamoriello concluded. "We don't want to get in our way so anything that we were going to do had to be something to support and keep the progression on a normal process."