The Leafs need a first line center. Misconception or truth? Watching this team throughout the season Iâ€™d say itâ€™s need is right. But, if the golden goose in the form of Brad Richards lands in a city not named Toronto, how do we get that top end skill at center? Is there a free agent out there that could help this team without having that top end offensive skills?
Seemingly, Kessel always needed that first line center. I say seemingly because he preformed at his best playing with a legitimate No1 skilled passing center in Marc Savard. While that may be the case, whatâ€™s also undoubtedly true is that Kessel is still a developing player, even more so when playing in Boston. A sniper like Kessel does indeed need a more skilled center than Bozak but I think that skill is more likely to come from the draft or inside the organization (Kadri, Colborne) than via this yearâ€™s free agency. What Iâ€™m aiming for in this article is looking at a more balanced approach.
Brooks Laich is likely to be an available UFA as heâ€™s likely to be unavailable and while I know that isnâ€™t saying much, itâ€™s also a motive for reasonable speculation. Laich is a top notch penalty killer, a player who can put up serious numbers when put in a top six role and play great defensively to boot. One way to look at a player like that is as a temporary fix and a permanent solution. Temporary in replacing elite skill on the top line and permanent as in a 27 year old versatile forward with experience that can play LW position. Looking at what Kesler means to Vancouver, it is clear that teams need players of Laich’s skillset to win Stanley Cups. Be it Jordan Staals or John Maddens of this world.
After a campaign that Kesler had, or rather, is having it would be unwise for anyone compare him to Brooks Laich. When looking at him from a purely defensive standpoint, heâ€™s not that far behind. Also, when you compare their numbers during the two more recent campaigns (2007-2008, 2008-2009) they werenâ€™t really that far apart until Vancouver became one of the best NHL teams. During that period Brooks Laich had 90 points in 164 regular season games played (44 goals). Kesler had 96 points in 162 regular season games played. Kesler was plus nine Laich -4 during that period but it is important to note that Vancouver had a better defensive team, a situation that hasnâ€™t changed. Laich had 307 shots on goal, while Kesler fired off 356 pucks on the opposition netminders in the process.
What would Laich bring to this team? Well, first off better special teams. The powerplay would receive a somewhat solid boost, especially given the fact he can play the point on the first PP unit. The real gain would be visible the penalty kill. Next on the list – net presence. Standing at 6-2, Laich is a big body that doesnâ€™t shy away from going to the net and getting those dirty goals, something we desperately needed and lacked this season. He can also create chances with good speed on the forecheck and can be even be used as a third line center.
All that in mind, Laich is still only the 8th highest scoring UFA forward. Not quite an eye popping rating. Furthermore, given the â€œstrengthâ€ of UFA center class this year Iâ€™m sure if he does indeed opt for free agency, heâ€™ll do so with an intention to sign a deal way more North of his current $2,066,667 deal with the Capitals. To be honest, I donâ€™t think Laich is worth more than 4.5 mil. but signing him to a deal below that doesnâ€™t seem very likely. Donâ€™t get me wrong, I firmly believe itâ€™s good, no scratch that, necessary for a team that has a legitimate first line center (one which you built a team around), to spend even more than the aforementioned sum of 4.5 mil. on a great two way center like Laich, but doing so could mean increasingly less wiggle room in the future for a franchise like Toronto, especially with that No1 line still lacking creativity after the signing. Weâ€™re still way off from being sure what Kadri or Colborne can bring at the center position. So, while doing term plus cap hit with a guy like Laich might offer better depth, defensive play and certainly improves us as a hockey team it really doesnâ€™t solve a more pressing need.
My strong belief is, no matter who is currently out there or how tempting improving your team might seem, rebuilding teams, which IS what we still are, should look to solve the future cornerstones of the franchise before moving on to adding the secondary high priced, Stanley Cup contending pieces.