Centers of Attention

Centers of Attention

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Photo: Reuters

“We need a number one center.”
- Every Leafs Fan

While it may not be seen as the organizations top priority, it is safe to assume that most people who have followed the Leafs in the post-Sundin era have been left wanting in this area. Personally I’d prioritize goaltending, followed by a top four defenseman, but there’s no denying that first center is a glam position and it’s more fun to talk about the guys who score goals than the guys who prevent them.

That’s not to say that Grabovski hasn’t been a revelation, and certainly he can be considered a top center in some capacity, but Connolly and Bozak would be the greater cause for concern.

I didn’t like the Connolly signing, and he didn’t have a great season. That being said, it’s clear he’s capable of more, and a large part of what held him back was that he was focused on filling the duties of a third line role player, not the playmaking center he is capable of being.

I am a fan of Bozak, but a center playing with two point per game wingers only coming up with 47 points is a huge problem. He simply cannot keep up in that first line role, and I have my doubts about him on the second line as well. It’s also notable that he is unlikely to usurp McClement and Steckel from the bottom six center roles that he may be best suited for, and presumably his days in Toronto are numbered.

So where does this leave Toronto? Hoping that Connolly can elevate his game (likely, but to whether it’s to the extent required is questionable). Randy Carlyle has floated the notion that James van Riemsdyk will see some time at center. Of course everything is worth a try, and while he did occasionally see some time at center at the University of New Hampshire, and while with the U.S. National Team Development Program, he really hasn’t been a center since he was playing bantam hockey. That and he’s not very strong in his own end would lead me to believe it’s a bad idea.

The most interesting approach is to look outside the Leafs for a solution. Options outside the organization are quite limited, and the options become more limited when you consider how uncompromising Burke can be about what he thinks is best for the organization. I have tried to narrow down who the best options are for the Leafs, and the end result is a very short list.

The first thing I looked at was size. Burke has stated consistently for the past four years that he wants the Leafs forward group to get bigger. With that in mind I filtered the list of forwards who played in the NHL last season down to those who are either 6’2 or taller and/or 210 lbs or heavier and assumed that would be the group he’d consider. The end result is 245 forwards. Interestingly enough, eight of the Leafs forwards fall into that category, of that group the only one who saw anytime in the top six was Nikolai Kulemin and five of them spent the majority of the season with the Marlies. Clearly the need for size is valid.

The next filter applied was to look exclusively at centers or players who had played center at the NHL level. So while Patrick Marleau may be listed as a Left Wing, he was included as a center because it would be possible for him to transition back. The number of players left on my list is 86, and the current Leafs left on the list are Steckel and Colborne.

Since the need is for someone who can play in the top six, they will be required to play top six minutes. Ideally this player will be a 20 minute a night player, at minimum they will be playing 18 minutes. For the sake of casting a wide net here, I have included everyone who has played 16 minutes or more a night. There are only 33 players who fit this mold (no Leafs.)

Out of respect for the Leafs youth movement, and the fact that the goal should be sustained success rather than a couple of good years and then a new center is required again, I have limited the field to players who were born on or after January 1, 1985. This has dropped the list down to 17.

So let’s take a look at who is left:

Anze Kopitar
Brandon Dubinsky
Brandon Sutter
Colin Wilson
Daniel Winnik
Evgeni Malkin
Jamie Benn
Jeff Carter
Jeremy Welsh
Jonathan Toews
Jordan Staal
Martin Hanzal
Nicklas Backstrom
Patrice Bergeron
Patrik Berglund
Ryan Getzlaf
Travis Zajac

Okay, so immediately scratch Jeremy Welsh off the list. His one game was good enough to pull him onto this list, but I’ll make a bold assumption that he won’t be considered for the position. For that matter, Daniel Winnik is more of a bottom six player and can probably come off this list, though he wouldn’t be a bad bottom six pickup (still UFA.)

There are some other easy names to strike off this list. Kopitar and Carter won’t be leaving the Kings after the Cup. Malkin and Toews are centerpieces of their teams and won’t be leaving. The Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter swap probably means that they both aren’t going anywhere either. In fact it’s safe to say Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, and Jamie Benn are also off limits.

The list is severely reduced to the following:

Brandon Dubinsky
Colin Wilson
Martin Hanzal
Patrik Berglund
Ryan Getzlaf
Travis Zajac

Of this list, Ryan Getzlaf is the player who stands out as the proven commodity and he’s the one you chase if you’re not concerned about what you give up. Getzlaf has played his best hockey for Carlyle, and after Boudreau arrived in Anaheim he saw his ice time marginally reduced and his point production dropped from .79 points per game to .65.

With Bobby Ryan already on the block this summer, and the Ducks still trying to ice a competitive team next season (if for no other reason to encourage Selanne to return for another year), it seems unlikely that Getzlaf will be available any sooner than the trade deadline. Going all in for Getzlaf will likely mean committing to Connolly for a large part of the season or making a payment that doesn’t treat him like he only has a year left on his deal.

Travis Zajac is in a similar position to Ryan Getzlaf in that he will also be an unrestricted free agent next season, but has the added bonus of being on a team that is experiencing financial woes and could see his $3,887,500 cap hit ($4,800,000 actual salary) moved.

What is worrisome is his production in the past couple of seasons. In his 15 games this year he was held to 6 points (14 points in 24 playoff games,) and in Parise’s injury ridden 2010-11 season he was held to 44 points in 82 games with his weapon of choice out. This is less than encouraging for him being an upgrade over Bozak despite the 67 and 62 point seasons that preceded his drop off.

If toughness and size is deemed more important than actually putting the puck in the net, the best option might be Martin Hanzal. He hit his high watermark for scoring at 34 points in 64 games last season, but he’s 6’6, 236 lbs, and 239 hits last season. I don’t doubt that he could put up Bozak numbers between Lupul and Kessel, but probably not much more than that. What he does add is a player making space for Kessel, and also he would be capable of making the top line look less like a defensive zone disaster.

Unfortunately, Hanzal works well on Tippet’s team, and at $3.1 million a season I can’t imagine the Coyotes parting with such a reasonable contract. Maybe he can be coaxed away if a premium price is paid, but I’d have to imagine if the Leafs are giving up assets it will be for someone who can generate offense.

The reasonable alternative to Hanzal might be Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky is a bit more of a winger than a center, though he is one year removed from primarily being a center. Dubinsky is a solid faceoff guy, a hitter, he’s capable of PK or PP time, and his offensive totals at least line up with what you’d hope for from a second line center.

The two biggest selling points on Dubinsky might be that a.) He’s readily available (Sather made this known before the draft) and b.) He’s versatile. If a better option comes available at center, he can be shifted to the wing.

Colin Wilson is an interesting option in Nashville. He certainly wasn’t a favourite of Barry Trotz who seemed to hope that a greater two-way game would develop in Wilson, and it is also likely that Wilson’s numbers have been stunted a bit by the defense-first system that the Predators play.

While it would be quite a leap to move Wilson into a top line role the talent is there, and he could be an affordable asset from a team that might even absorb some salary as they attempt to get to the cap floor.

Finally, my darling of the annual summer unicorn rosterbation, Patrik Berglund. I don’t know why I think that a large Swede is a good fit for Toronto on the top line, but he warrants some consideration despite his numbers in St. Louis.

The fourteen point drop off this season can likely be attributed to the Ken Hitchcock system, but that same system gave Berglund a chance to develop is two way game and Berglund averaged a minute and a half of PK time per game.

Would St. Louis even make Berglund available? I doubt it. In fact, of all the players I have listed, the only ones I think could be on the market are Zajac, Dubinsky, and Wilson, and all three have some level of risk attached to them.

Looking outside my list it is possible that older players like David Legwand or Patrick Marleau could be available, and of the centers on the smaller side players like Paul Stastny and Sam Gagner frequently have their names circulate around the rumor mill.

It seems perfectly reasonable that Burke will be able to track down someone new to take a swing at the number one center role. Whether or not that player is .70 point per game guy, which is essentially the threshold for being a first line center, remains to be seen.

What we can take away from Carlyle’s recent comments is that he doesn’t view Connolly or Bozak as the players to fill that role. He also doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for catapulting Kadri or Colborne into a top line center role. It’s July 6th, and at the earliest we won’t see  training camps opening for another two and half months, there’s plenty of time to address this issue (and others) before we need to start worrying about where players will land in the lineup. At this point, it’s about gathering the best group available who can give Burke and Carlyle the toughest decisions for establishing an opening day roster.