Draft Day Recap: Leafs get deeper at center

Draft Day Recap: Leafs get deeper at center

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The old saying in hockey is that defense wins championships, and defense was the theme of the day for the Leafs yesterday even though they didn’t acquire a single defenseman.

For Toronto, the day started off by selecting 6’4 Frederik Gauthier with their 21st overall pick. Gauthier started off the season hot with 10 goals and 20 points in his first 20 games, but he suffered a broken jaw that required surgery and struggled after that offensively, potting only 12 goals in his remaining 50 games.

However, his effort was routinely noticeable defensively, as Gauthier worked hard to cut off passing lanes, backchecked, sacrificed his body to make the right play and simply put forth an honest effort. Last June, the Leafs used their first rounder to draft Morgan Rielly in part because of how hard he worked to get back after suffering a devastating knee injury, and this year they drafted a guy in the first round who suffered a broken jaw but came back strong and continued to work despite poor goal totals.

Gauthier was fourth overall in points for a rookie in the QMJHL this year, but he played fewer games than each of the three players ahead of him. It’s also interesting that Gauthier is getting drafted as a rookie, because that means he never had a year to adjust to the league; instead, he was thrown into the Q and expected to produce immediately. There are more than a few examples of players being drafted after their rookie year lower than they should have been –Wayne Simmonds and Brandon Saad are two — because they had good but not great rookie seasons.

Some will criticize this move as the Leafs playing it safe again in the first round, but if you’re telling me Toronto will get a legitimate NHL player out of this I’d take it. Here are the selections at 21 since 2000:

2000 – Anton Volchenkov

2001 – Colby Armstrong

2002 – Anton Babchuk

2003 – Mark Stuart

2004 – Wojtek Wolski

2005 – Tuuka Rask

2006 – Bobby Sanguinetti

2007 – Riley Nash

2008 – Anton Gustafsson

2009 – John Moore

2010 – Riley Sheahan

2011 – Stefan Noesen

Nonis said Gauthier projects as a second but more likely a third line center. If Gauthier pans out, the question will really boil down to – will he be more like a Brian Boyle or Dave Steckel, or a Martin Hanzal or Jordan Staal brand of checking, two-way center?

Dave Bolland Acquisition

After drafting their two-way center of the future, the Leafs moved quickly to bring in their two-way checking center of the present in Dave Bolland.

What the Bolland acquisition does more than anything else is place the Leafs’ centers in their proper roles. Last season the Leafs had Bozak in a prime scoring role, which he isn’t suited for, and Grabovski in a checking role, which he isn’t suited for either. Kadri was in a sheltered scoring role but once he began to emerge the limited roster forced Carlyle to even start pitting Kadri head-to-head against the opposition’s best players.

The Leafs are a little small at center now, but Kadri is physical, Bolland plays with an edge, Grabovski is fearless and McClement actually has decent size at 6’1 and over 200 pounds. They aren’t a big group on paper, but pound for pound they are as tough as anyone.

Yesterday, Nonis gave quite a few mixed signals on Bolland, saying he doesn’t want to pigeonhole him as a third line center but that he’d be fine using the current center group of Kadri-Grabovski-Bolland-McClement for next season, and that this doesn’t affect Bozak’s status because they’d still like to retain him. Unless the Leafs plan on getting rid of Grabovski and resigning Bozak as a checking center, those comments don’t really add up, so I’m not going to take them at face value. At the end of the day, Bolland is best suited as a checking center and in fairness to Nonis he did say Bolland’s “got enough skill that he can play (against) really good players and he’s got enough grit that he can play against really good players.”

In a lot of ways, the Leafs current group of centers is the same formula the Bruins deploy as Kadri is an offensive center (Krejci), Grabovski is a two-way center (Bergeron), and Bolland plus McClement are checking centers (Kelly, Campbell) . This isn’t to say they are as good of a center group, but it’s the same formula.

Bolland’s only 27 and has a lot of hockey left in him, but he’s only played over 80 games once in his five year career. That’s concern. Moreover, he’s a UFA after next season so the Leafs do take on some risk here. They only gave up a second and two fourths, which isn’t a lot for a solid NHL center considering those are hard to find, but it’s going to look bad if Bolland walks for nothing a year from now.

After the playoffs, Leafs management mentioned that certain players didn’t want to be on the ice during the game 7 collapse, essentially shrinking in the moment, and Bolland is a guy who is known for his big-game performances. His Stanley Cup winning goal aside, he also has a Memorial Cup to his name, returned from injury in the playoffs with Chicago down 3-0 against Vancouver and was a major factor in the Hawks pushing the series to 7, and was tied for fifth with 16 points in 22 games when Chicago won the Cup in 2010. He’s a gamer.

Boiled down, the aggregate of the whole deal is that Grabovski is a better scoring center than Bozak and Bolland is more comfortable in a prime shutdown role than Grabovski. The Leafs are coming out ahead here if everything goes according to plan.

The rest of the 2013 draftees

Following the Bolland deal, the Leafs still had a draft to finish off. Next up they selected Carter Verhaeghe in the third round. At 6’1 and roughly 180 pounds, he isn’t a huge guy and he doesn’t play like it. In some ways, this pick reminds me a bit of the Connor Brown selection from last year as Verhaeghe is a player known for hockey sense and skill and he’s going to get a great opportunity to produce in his draft +1. With Ryan Strome graduating this year for Niagara, Verhaeghe should see a spike in offensive opportunities and hopefully that will translate to more points. Stuck behind Strome last season, Carter was forced into checking duties. Now, he’s going to get an opportunity on a team in a transition. He’s also one of the younger players in the draft with an August birthday, so the Leafs are banking on him having a lot more room to grow. Verhaeghe played with Gauthier on the gold medal winning U18 Canadian team and some believe he boosted his stock in the tournament with 4 points in 7 games. It was only a few years ago the Leafs drafted Jerry D’Amigo, albeit much later in the draft, in large part due to a huge U18 tournament.

Toronto went into the draft with few legitimate center prospects other than Greg McKegg and maybe Dominic Toninato. Their other center prospects are two legitimate players in Tony Cameranesi and Ryan Rupert, who are both well under 6 foot so you have to think they are probably wingers at the pro level, and two grinders who have a long road ahead of them if they are to see NHL action ever in Sam Carrick and Andrew Crescenzi.

The Leafs next pick was Fabrice Herzog, who is a player I admittedly know nothing about, so I won’t pretend to. The positives are that he’s coming over from Europe next year according to Morrison, and playing in North America will help his development. Plus, Switzerland has had an emerging program in recent years and hopefully Herzog is apart of that. This seems like another swing for the fences type pick ala Sondre Olden.

In the sixth round, the Leafs selected 6’2 goalie Antoine Bibeau who won the net over this year, played in 46 games and had a .911sv% with five shutouts. Bibeau had a particularly strong second half of the season, going 16-4-2, which brings up memories of when the Leafs selected Josh Leivo after a breakout second half in his draft year.

Finally, the Leafs turned over their last pick to their Swedish scout Thommie Bergman and he selected Andreas Johnson. He’s rolled the dice with late picks almost every draft, and considering the late nature of the picks the results haven’t been half bad (Anton Stralman, Carl Gunnarsson, Daniel Brodin, and Viktor Loov). Johnson had 54 points in 42 games in the Swedish U20 league but is only listed at 5’10.

There’s plenty of offseason left and many more moves to come. The Leafs still have five to six fairly noteworthy RFAs to deal with. So far up to this point, Frattin, Komarov and Scrivens are out; Bernier, Bolland and five draft picks are in.