The fourth-line center position has been a revolving door for the Maple Leafs since Mike Babcock’s arrival as head coach of the hockey club, even as the team’s on-ice fortunes improved greatly over the past two seasons.
Amid heavy roster turnover in a “tank” year, journeyman Byron Froese occupied the role for 50-some games in Babcock’s first year behind the bench in 2015-16.
Ben Smith also filled the role for parts of two seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before remaining a full-time Marlie in 2017-18.
Frederik Gauthier was recalled for a stint in each of the last three seasons, for seven, 21 and nine games, respectively.
Veteran free agent signing Dominic Moore never won over Babcock, rotating in and out of the press box throughout the 2017-18 campaign and appearing in 50 regular season games and two playoff games, all told.
In the end, the Leafs expended second-round draft picks in consecutive years to rent Bryan Boyle and Tomas Plekanec at the last two trade deadlines as they geared up for their playoff runs.
With Plekanec now a free agent and likely Montreal bound (if not a return to La Belle Province, he’s still likely not long for Toronto), could Swedish signing Pär Lindholm be a solution for the current 4C vacancy — a solution beyond just the first 50-60 games of the regular season, after which Babcock lobbies his GM for outside help again at the deadline?
In reality, there is too much uncertainty at the center position at this stage for the Leafs to say, with any degree of confidence, where Lindholm might fit. Is Tyler Bozak gone for sure? What do the Leafs do in free agency? Do the Leafs decide now is the time to transition William Nylander to center full time? How does that change the dynamic of the forward group and Babcock’s deployment of it?
You also never know how free agent signings out of Europe are going to turn out. Miro Aaltonen — who may still be in the big club’s plans, but will need a new contract this summer if that’s the case — received some consideration for the fourth-line center job last training camp and preseason, as well as some verbal praise from Babcock, but never received a call-up at any point during the 2017-18 campaign.
While it’s also too soon to call it on Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, of the Leafs’ four undrafted free agent signings from overseas in the past two years (soon to be six, once Igor Ozhiganov and Lindholm arrive), only Nikita Zaitsev has actually proven he can take a regular shift in the NHL.
While it’s always a wait-and-see proposition, Lindholm is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) The 26-year-old has been near a point per game in the SHL, which grades well if NHL equivalencies mean anything to you. 2) He’s been effective in a variety of situations, including in more of a checking role earlier in his SHL career. 3) He sounds like a Mike Babcock kind of player.
“One thing that stood out a bit was Mike’s early interest,” Lindholm’s agent, Erik Wallström, told Maple Leafs Hot Stove. “He’s watched lots of games and is really sure what kind of player he’s getting.”
Playing 4C for Babcock involves meeting a certain standard of defensive play, penalty killing contributions, and faceoff ability. As far as the faceoff dot goes, Lindholm finished top five in the SHL with a 58.3% success rate while taking more draws than anyone else in top-flight Swedish hockey.
“He’s played on the penalty kill,” added Wallström. “Being strong on faceoffs and also reading the play very well, he’s well suited to be playing the PK.”
While he’s occupied a top scoring role in the past couple of seasons for Skellefteå AIK, Lindholm started his career in the SHL playing lower down the roster learning to play a responsible checking game.
“He started out as a pretty defensive-minded center, but as time went on and he got more confidence, he climbed the ladder on his Swedish team,” Uffe Bodin of HockeySverige.se told MLHS.
“You can pretty much put him anywhere on your roster and he’ll adapt to that role,” continued Bodin. “The past two seasons he has been a very effective offensive player in the SHL. I’d have to think that Babcock sees him as a potential third or fourth line center… more skilled than a Frederik Gauthier or a Dominic Moore type.”
The offensive side of his game has indeed taken off in the past couple of seasons, culminating in a top-five finish in SHL scoring (47 points in 49 games) this past year while playing on a line with former Leaf, Joakim Lindström, and former Kings second-round draft pick, Oscar Möller. He also chipped in three goals in six Euro Hockey Tour games for Team Sweden and added a goal in four appearances for the national team at the Olympic Games this past winter in South Korea, where he played with his Skellefteå linemates, Lindström and Möller.
“He has taken huge strides offensively in the last two years,” said Wallström. “He’s developed a lot of things: He’s strong on the puck, very good around the net, making shifty smart plays and also redirecting pucks.”
“One thing he might need to think of is to sometimes be a bit more selfish. On the rush, he’s a bit more of a setup guy, but playing on the smaller ice will probably mean he has to shoot more often.”
Removing Canucks prospect Ellias Petersson from the list – he spent most of his season at right wing with Vaxjo HC – Lindholm’s plus-18 graded tops among SHL centers in plus/minus.
“Pär’s hard work and defensive play made it much easier for Joakim and Oscar to focus on their offense,” said Wallström, who graded him “top 3” among defensive forwards in the SHL.
While Director of Player Evaluation Jim Paliafito and the Leafs’ European scouts are laying the groundwork year round and getting eyes on players, coach Babcock has been involved in the recruitment process with the Leafs’ European free agent signings over the past couple of years, particularly around the time of the World Championships tournament. Babcock inquired and showed interest in Lindholm last season before it got “more intense” this season, says Wallström.
“He has the tools to be a third/fourth centerman who will work really hard but also chip in with points. He’s very coachable, and I think Mike will appreciate his strong two-way play.”
The revolving door at fourth-line center has shown us Babcock’s appreciation is going to have to be earned and re-earned each and every day, from day one of training camp onward.