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Center of Attention : What Lies Within?

Editor's Note: nhlcheapshot ends his detailed look at the Leafs' centre position by examining the franchise's prospect depth.

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In the last few years, being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan means facing disappointment both on and off the ice. Our boys in blue haven't seen post-season action since 2004, our current Cup drought is tied for the longest among NHL teams, but even after watching other teams go to the dance each post-season we're stuck with the additional frustration of watching the biggest free agents names (and restricted free agents) sign with other teams.

You know what I'm talking about. Rick Nash. Bobby Ryan. And now, Brad Richards, Paul Stastny, etc. These are the dream signings and trades. They would be Gods amongst men if they could bring any type of sustained success to this organization, but have chosen to sign with other teams instead. And it breaks our hearts.

Many Leafs fans believe (or once believed) that it is every player's dream who grew up being a Leafs fan to sign with them as soon as they got the chance. That as proven not be the case as the team has mounted up losing season after losing season, and players just straight up prefer winning situations.

All Leafs fans should consider the very real possibility that there is no Unicorn on the horizon. No top flight #1C brought in through UFA or trade, and all offer sheets for high-end RFAs are matched. But perhaps the answer lies within the Leafs' own organization.

Where do the Leafs currently stand at the center position? Honestly, not great. Depth at center looks like this:

  • Mikhail Grabovski - Legit Top 6 C, ideally a #2 on a great team

  • Tyler Bozak - Struggled this season, work in progress - can he be a solid #3C? More?

  • Nazem Kadri - More likely a LW than C in the long-run but still loads of potential

  • Joe Colborne - Still rough, but has the makings and potential to be higher-end

  • Tim Brent - Role player, bottom 6

  • Darryl Boyce - Role player, bottom 6

  • Mike Zigomanis - Fringe NHLer

  • Christian Hanson - Role player, bottom 6 (IMO)

  • Greg McKegg - Spectacular offensive surprise, could project Top 6 already despite being drafted in the 3rd round

  • Sondre Olden - Too early to tell

  • Sam Carrick - Too early to tell

  • Andrew Crescenzi - Too early to tell

From that list, it is clear that Grabbo belongs in a Top 6 role, and many others project to Bottom 6 role players, AHLers or just not enough development has occurred to pass a solid judgment. That leaves Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, and Greg McKegg as centers who have a shot of becoming what we all hope they can be - a legitimate #1C.

Looking within can be... disheartening. The grass always seems greener on the other club. But then there's the case of James Reimer. The Leafs organization searched outside the club for years to try to improve the goaltending position, when they had James Reimer (and originally, Tuukka Rask) within their system the whole time. Could the same situation be happening at the center position? Are the Leafs already sitting on a gold mine, and they're too busy Brad Richards and Paul Stastny-watching to realize what they truly have?

Part 1 - How do the kids stack up against the other players in their draft class?

Before we get into numbers, everyone should familiarize themselves with the concept of NHLe (NHL equivalency) over at BehindtheNet.ca. For the purposes of this analysis, I used both the inter-league and junior league NHLe figures. Simply put, the equivalency factors make it possible to compare point production across different leagues, and can be used to estimate how well a player will translate their production to the NHL.

The figures below are fairly straight forward. "Avg NHLe" is the NHL equivalent in points that a player could expect over 82 games. These numbers are used to generate a ranking against the Top 50 forwards in each draft class to see, on average, how the Leafs players stack up to the kids in their draft. All data used available here.

2010 Draft Class Avg NHLe Rank Fwd Draft Rank 2009 Draft Class Avg NHLe Rank Fwd Draft Rank 2008 Draft Class Avg NHLe Rank Fwd Draft Rank
Jaden Schwartz 43.92 1 9 John Tavares 49.10 1 1 Steven Stamkos 65.04 1 1
Taylor Hall 41.66 2 1 Matt Duchene 46.73 2 2 Derek Stepan 40.58 2 26
Jeff Skinner 41.31 3 6 Jeremy Morin 35.93 3 29 Jordan Eberle 34.93 3 11
Mikael Granlund 40.06 4 8 Brayden Schenn 34.02 4 4 Colin Wilson 34.21 4 3
Evgeny Kuznetsov 35.32 5 18 Evander Kane 33.16 5 3 Tyler Ennis 31.79 5 14
Tyler Seguin 30.61 6 2 Scott Glennie 29.60 6 6 Joshua Bailey 29.74 6 5
Tyler Toffoli 30.47 7 33 Jakob Silfverberg 29.52 7 25 Nikita Filatov 29.60 7 2
Jordan Weal 30.38 8 47 Nazem Kadri 27.88 8 5 Zach Boychuk 28.65 8 8
Vladimir Tarasenko 29.57 9 10 Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson 27.67 9 7 Cody Hodgson 27.93 9 6
Joey Hishon 29.31 10 11 Ryan Bourque 27.11 10 47 Mikkel Boedker 27.87 10 4
Calle Jarnkrok 28.86 11 36 Drew Shore 26.65 11 28 Zac Dalpe 27.60 11 22
Ryan Spooner 27.59 12 32 Taylor Beck 26.42 12 42 Anton Gustafsson 26.37 12 10
Nino Niederreiter 26.06 13 4 Jordan Schroeder 25.74 13 13 Eric O'Dell 25.33 13 20
Brett Connolly 25.97 14 5 Jacob Josefson 25.40 14 12 Mikhail Stefanovich 25.20 14 50
Emerson Etem 25.84 15 20 Peter Holland 25.25 15 9 Mattias Tedenby 24.96 15 12
Christian Thomas 24.73 16 28 Ryan O'Reilly 25.18 16 20 Mitch Wahl 24.87 16 24
Greg McKegg 24.29 17 43 Marcus Johansson 25.05 17 14 Nicolas Deschamps 24.66 17 18
Beau Bennett 23.85 18 14 Michael Latta 24.95 18 43 Kyle Beach 24.44 18 7
Alexander Burmistrov 23.64 19 7 Ethan Werek 24.88 19 30 Luke Adam 24.41 19 21
Charlie Coyle 23.62 20 19 Cody Eakin 24.59 20 49 Danny Kristo 24.21 20 28
Jason Zucker 23.55 21 41 Tomas Tatar 24.04 21 36 Adam Henrique 23.76 21 42
Nick Bjugstad 23.19 22 13 Louis Leblanc 24.02 22 10 Greg Nemisz 23.04 22 13
Tyler Pitlick 23.02 23 22 Reilly Smith 23.50 23 41 Viktor Tikhonov 22.67 23 15
Ryan Johansen 22.96 24 3 Andrej Nestrasil 23.49 24 45 Dmitri Kugryshev 22.47 24 29
Quinton Howden 22.29 25 17 Brandon Pirri 23.36 25 35 Joe Colborne 21.94 25 9
Michael Bournival 21.24 26 48 Alex Chiasson 22.93 26 24 Vinny Saponari 21.81 26 48
Ryan Martindale 20.96 27 42 Jordan Caron 22.79 27 15 Jimmy Hayes 21.70 27 30
Devante Smith-Pelly 20.46 28 29 Chris Kreider 22.57 28 11 Robbie Czarnik 21.45 28 32
Kevin Sundher 20.25 29 50 Zack Kassian 22.17 29 8 Maxime Sauve 20.46 29 23
John Mcfarland 20.02 30 24 Kenny Ryan 21.95 30 31 Evgeny Grachev 19.59 30 39
Brad Ross 19.85 31 30 Anton Rodin 21.73 31 33 Jamie Arniel 19.04 31 49
Petr Straka 19.84 32 38 Ryan Howse 20.31 32 44 Brandon McMillan 18.64 32 43
Austin Watson 19.76 33 12 Anton Lander 19.87 33 26 Daultan Leveille 18.34 33 16
Curtis Hamilton 19.70 34 34 Kyle Palmieri 19.44 34 16 Kirill Petrov 18.30 34 38
Jared Knight 19.57 35 23 Carl Klingberg 18.64 35 21 David Toews 17.87 35 35
Max Reinhart 18.75 36 44 Richard Panik 18.57 36 32 Phil McRae 17.58 36 17
Brett Bulmer 17.52 37 27 Chris Brown 18.03 37 23 Corey Trivino 17.49 37 19
Kirill Kabanov 17.48 38 45 Carter Ashton 17.95 38 18 Steve Quailer 17.00 38 44
Riley Sheahan 17.03 39 15 Sergei Andronov 17.02 39 46 Patrice Cormier 16.88 39 27
Brock Nelson 16.81 40 21 Landon Ferraro 16.84 40 19 Geordie Wudrick 16.42 40 46
Connor Brickley 15.97 41 35 Zach Budish 16.81 41 27 Zack Smith 15.91 41 41
Kevin Hayes 15.18 42 16 Philippe Paradis 16.64 42 17 Danick Paquette 15.76 42 33
Oscar Lindberg 13.29 43 40 Ben Hanowski 16.39 43 37 Jared Staal 14.24 43 25
Phil Lane 12.71 44 37 Kyle Clifford 13.88 44 22 Josh Brittain 13.93 44 37
Dalton Smith 12.09 45 25 Josh Birkholz 10.77 45 39 Ian Schultz 13.56 45 45
Johan Larsson 11.90 46 39 Kevin Lynch 9.88 46 34 James Livingston 13.43 46 36
Max Gardiner 5.93 47 49 Jamie Devane 9.13 47 40 Justin Daniels 13.15 47 31
Joe Basaraba 4.67 48 46 Cameron Abney 5.06 48 48 Jori Lehtera 12.80 48 34
Ludvig Rensfeldt 4.00 49 26 Joonas Nattinen 3.82 49 38 Lance Bouma 11.83 49 40
Sebastian Wannstrom 2.03 50 31 Mattias Lindstrom 3.55 50 50 Scott Winkler 11.44 50 47

We can see a few a few positives from this table:

  • First, Burke did pretty well with his 2nd and 3rd rounders in the 2010 draft. Brad Ross is right in line with where he should be (31st highest NHLe and was picked as the 30th forward in the draft). Secondly, McKegg is awesome, producing at an NHLe clip somewhere between Nino Niederreiter and Alexander Burmistrov.
  • Next, despite all the talk about Kadri being developed a bit more slowly than expected, he's coming along nicely and is in-line with where he should be in terms of relative production vs. where he was drafted.
  • Joe Colborne would appear to be behind his class, relatively speaking, in terms of point-production. But the kid has size, and there are many of high-end players who didn't start out as big time point-producing machines. Nevertheless, he'll need to blow socks off in training camp or he'll be heading back to the Marlies.

Leafsprospectscomparison_large

(Click for larger version)

Part 2 - How do they stack up against the rest of the NHL?

  • It's all well and good that the players the Leafs drafted are doing well relatively speaking to their draft class, but relatively speaking might not be good enough. The Leafs are looking for a future #1C damnit!
  • Using the always-trusty hockey-reference.com, I ran a search for centers who produced 60 points at least once since 1995. I then mapped their 82-game NHLe production from the ages of 16 to 40 years old to see how the Leafs prospects stacked up.
  • I broke the large sample into 3 groups. All data used for the charts below is available here.
  1. Group 1 includes the cream of the crop (Gretzky, Yzerman, Lemieux, etc.) but also some other names you might recognize. These are players with an average career NHLe over 82 games of over 60 points.

  2. Group 2 includes several great players that just didn't make the jump from "Great" centers to "Elite" or "Legendary". However, some are still young enough that they may challenge for that status before their careers are over. These are players with an average career NHLe over 82 games between 50 and 60 points.

  3. Group 3 still has has a great group of guys who would be young, producing centers and a #1C on almost any club. A lot of the target centermen for trades fall within this spectrum. These are players who have hit at least 60 points once in their career but have an average career NHLe over 82 games of less than 50 points.
  • The last chart is used to show the 3 group averages on the same axis, along with current Leafs prospects and potential trade/FA targets.

Nhlegroup1_large

Nhlegroup2_large

Nhlegroup3_large

Nhleprospectsvsgroupaverages_large

  • It seems Kadri and McKegg are in the best shape, mostly due to their young age, and project in line with the 2nd and 3rd group averages. Colborne fell off a bit this year, but can easily have a rebound or breakout season - look at Paul Stastny's chart.
  • Bozak is a little bit further out and seems to have developed more slowly. I'm still not ready to write him off, but he's going to have to have a big rebound year next season in order to regain any type of respectibiliity vs the group averages.

In summary, after looking at all the options Burke has in front of him, I still think B. Richards is a fine idea to pursue (yes, yes, it all comes down to the contract).

I'm admittedly biased. He produces at a level that is a great deal higher than any current member of the Leafs, and if you look at the Group 1 Chart, his 82-game NHLe production follows a remarkably similar path to Mats Sundin. No, I'm not saying he's at all the same player, leader or would carry the team the way Sundin did, but he does put up big numbers, and alongside shooters like Lupul and Kessel I think he could thrive. The powerplay would also get a boost, but we'd need other ways to fix the woeful PK.

Another important aspect is that dropping a legit #1C into the Top six, the Leafs would be pushing players down from ABOVE on the depth chart, rather than forcing them to slot into holes they don't belong in. We'd have players who can produce in roles they belong, and kids who want more ice time earning it by playing better, not because our depth is so thin we have to choose between Bozak or two rookies for the 1-hole.

The Leafs would really have to use any leverage they have - cap space, financial backing - to get another team to give up their high-end, young centerman. I think it will be talked about all summer and inevitably go nowhere, as the asking price will always be too high.

Thanks for all the comments and opinions folks. If you enjoyed this one, check out the previous two in the series:
Center of Attention : Brad Richards Edition
Center of Attention : The Art of the Trade

As always, big glove tap to the amazing sites that make this kind of stuff for a fan possible:
HockeyDB
Hockey-reference.com
BehindtheNet.ca

PensionPlanPuppets.com is a fan community that allows members to post their own thoughts and opinions on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey in general. These views and thoughts may not be shared by the editor of PensionPlanPuppets.com.

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