The Leafs happily selected their number one centre at the draft a few months ago, perhaps not daring to dream he would grab that job so quickly. But they didn’t land any other centres of note in the off-season.
Auston Matthews has grabbed that number one job quickly, at least judging by ice time where he leads in both all-situations and even-strength minutes, but he’s still deferring on matchups to Nazem Kadri. Kadri is drawing the tougher forward opponents most of the time, even on the road.
Tyler Bozak is the number two in all situations time due to his power play minutes, so the load is shared around among those three lines fairly evenly, and that is all working out fairly well. All three centres are in the top five in points on the team, which is ideal.
After that? The well runs dry almost instantly. The reality is the next best centre after Bozak really is Ben Smith, and the situation gets worse the deeper in the organization you go. This is the full list:
The spectre of promoting Ben Smith or moving Brooks Laich or Byron Froese into the top nine because someone is hurt hangs heavily over this team now that Peter Holland has been traded. And he wasn’t much of a stopgap.
There is an obvious name not on that list who we must consider first: the Leafs part-time 4C William Nylander. Given the alternatives, having him practiced and ready to go as a centre seems like prudence not punishment. His debut at that position a few games back in Edmonton was controversial, but it should have been obvious that the counting out of Holland in the Leafs future was at least part of the catalyst for the move.
The theory was advanced by many, and it fits a narrative many find comfortable, that Nylander was “in the doghouse”, but if he ever was, he’s not acting chastised, and he didn’t “earn his way off” in any ritual way either. He was also on the power play right from the start of his first game as the 4C.
The next night in Calgary, in a loss where even the best chances to score didn’t get past the Flames goalie, Nylander was moved back to wing on the Matthews line for the third period. This pattern has continued where Nylander plays top unit power play time, fourth line centre in road games only, and then moves up to the wing if the goals aren’t coming or the game is at home.
That road trip led into a nice long layoff where the Leafs could come back home and the management could deal Holland and figure out what they were going to do in the near term with a lineup with too many wingers, most of whom are very young and have a lot to learn.
Using Nylander as an occasional depth centre for now is one thing, and if Tyler Bozak sprains his ankle in an escalator mishap while Christmas shopping, the Leafs are not going to have a disaster on their hands. But if Nazem Kadri goes down with him, they have a problem. If the freakish good luck on the injury front continues for the Leafs, they still have a long-term issue at centre, both on the Marlies and the lower levels of the Leafs.
In the short term, the Leafs have Brooks Laich and Colin Greening as extras. (Greening plays some centre on the Marlies, but has mostly been a winger in the NHL.) Both of those players will be gone this summer, if not sooner.
Bryon Froese has shown what he can do in the NHL, and it’s something akin to what Ben Smith brings to the table. There’s no long term solution there, but he is a useful emergency depth replacement, and he’s very good as an AHL top six centre.
Frédérik Gauthier is an interesting player who has shown this year that his past efforts were not his best. He has progressed in an AHL sense, but he is not even up to the level of Colin Smith, who many people think is never going to crack the NHL, and whom the Leafs signed to an AHL deal this year rather than using up an SPC spot by giving him an NHL contract. Gauthier has missed a stretch of games lately with an injury and played last night for the first time.
Tony Cameranesi, a former draft pick who was also signed to an AHL deal is playing very well in the ECHL, but he seems a long, long way from an NHL job.
Going further afield for more options in the system: Adam Brooks is doing very well as a 20 year old in the WHL, but he’s not about to step directly into the NHL either. And he should be ripping up junior hockey at his age; his scoring is not as remarkable as it seems at first glance.
Carl Grundström, who plays wing most but not all of the time in the SHL, is gritty and good at net-front work and corner battles against men ten years his senior, but he seems like the next Nikita Soshnikov or Zach Hyman as a best-case scenario. Jeremy Bracco is another draft pick that is playing at wing most of the time.
Wingers, wingers everywhere and not a centre amongst them.
While all eyes are on the defensive deficiencies on the Leafs, filling that centre position all the way down to the minor level with more than part-timers like Greening, veterans like Laich and Cliche, or far-fetched late-round picks like Cameranesi is an important step in the rebuild of the team.
Most fans would love the Leafs to make a change right now and replace Ben Smith. It should be easy, right? Almost every man playing in the NHL is better than Smith—as long as you don’t look too closely at the Stanley Cup Champion’s fourth line—so why is he there?
Mike Babcock said they took Smith because he is a right-shooting centre who can play well on the penalty kill, is good at faceoffs, and has a contract the Leafs could handle. I’m taking that at face value. All of it, not just the facceoff part that seemed to grab the attention of the fans. Babcock wants a right-handed player on the top penalty-kill unit to take the defensive zone faceoffs when needed. He already has lots of lefties.
Even if you move outside of the centres on the team to just find a righty to use instead of Smith, you end up with Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. And suddenly, you might as well have a lefty taking the faceoff. Neither of those players even meet basic levels of competence at the faceoff part of the job. Maybe it wouldn’t matter. But most of the analysis on faceoff efficacy assumes a base level of skill that renders the more subtle differences in percentage of wins moot. So maybe Babcock really was filling a hole that needed to be filled.
To replace Smith now or in the future, you have to find someone who does what he does well while doing better at what he does poorly. Most, if not all, of the suggested improvements fans have come up with are lefties. One of the more intriguing potential off-season acquisitions, Brian Boyle, is also a left-handed centre. He would be worth giving up the handedness concern, I think, but his contract won’t be Smith-sized.
Worrying about Smith is looking at the team from the wrong perspective, however. The Leafs could have taken Josh Jooris if the Rangers had waived him first, and the results would be the same. Pull back to the longer-range view again and ask if maybe the real crisis isn’t in the prospect pool, not embodied in one very low paid temp who is holding the fort until the Leafs find someone who fits the role they want but has better five-on-five results.
Pressure from the prospect depth at every position is how a team survives injuries, keeps the players in the NHL playing well, and maintains the freedom to let players like Tyler Bozak go when they start to lose value. Right now, the Leafs don’t have any choice but to keep him, and they may need to protect him in the expansion draft if they don’t have a fix for this weakness in the works.
For now, with the security provided by Laich and Greening, the Leafs may well just stand pat on what they have. But eventually they need to do something about that steep drop off in depth.
There are rumours that the Leafs are looking at Russian centre Vladimir Tkachyov. He is 23, average sized and went undrafted. He caught the attention of scouts at the Karjala Cup in November, and it seems to be understood in Russia that it is the Leafs who are interested in him.
Tkachyov looks like a depth option, nothing more, but that is what is in short supply, and there’s only so many players you can buy with surplus wingers. If they can find a few more like Tkachyov that are worth trying out, they might just be able to afford a top defender as well.
In the meantime, Kadri and Bozak need to stay away from escalators.