It’s no secret that the Leafs are currently a little short down the middle. While they boast a strong set of NHL centres in Nazem Kadri, Auston Matthews, and Tyler Bozak, the depth behind them simply isn’t there. That’s especially true this season, with the news that William Nylander will stay on the wing for at least this year, though the team still sees him as a centre long-term.
Behind this group is a rag-tag collection of depth options, like Ben Smith, Frederik Gauthier, and Byron Froese. The former sees his contract expire this summer, which means there may be some centre spots on the NHL roster up for grabs. Knowing what we know about how Mike Babcock likes to use his roster, lets examine how our depth down the middle is likely to shake out.
I think it’s reasonable to say that Matthews and Kadri will be two of the Leafs’ most played centres next year. Matthews projects to continue his growth into one of the very best in the game, while Kadri, at age 27, should still be in a very productive part of his career. Barring injury, we can count on each of these two soaking up big minutes down the middle, and being their usual excellent selves. It gets interesting after them.
The Upstart and the Veteran
Last summer, I wrote that the addition of Auston Matthews didn’t mean that Nylander shouldn’t play centre this season. I’ll own up to being very wrong about that - given the way Babcock uses his lines, there simply isn’t justification to have four centres to which you’re committing significant resources (in terms of playing time, or dollars). You just hit a point of diminishing marginal returns. However, given that the Leafs see Nylander as a centre long-term, you’d think they would want to give him a shot as a full-time centre as he heads into his age 21 season.
While Nylander played centre last year, it was on a disjointed team with no talent, playing out the string in a meaningless year. His results were encouraging, but hard to read into. He hasn’t had the opportunity to play much time down the middle this year, but when he has, the results weren’t overwhelmingly great.
Heading into next year, the Leafs need to figure out exactly what they have in the Swede. His pre-NHL resume is phenomenal, and in his first full year as a NHLer, he’s putting up first line scoring while making just about every line better with him than without. We know he can keep up with Matthews and Kadri, and make them a destructive force. It could be argued that next year should be about seeing if he can provide the same level of dynamism and offensive play at the centre position. This is particularly important as his entry level contract will expire at the end of next season, and if the Leafs are going to make a long-term commitment to him (as we think they will), it’d be prudent for them to know whether he can carry a line as a centre.
If the above is true, that gives the Leafs three centres... and as alluded to earlier, having four centres that you’re committing significant dollars or playing time to just won’t make sense under Babcock. Which leads to the question of what happens with Tyler Bozak?
Bozak has been on the rumoured trading block for seemingly forever, but nothing concrete involving him has ever seemed to pop up. Certainly, Babcock finds him useful, as he should. For all the crap Bozak gets for being propped up as something he wasn’t, he’s a genuinely good NHL player, with solid offensive instincts, and the ability to keep up with high level offensive players like Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Mitch Marner. To wit, he actually ranks 33rd in the league in primary points per 60 minutes, among forwards playing regularly. He’s not just been okay offensively, he’s been stellar.
Some would argue that he can be demoted to the fourth line. This is, on it’s face, absurd. Again, he’s 33rd in the league in primary points per 60. How can we justify demoting him to a marginalized offensive role? Even aside from this year (as it represents a bit of an outlier for him), he’s a damn good offensive player, and a terrible defensive one. He has real value, which the Leafs should realize, one way or another. So how do you realize that value?
The first option is obvious... get rid of him somehow. If Nylander is taking a centre spot, that frees up a wing for a new acquisition, or more likely, a prospect like Kasperi Kapanen or Brendan Leipsic making the jump to the NHL. As an expiring contract coming off a good season, you could probably trade Bozak for an asset. And in the meanwhile, you just lost a whole bunch of points, and an experienced centre and locker room leader. I like both Kapanen and Leipsic, but the probability that the combination of Nylander at C and Kapanen/Leipsic at W is better than Bozak at C and Nylander at W is very, very slim.
If they can’t move him, they either have to shift him to the wing, or pass the buck on Nylander for a year, and delay his progression to centre. Neither is ideal; you may be marginalizing a pretty useful player with the former, and the latter may impede the Leafs from realizing the value of one of their best players. So depending on how much the Leafs want Nylander to be a centre next year, their options with Bozak may be somewhat limited for ideal roster construction.
What may be most convenient for the Leafs is the second option. Run a lineup similar to this years forward group back, and wait until 2018/2019 before moving Nylander to centre, at least on a full-time basis. Perhaps they can give him a taste at some points next year, but given that 2017/2018 is a year where the Leafs will be expected to make the post-season, he won’t have much rope for adjustment errors. He’s only going to get the role when Babcock thinks he’s ready. It seems Babs thinks he’ll be ready eventually, but we don’t know when.
The above only considered the Leafs top three centres... now we have to consider who is left to centre the fourth line. As previously mentioned, Ben Smith will see his contract expire at the end of this season.
Babcock seems to love Smith, so maybe we see him return on a similarly low-term, low dollar figure deal. Alternatively, we may see Frederik Gauthier or Byron Froese called up permanently. The latter is a RFA and will be 26 next season, while the former didn’t outshine Smith in his NHL stint this year. I’m not a huge fan of any of those options, to be honest. Until Gauthier shows me SOME ability to score at the AHL level, I honestly prefer Froese.
Of course, fourth line centres are in theory, easily acquired. Fulemin runs through that idea here. To me, it seems likely the Leafs go down this road. But regardless of what they choose to do, it’s clear their centre depth is going to experience some significant change heading into next season.