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Stop talking about defence and notice the total lack of centres on the Maple Leafs

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The Leafs need an upgrade on D, but they also need a club pack of centres.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs
There are only two centres in that picture. For now.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are again, looking for centres in all the wrong places. Or maybe the right ones, it’s hard to tell these days, what with the expansion draft confounding the off-season routine.

While it’s understandable to be focused on the draft(s) and the epic quest for the one defender to save us all this summer, there is another pressing need for the Toronto Maple Leafs: depth at centre.

We’ve talked about this before. Last December I looked at all the centres in the organization and noticed that the gap between number three and everyone else was kind of wide.

The centre depth on the Leafs - Pension Plan Puppets
Or should that be centre drought?

Ignoring the AHL contracts, there are three names on that December list that won’t be with the organization next year, and with the injury to Frederik Gauthier, they’ll start training camp down another.

Toronto Maple Leafs Depth Chart

C LW RW D - L D - R G
C LW RW D - L D - R G
Auston Matthews James van Riemsdyk William Nylander Morgan Rielly Nikita Zaitsev Frederik Andersen
Nazem Kadri Patrick Marleau Mitch Marner Jake Gardiner Connor Carrick Curtis McElhinney
Tyler Bozak Leo Komarov Connor Brown Martin Marincin Vincent LoVerde Garret Sparks
Dominic Moore Zach Hyman Kasperi Kapanen Ron Hainsey Justin Holl Kasmir Kaskisuo
Ben Smith Matt Martin Nikita Soshnikov Travis Dermott Timothy Liljegren -
Frederik Gauthier Josh Leivo Eric Fehr Andrew Nielsen - -
Miro Aaltonen Kerby Rychel Jeremy Bracco Calle Rosén - -
Adam Brooks Andreas Johnsson Trevor Moore Rinat Valiev - -
Chris Mueller Carl Grundstrom - Andreas Borgman - -
- Colin Greening - - - -
- Dmytro Timashov - - - -
- Tobias Lindberg - - - -

That’s our current depth chart. The centre column is already too short, and that’s including Miro Aaltonen, who might be best described as a hybrid winger/centre. We don’t know if he’s even got the game to vault over Ben Smith onto the NHL roster yet either.

The AHL centre depth is a problem, and it will continue to be one unless the Leafs find young centre prospects at the draft and for the Marlies this year. The immediate NHL centre depth problem is a bigger and more serious issue than the defence problem.

At least the Leafs have defenders.

Who can’t they get

Vladimir Tkachyov

He has officially signed for two years with his KHL team. He’s a rumour that never grew wings and flew.

William Nylander

I believe Mike Babcock when he says he doesn’t want to play him as a centre next year. I don’t have any problem with that. Bad teams rush young players into roles they aren’t ready for. Good teams let players learn to be good wingers before they make them level up to C.

Who might they get from within?

Brian Boyle

With Boyle, it’s a question of dollars, cap hit, term, and even his own willingness to move his young family permanently to Toronto. But the Leafs would take him on the right deal, and barring the Vegas period of discussion with UFAs, the Leafs have exclusive rights to talk contract with him until July 1.

Let’s talk about this Vegas thing. The Golden Knights have the right to speak to all RFAs and UFAs who are not signed to a contract during the period they are looking over protections lists but haven’t selected their payers yet. They can make a deal with anyone they like, and that player becomes their pick from whatever team is holding his rights.

So if Vegas decided Boyle was for them, and the Leafs don’t sign him, they can negotiate a contract with him, and he becomes their pick from Toronto. Now is when you ask if Boyle wants to move his young family to Vegas. It’s a town full of military personnel with young families; maybe he’d love it.

Adam Brooks

Adam Brooks is likely going to get an ELC as soon as his season is over and/or he recovers from his current injury. That helps the Marlies. I always want to remind everyone high on Brooks’ overaged scoring that he’s not teammate Sam Steel. Steel already has an ELC and is going to get a very long look from the Ducks at camp. Brooks will get an opportunity to prove himself too, but to expect him to take an NHL roster spot on a team that wants to be a contender soon is not reasonable.

Who Else?

Fulemin looked at the need for at least a 4C before the acquisition of Boyle:

Can The Leafs Upgrade At 4C This Summer? - Pension Plan Puppets
A look at some options for the Leafs to improve their depth.

We were young then, and didn’t dream of playoffs so easily. Some of his options are interesting, some removed by time.

I like Marcus Kruger, although even a weak Team Sweden is playing him as a winger at the World Championships, so perhaps he’s not the centre we want.

I am also intrigued by Johan Sundström, who hasn’t got a contract yet, but seems to be definitely leaving Frölunda. It’s not that unusual to wait this long after the Swedish season, and with his NHL rights held by the New York Islanders, perhaps he’s gauging their interest before he commits to one of his many rumoured offers, including a more lucrative contract in Switzerland.

Speaking of Switzerland, if you held out hope Mark Arcobello wanted to come back, he’s signed on for another year in Bern.

Fulemin was focusing on the fourth line. The question becomes much broader if you start seriously asking what the heck the Leafs do if they do have injuries up the lineup. A winger who is also a genuinely capable and experienced centre, or a real 4C who can play up the lineup seems necessary. Both seem necessary to me.

Kruger fits that bill as a winger, and Boyle likely does as a centre. Mikhail Grigorenko is the only other option out of Fulemin’s list that seems at all plausible.

What about UFAs?

What you want when you go UFA shopping is Jonathan Marchessault the second. He was a group VI UFA, young, capable, and he turned out to be spectacular. What you’ll get in the UFA market is likely someone else’s RFA they didn’t give a qualifying offer to, and that’s how you fill up the Marlies, not the Leafs. That’s fine, but that’s not what the team really needs.

But to do my due diligence, I looked at Cap Friendly’s list of UFAs under 30 and listed at C, and I found Nick Bonino and Sam Gagner. I don’t think Gagner fits. Bonino seems just not quite right either, but with a winger who drives the line, he might work.

I checked back up from 30 years old and found nothing but Joe Thornton, who I would take, but it just changes the nature of the problem rather than solving it. If you replace Bozak with Thornton—you don’t want to hear the kind of language I use on the “make Bozie the 4C theory”—if you sign Thornton you are obviously trading Bozak, and you still need depth for injury replacement. It’s not an improvement in depth, just a short term upgrade at that one position.

What about RFAs?

What you want here is a guy a cap-strapped team can’t afford, so you shoot them a pick to get the player’s rights and you sign them.

This time, I looked at pending RFAs under 25. And I’m skipping over the ones who aren’t being let go like Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

Alex Galchenyuk’s name sort of leaps out. But if he gets along at all with Claude Julien, I can’t see that happening.

Grigorenko is on this list. He’s arbitration eligible and already a touch overpaid. He’d never get much out of arbitration after a disastrous year on a team that was historically bad, but he will get some inflation on that salary of $1.3 million.

Teuvo Teräväinen is the only other interesting player on the list. His name popped up in some trade rumours, but he seems to be the sort of inexpensive, decently productive player that Chicago dumps off for no real reason. Carolina has a lot of similar players now, but they can find room for him. He would be an ideal top nine winger who can move to C at will, however.

What about Russians?

Vadim Shipachyov was the only high-end name out there, and Vegas took a chance on him, but there might be more players in the KHL who are looking for a try at the NHL. If there are, they aren’t big names. The lastest list of rumours I’ve seen hasn’t got any real likely prospects on it other than winger Yevgeni Dadonov.

This is all leading up to an extension for Tyler Bozak, isn’t it?

No.

I mean, the Leafs can’t trade him right now unless they get two centres back for him. But no, as much as I appreciate a distributer centre, his defensive difficulties just skew the usage on the team to such an extent it’s affecting the players that really matter.

The difficulty is that without solving this problem of centre depth in a meaningful way—that is adding more than one legitimate NHL centre who can play more than 10 minutes a night—the Leafs can’t move Bozak at the deadline next year, far less now.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that letting a UFA walk is automatically a failure. It depends on the situation. But it might be nice to be able to move him if the Leafs are in the right position for it to work for them. You never want to be trapped into only one course of action.

Trades, then

It seems like it. Unless there’s a gem of an NCAA or CHL free agent lurking unsigned, it seems like trading for someone like Kruger is what it will take. It’s not like the Leafs don’t have an excess of wingers. [Points up at depth chart.] So instead of asking how can you turn James van Riemsdyk into the best defender in the NHL with a cap hit under a million, maybe we should ask how you turn wingers into centres.

Trading off of the Marlies side of the roster gets you AHL-level players coming back most of the time, unless you really have a clear out sale like the Grabner trade. To get a good top nine centre or winger/centre, you have to give up equivalent value.

If it were possible to guess what the New York Islanders are doing, I’d name Brock Nelson or Ryan Strome as targets.

The Minnesota Wild have to move someone eventually, but you’re more likely to get offered Erik Haula than Charlie Coyle, so it might not be possible to do a good enough deal there. Both St. Louis and Los Angeles need to make some changes, but I can’t find a target there that makes me long for a deal.

It might simply be a volume deal the Leafs have to make. And the team that wants quantity, perhaps even in lieu of quality, is Vegas. So if Vegas grabs a good centre or two, that might be exactly where the Leafs can find a deal.

The other option for the Leafs is the really hard one: waiting. You just wait, and sign all the AHL/tweener/fourth line decent centres you can get, hope for no injuries, and wait until you can find a real replacement for Bozak. The benefit of that tactic is that time makes Nylander a better player who may be all you need as a backup C on the wing.

Any other ideas?

What’s your favourite scheme for solving this problem? Who is there out there who can be added in to make the Leafs a team with more centres than they need, not fewer.