clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Put down the defenceman brochure and look at some centres

New, comments

There is still a real and genuine need for at least one centre on this team.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs actually have a long list of defencemen. It looks like this:

  • Morgan Rielly
  • Jake Gardiner
  • Martin Marincin
  • Travis Dermott
  • Andrew Nielsen
  • Calle Rosén
  • Rinat Valiev
  • Andreas Borgman
  • Nikita Zaitsev
  • Connor Carrick
  • Alexey Marchenko
  • Justin Holl

It’s weak numerically on the right side. And I won’t be surprised if Matt Hunwick’s name gets added back, which doesn’t address that concern. Someone who is a right-shot is likely to be added. Maybe Colin Miller. Maybe someone better.

Meanwhile, the centre list looks like this:

  • Auston Matthews
  • Nazem Kadri
  • Tyler Bozak
  • Ben Smith
  • Frederik Gauthier
  • Miro Aaltonen

Miro Aaltonen is a centre like William Nylander and Mitch Marner are. They’ve played the position at lower levels, and can fill in in a pinch, but it’s not been their primary use. He’s also never played a single NHL game, so counting on him is foolish.

Equally overly optimistic is imagining Adam Brooks, who hasn’t even got a contract yet and whose health status is unknown, as the Leafs 4C.

Nearly at that level of fantasy role playing is picturing Frederik Gauthier coming off his busted leg better enough than he was in a few games last season and taking an NHL job.

Frederik Gauthier

Let’s look at Gauthier’s NHL games last season:

The worst two centres on the Leafs 2016-2017

Name GP GF GA GF% GF% Rel PDO CF% CF60 Rel CA60 Rel iSh%
Name GP GF GA GF% GF% Rel PDO CF% CF60 Rel CA60 Rel iSh%
Frederik Gauthier 21 7 5 58.33 5.56 104.84 46.26 -13.71 -7.29 14.29
Ben Smith 40 9 15 37.5 -17.05 98.76 41.9 -17.27 7.01 6.67

You might think Gauthier was really good when he was with the Leafs. And if you do, you likely noticed that Goals For percentage as it was formed. Now look at the PDO. Gauthier experienced high shooting percentage and save percentage while on the ice. Smith did not.

When you look at their Corsi numbers — the percentage, and the relative for and against numbers — it’s really clear that at generating shots for they were indistinguishably bad. Gauthier was on the ice for lower shots against, but he was still bad, just not as terrible as Smith.

Twenty games is not enough to fully judge a player, but it sure is a hint. Gauthier looked good because the puck bounced favourably while he was on the ice, and his personal shooting percentage was high. If you think Freddie the Goat is a 14% shooter, well then, okay, the Leafs don’t need another centre.

Who else is on the team?

Realistically, the Leafs have Matthews, Kadri and Bozak as centres. “Just play Nylander,” sounds like a neat solution, but it is not happening. And taking a man who is that good as a winger to the best player on the team and moving him to a different line might be very foolish.

So, as it was all last season, the Leafs are one injury to Bozak or Kadri away from Ben Smith as a 15 minute player.

Ben Smith was signed to fulfill exposure requirements for the expansion draft, and because he’s a good pro who will play when he’s asked and sit when he has to, and he won’t do a big splashy story in the press about how unhappy he is not getting ice time.

Ideally, he should be taking Byron Froese’s spot on the Marlies and being a good example to the prospects there. He can teach Adam Brooks how smart it is to learn to PK once your glory days in college or junior are over.

There is a chance the Leafs will sign Brian Boyle. He’s a great guy, and he’s a good fourth line player whose reputation is a little puffed up, but he’s still worth having. If they do sign him, that still leaves the team with very little depth and a 31-year-old pending UFA in Bozak to replace. One injury away from Boyle as a 15 minute a night player isn’t a great scenario either.

Is there a trade potential with Vegas?

Vegas did pick some centres, some very interesting ones.

Jonathan Marchessault

The obvious choice is Jonathan Marchessault, now on the Vegas Golden Knights roster. He was on the block before the expansion draft, it turns out, and Florida seems to have been afraid of his future cost.

He became a UFA young, and he turns 27 this year, so when his current cheap contract ($750,000) is up, if he’s coming off a successful year, he’s going to cost some real money. He’s also a player without a lot of history, but he was tantalizingly good two years ago for Tampa, and they let him go over money concerns. Last year, for Florida, he was better.

He is the inverse Bozak.

He doesn’t get a lot of assists, he doesn’t just pass, but he has a good shot, he scores, and he doesn’t get hemmed in like Bozak does. He does most of his shooting from in tight, which is the way the Leafs roll. As a centre who can play with Mitch Marner or Kasperi Kapanen, a couple of passers, he might just click. He does play as a winger some of the time as well.

Florida shoved him way, way up the lineup because of injuries, and he looked plausible playing with high-end linemates — players who think the game at a high level like Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov. Seth Griffith had that job for a few games and failed at it pretty hard. That, more than anything, attracts me to Marchessault as an option. He is not an elite level centre. He is a middle-six sort of player who can handle better wingers much like Bozak is.

He’d be a good get for the right price, and he’s cheaper than Brian Boyle.

Erik Haula

Haula is the same age as Marchessault, and was signed by Vegas to a three-year deal for $2.75 million. He’s more of an all-around player whose value is a little bit less than Marchessault’s and differently configured. His contract might be an indication of the kind of money it would take to keep Marchessault next summer.

Haula is more of a bottom six player, and I realize the Leafs are a top nine, bottom three team, but both Marchessault and Haula don’t quite fit that boom or bust system. Marchessault is a high middle six and Haula is a high bottom six.

Haula generally has excellent results in shots against and does okay in shots for as long as he doesn’t play with Chris Stewart. Well, those days are gone, he’s a Golden Knight now too.

Vegas might be planning to keep him. But he’s paid a reasonable amount to be the depth centre who plays up the lineup at least off the fourth line. If you don’t have one of those you developed yourself sitting in the AHL, this is usually what they cost, which is a lot less than Bozak is making.

Other options

Vegas also got Oscar Lindberg, an unsigned RFA, from the Rangers and William Karlsson from Columbus, who has one more year at one million. They are both younger, good depth players who won’t wow you but won’t cost you either. Lindberg is more of a scorer and Karlsson is more of a defensive/PK specialist.

Karlsson does not look plausible when played up the lineup, and he was the centre William Nylander started out with on Team Sweden at the World Championships. That did not go well. But as a fourth liner, he’d be golden. He’s a lefty, which isn’t ideal.

Lindberg, also a lefty, has some bad Corsi numbers, but then it’s hard not to on the Rangers. He’s intriguing because he has more offensive upside than most depth options.

Marcus Kruger, still on the Chicago roster is still and option, but Chicago has much less incentive now to dump a contract. Not no incentive, just less.

Conclusion

The expansion draft has opened up the market a little at centre. If Vegas wants to move someone, they’ll find takers, and as always the price has to be right.

If not from Vegas, then from somewhere, the Leafs need at least one centre, preferably two. The option to trade Bozak at the trade deadline won’t be there without there being someone to step into his spot who can genuinely generate offence like he does.