Setting the scene.
Like many people, I've been cogitating over the question of what to do about our third line centre position next season. Tyler Bozak has filled the role this year but his contract is due. With the re-signing of his long-time partner in crime, JvR, looking less and less likely the more goals he scores and his value increases commensurately, it would appear the look and purpose of our third line may undergo significant revision.
William Nylander is a tempting option and one which has been debated at length already. If it was my decision, I wouldn't do it. I am swayed by the arguments that it would leave a massive hole in our scoring RW depth and would reduce his ice time too much. At a purely visceral level, I would also like the rest of the NHL to have to watch Nylander and Matthews leap over the boards together and think ‘Oh, fuck, here comes pain'. For, like, the next decade. So, given this is my article, I will set as a premise that Nylander stays as 1RW and will cry if I want to. I would rather see them try and convert Connor Brown to a 3C and utilise his smarts and responsibility to drive a line than I would Big Willy.
Plekanec was an interesting addition this year, or, at least, interesting in intent. Frankly, his play hasn't impressed me at all (I know: he'll be gutted) and I do not see a future for him on this team above 4C. Actually, I don't see a future for him on this team at all, as it seems pretty likely he'll decamp back to the Godless Frenchmen in the off-season. Let's assume he is not an internal option for 3C.
I am also going to set as a premise that we do not manage to sign John Tavares. First, the money terrifies me, even though I've seen several examples of how it might work. I've even been persuaded that if we can, we should. Second, however, I just don't see us being that lucky. Third, if we do get him, there is no need for this article at all and I don't feel like stopping typing just yet.
So where does that leave us? No Tavares, Plekanec or JvR means our top two lines next year are just like the second half of this year which, let's face it, has been pretty fucking amazing since Mitch Marner teamed up with Kadri and has helped propel us to the 6th best record in the NHL:
Hyman - Matthews - Nylander
Marleau - Kadri - Marner
That leaves our depth wingers who would be looking to play alongside our spiffy new 3C as:
Leivo - Kapanen
Johnsson - Brown
Martin - Komarov
A very interesting bunch, with plenty to like in terms of 200-foot responsibility and potential growth as scorers and also Martin and Komarov. I partially jest. I love Leo Komarov and hope he is a feature on our fourth line and penalty kill for some time. I'm not joking about Matt Martin, though: I do not see a place for him on our team ever again.
Plainly, however, there is no one on that list that we can reasonably expect to score goals like JvR next year. And for me, that means our days of overwhelming teams with three offensively oriented lines is on hold for a bit. I do not mean to impugn Leivo, Kapanen and Johnsson (I think we already know all we need to know about Brown) by saying that. In fact, I think all three have, via their various paths to the team, shown exciting promise and offered some hope that we may rekindle the Third Wave tactic of this season in the future, but maybe not just yet.
I believe therefore, that if we are going to go looking externally for a 3C, it ought to be on the premise that our third line for next year must be capable of doing more heavy lifting in the defensive zone than Bozak and JvR were want to do, but who won't stunt the development of our depth wingers - someone who can keep up, drive play to a respectable level and not be a liability when the young guys on either side of him make youthful mistakes. That may make it sound like I'm plugging for a grizzled veteran. I am not. I intend to show that there are a number of candidates out there young enough to grow with this team and its startling youth who can still bring the desired skills we're after.
[Stats are from Hockey Reference and Corsica, contractual data from CapFriendly.]
Given my assessment above, the three basic metrics I chose to sort our target 3C are GF%, dZS% and FO% weighted in importance from first to last.
The parameters I chose to try and pick our target group were:
- Is listed as a ‘C' by Hockey Reference. This isn't perfect given that players move around during a season with the vicissitudes of injury and team needs and some players, Mitch Marner for example, are listed based presumably on their junior careers/position when drafted. It's pretty close though.
- Has an average TOI of between 13 and 17 minutes per game, inclusive. This is an exercise of weeding out teams' top centres and the general ruck of fourth-line peasantry.
- Has a PPG > 0.3 because less than that and we just aren't getting someone we want playing with Kapanen, Leivo and Johnsson.
A surprisingly long list resulted, 52 players in fact, so some more filtering was in order.
First, I removed anyone on a contract enduring past this season who was also over 30 years of age as I'd prefer not to see us trading assets for old fullas. Farewell Messrs Perreault, Lewis, Neilson, Carter, Krejci, Spezza and Boyle.
Second, I ran the list through the Calibrated Eyeball test to see if there were any obvious throw-outs the data wasn't picking up. Florida are not letting Nick Bjugstad go and he's 1RW outside Barkov at the moment. Alex Iafallo is on an ELC - too untested and probably too precious to LA. Nolan Patrick: not a viable target. Lars Eller has just re-signed a contract.
Forty one players remained - it was time to get brutal. Each of the three chosen metrics expresses itself as a percentage, so I filtered anyone who scored less than 45% on any of the metrics.
Et voila! The outcome was a list of 14 players. In the table below, the players are ranked by their Weighted Score which, as mentioned above gives the most emphasis to GF%, then dZS% and FO% the least. Precisely, the calculation is (GF%*3+dZS%*2+FO%)/6.
|Player||GF%||dZS%||FO%||Weighted Score||Age||Team||P/G||Contract Status||Last/AAV|
|Matthew Peca||71.43||58.30||56.90||64.63||24||TBL||0.5||UFA||$ 650,000|
|Radek Faksa||64.41||65.90||52.10||62.86||24||DAL||0.42||Current||$ 2,200,000|
|Calle Jarnkrok||63.64||56.00||51.20||59.02||26||NSH||0.52||Current||$ 2,000,000|
|Colton Sissons||50.00||68.60||55.60||57.13||24||NSH||0.36||Current||$ 625,000|
|Nick Bonino||52.63||63.10||53.90||56.33||29||NSH||0.38||Current||$ 4,100,000|
|Adam Lowry||53.33||60.80||55.10||56.12||24||WPG||0.4||RFA||$ 1,125,000|
|Riley Nash||57.63||55.20||49.10||55.40||28||BOS||0.55||UFA||$ 900,000|
|Riley Sheahan||47.76||65.70||54.40||54.85||26||PIT||0.39||RFA||$ 2,075,000|
|Boone Jenner||47.06||62.00||56.40||53.60||24||CBJ||0.37||RFA||$ 2,900,000|
|Charlie Coyle||52.73||51.90||52.40||52.40||25||MIN||0.58||Current||$ 3,200,000|
|Jean-Gabriel Pageau||45.00||58.10||50.80||50.33||25||OTT||0.37||Current||$ 3,100,000|
|Colin Wilson||50.00||49.50||49.50||49.75||28||COL||0.31||Current||$ 3,937,500|
|Chris Tierney||49.15||49.40||51.60||49.64||23||SJS||0.49||RFA||$ 735,000|
|Cody Eakin||46.67||48.70||52.30||48.29||26||VEG||0.35||Current||$ 3,850,000|
Plainly, I found that outcome interesting enough to share.
As the group of prospective 3Cs we could chase without restraint, this is a perhaps disappointingly small number of players.
Matthew Peca heading the list by Weighted Score was rather a surprise and I'm secretly hoping Achariya is loitering nearby for some insight into what sort of prospect he really is. By the numbers he's played only 20 games for Tampa by the age of 24, so we're dealing with a tiny sample size. Not cracking the Lightning's line-up is hardly a knock on the guy though, given how well they've playing, but anticipating the immediate success of a jump from Syracuse to 3C is a bit of a lick and a promise. His toe in the water in the NHL has been very productive, but his 0.73 P/G for the Crunch is less than Carter Verhaeghe's 0.81. Peca is listed at 5'8" for whatever that's worth.
Riley Nash is a player we're all pretty familiar with given his current job with Boston. Having said that, he's never really stood out to me during a game but his numbers are good. With Ryan Donato appearing out of nowhere and tearing it up, Nash could well be on the market and cheap.
We are, alas, living in a world where GMs collude to make what should be the most fascinating, shit-stirring, frenzied piece of off-ice drama a thing as rare as integrity in American politics. I am, of course, referring to Offer Sheets, and their absence in today's game means making a serious play for RFAs is a tricky, if not futile, business. Adam Lowry and Boone Jenner are such salivating prospects, however, that I can't resist toying with the idea at least a little.
Adam Lowry is simply fucking ginormous at 6'5", handles defensive zone starts like he no doubt handles cheeseburgers and manages to get amongst the points while he's at it. You'd think the Jets would have none of our sidling up in earnest but I can't ignore the tiny glimmer of hope that they have no less than 12 contracts to consider renewing this off-season.
Boone Jenner wears the ‘A' at Columbus and I nearly washed him out in my initial rinse, but the Blue Jackets have got so much exciting youth with Wennberg, Anderson, Dubois, Milano and Bjorkstrand all younger than Jenner at 24. I mean, shit, that's almost not fair. Jenner doesn't score as much as others on my list but he also gets shanked around as Tortorella's utility player as far as I can tell, playing anywhere between C and LW on the bottom 6. Maybe a nice settled spot between Kasperi Kapanen and Josh Leivo would let him get his groove on.
As for Riley Sheahan and Chris Tierney, the latter I must admit to knowing nothing about in terms of playing style and his numbers only barely snuck him onto the list. It seems unlikely San Jose are going to shag around with their centre depth with Joe Thornton approaching 40. Riley Sheahan must have been so excited about escaping the crumpling disaster that is the Red Wings to go play with the reigning champs... only to have Jim Rutherford slap him in the face with the Brassard trade: a sneaky, convoluted piece of work that must have left Sheahan feeling the Pens were desperate to shove him down the line-up. Maybe he's sufficiently pissed to be pushing the Pens for a trade.
This section is otherwise known as the Nashville Predators, with three current players who all look good enough to fill the 3C role and Colin Wilson at Colorado late of the same factory. You'd imagine the Preds would at least listen to offers for one of Sissons, Jarnkrok and Bonino in July this year even if they've just won the Cup and we have strength where they don't: down the wings. Shopping the Nashville 3Cs is a bit like a Goldilocks exercise: Sissons is a mite too cold, Bonino's price might burn your mouth, but Calle Jarnkrok is just about right. I want him. Unlessss...
Could we find something Dallas wants to shift Radek Faksa? He's a big unit, has nice hands, and Holy Jesus would you just look at his numbers? He has started two thirds of his shifts this year in the defensive zone and yet his team scores two thirds of the goals when he's on the ice. He's on less than $2.5m/year until 2020-21. Of course, all of this adds up to a likely unwillingness for Dallas to even consider moving him, but that's him, that's the model of the player I believe could be the perfect 3C for the Leafs.
Charlie Coyle and Cody Eakin are equally unlikely to be traded, with Coyle playing predominantly as a 2RW recently, I am told, and if you were George McPhee, no matter how things go in the playoffs for Vegas, you think he'd be considering trades like a 16-year-old virgin approaching his first orgasm - he's knows that one too vigorous a move and he's blown it.
Next is the aforementioned Colin Wilson, who barely scrapes in by the numbers, but has been a wonderfully consistent player over his career with P/G (excluding one shortened by injury) range of 0.375 to 0.545. The Avalanche have only just traded for him of course, but if they miss the playoffs this year, who knows what goes? He's most likely past his prime but has had a career of playing within solid defensive systems at Nashville to counter-balance that.
That leaves a name many people have been throwing around in J-G Pageau. Personally, I don't buy it. I think his reputation is a balloon waiting to be popped after having been inflated by a playoff hot streak for which there's no evidence he can reproduce it. And at $3.1m he's well over the average salary for the type of player we're looking at. And he's a Sen for heaven's sake, that's a taint that shouldn't be underestimated.
Assuming a next season that does not include JvR, we have a need to rethink how our third line is going to play. I think that means that Bozak, for all of the wonderful things he has achieved for the Leafs, is not the model going forward for our 3C.
Depending on your choice of poison, we could spend UFA cash on a wild punt or a Bruin, or we could lean hard into trades with Winnipeg, Dallas or Nashville. The good news is that they are all Western conference trade partners if that's the way we go.
If there was one thing I learned during this exercise, it's that there are excellent options available for 3C at less than $4m. Trading for them may be a minefield for the Leafs and I guess I wish we had used JvR to leverage one of those moves, but I realise I'm in a bit of a minority in support of that tactic so I best let it go. In any case, I hope you enjoyed the read and that it offered a perspective here or there that was interesting.