NHL 2012 Offseason: Fixing the Toronto Maple Leafs, Part 1: No.1 Center
"The Leafs blew up." "They collapsed." "Ran a tractor trailer off a cliff." Insert other often-used cliches in here. The Toronto Maple Leafs let what was assuredly going to be their first postseason berth in what seems like half a century (note: seems like it, but it has only been seven long years) slip away.
What seemed to be a simple shopping list of adding a few pieces to a playoff core only a month or two ago has rapidly grown to missing players at almost every position. Leadership, veteran presence, scoring, defence, goaltending—all of it went straight down the tube.
This article will dissect what I think is wrong with the current roster and provide players (and their cost) that might be able to right the ship and get the Leafs into their first playoff spot since the lockout. This will be Part 1 of a several part series breaking down in depth the three biggest problems the Leafs faced last year:
1. Lack of a True Number One Center
2. Good Goaltending
3. Better Team Defence and Size
4. Character/Leadership in the Top Nine.
Part One will focus on problem No.1: the lack of a true number one center.
As always, feel free to comment below and tell me how wrong I am or how much you'd like to see a certain player in a jersey. Maybe I left someone off my lists that should be there. I'd love to hear your arguments for Player "X." I always try to respond, and I love a good hockey debate.
Dissecting the Current Roster
Let's start by looking at the current Leafs roster and finding the weaknesses:
Lupul/Frattin - Bozak - Kessel
MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin/Ashton
Connolly - Steckel - Crabb
Brown - Lombardi - Armstrong
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Gardiner - Schenn
Liles - Franson
If we break that down really quickly, we see that the Leafs have big problems at several positions: number one center and size on the second line (when it is on fire, the second line is great, but it slumps way too often to give Leafs fans and the Leafs' brass much faith), size and toughness on the third line, the number two defenceman paired with Phaneuf and both goaltenders.
Now, these aren't slights against the players (except for Connolly). It's just that for where the Leafs want to be right now, the players underlined either aren't good enough to play the position we have them in (again for the team Toronto wants to be, i.e. Stanley Cup contenders, or at least a playoff team), or we simply have them in a spot where they don't have the right skill set to succeed.
I've taken the team needs and combined them with the current roster to identify what positions need to be improved.
This next section will focus on the lack of a number one center.
Tyler Bozak, You Tried Buddy
The Number One Center Problem
Current Leaf Player
Tyler Bozak (6'1", 195lbs, 73GP, 18G, 29A, 47PTS, -7, 52.7% FO)
Comparable Number One Centers on the Eastern Playoff Teams Ahead of Toronto
NYR: Brad Richards (6'0", 195lbs, 82GP, 25G, 66PTS, -1, 51.8% FO)
BOS: Patrice Bergeron (6'2", 194lbs, 81GP, 22G, 64PTS, +36, 59.3% FO)
FLA: Stephen Weiss (5'11", 186lbs, 80GP, 20G, 57PTS, +5, 53.2% FO)
NJ: Adam Henrique (6'0", 195lbs, 74GP, 16G, 51PTS, +8, 48.8% FO)
PIT: Evgeni Malkin (6'3", 195lbs, 75GP, 50G, 109PTS, +18, 47.5% FO)
PHI: Claude Giroux (5'11", 172lbs, 77GP, 28G, 93PTS, +6, 53.7% FO)
OTT: Jason Spezza (6'3", 216lbs, 80GP, 34G, 84PTS, +11, 53.5% FO)
WSH: Marcus Johansson (6'1", 205lbs, 80GP, 14G, 46PTS, -5, 43.2%FO)
Average Numbers of the number one center on the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference: (6'0", 194lbs, 78GP, 26G, 68PTS, +9, 51.3% FO) *note: all numbers were rounded down
That means that Bozak is +1", +1lb, -5GP, -8G, -13A, -21PTS, -16, +1.4% FO compared to the average Eastern Conference playoff bound number one center...
So while Bozak has certainly filled in the number one role admirably, he just doesn't have the skills and tools necessary to create offence and points on his own. A lot of his points are directly connected to the wonder-bond between Lupul and Kessel. And if the Leafs are going to make a serious push for the playoffs, having a legitimate number one center capable of creating offence on his own would make things a helluva lot easier.
Players Possibly Available by Trade
Players Rumoured to be Available That Burke Could Go After via Trade, and What They Might Cost
Paul Stastny (6'0", 205lbs, 79GP, 21G, 32A, 53PTS, -8, 55.4% FO)
Stastny might not have the numbers this year that you'd expect from the 0.88 points per game career player. However, a lot of that can be blamed on a rough year for the Avs and a rotating cast of line mates due to injuries.
He's still got unbelievable offensive instincts and is a very underrated player overall. His $6.6M cap hit for the next three years is a little expensive, but he'd definitely be an upgrade at the center position.
(Probable cost: MacArthur, Gunnarsson, 2nd 2012)
Derek Roy (5'9", 184lbs, 80GP, 17G, 27A, 44PTS, -7, 50.6% FO)
The Buffalo Sabres are anything but the team almost everyone had them pegged as coming into this season. They've failed to meet every expectation, and that trickle-down effect of failure certainly hasn't left Roy alone.
He's definitely having an off year, but with Buffalo most likely looking to sell and re-tool its team, he's a very marketable asset with a contract of only $4M per season next season and being a former 31G, 82PT guy. With Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson becoming the go-to centers down the stretch, it stands to figure that Roy is definitely on the market.
He's not really the size the Leafs are looking for, but he plays a very similar game to Bozak (except he's got the offensive instincts and tools to be a number one guy). So, theoretically, plugging him right into the lineup between Lupul and Kessel shouldn't affect chemistry all that much. Getting Roy is like getting Tyler Bozak version 3.0.
(Probable cost: 2nd 2012, Gunnarsson, or 1st 2013, Colbourne/Kadri)
Ryan Getzlaf (6'4", 221lbs, 82GP, 11G, 46A, 57PTS, -11, 47.2% FO)
Getzlaf is the atypical, big-bodied skilled center and Burke's ideal vision of what one should be. It's rather impressive that 57 points on the year is considered a "down year" for Getzlaf, and although it's highly unlikely at this point that Anaheim trades him, he is everything the Leafs are looking for.
(Probable cost: 1st 2012, Schenn or Grabovski, Kadri or Colbourne, Kulemin or MacArthur)
Sam Gagner (5'11", 195lbs, 75GP, 18G, 29A, 47PTS, +5, 47.6% FO)
After his eight-point night against the Blackhawks and his continued dominant scoring pace afterwards, Gagner has been on everyone's map.
It seems that after starting the year injured and then getting trapped down on the third line with Ryan Jones and Shawn "Offence dies when it touches my stick" Horcoff, Gagner has finally started to reach the potential that saw him taken sixth overall in 2007.
He to is a bit on the small size, but he makes up for it with great heart and battle both in the corners and in front of the net. However, he is clearly not an eight-points-a-game player, not the next Gretzky, but more likely a solid 60-point guy right now with further potential to reach up to the 75-85pt range.
He's shifty, has great hands, sees the ice really well and is just the kind of player every GM wants on his team—which is exactly why Edmonton would be stupid to trade him. He's a player who actually WANTS to stay there.
But with Edmonton winning the draft lottery for the first overall pick, the likelihood of trading Gagner just went up a lot. A top-six group consisting of Hall, Eberle, RNH, Hemsky, Gagner and now Yakupov (assuming the pick isn't moved) is far too small a group.
(Probable cost: Franson + 2nd 2012 or Gunnarsson + 3rd 2013)
Brayden Schenn (6'1", 190lbs, 54GP, 12G, 6A, 18PTS, -7, 46.1% FO)
A household name for most Canadian hockey fans after back-to-back dominant performances at the WJC's for Canada, Schenn was coveted by Burke in his draft year. But Burke was unable to trade up to select him and drafted Nazem Kadri instead.
Schenn is the stereotypical power forward who loves to crash the net and grind it out in the corners and has the strength and frame to do that successfully. He has a wicked shot and an underrated passing ability.
His numbers come mostly from playing on the Flyers' third line, as he was injured to start the year. But recently he was given a shot between James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell (due to Briere being injured) and showed glimpses of exactly what he is going to be much sooner than later with several dominant performances.
Schenn may not be quite ready to take over the number one job in Toronto, but he is AT LEAST as capable as Bozak and will only get better. If the Leafs went out and traded for him, they would be making a move more for next year than this year.
But at the same time, it would finally give this team the brother combination (Luke and Brayden Schenn) that has been a mainstay on every team Burke has managed to rebuild/retool/refit, like the Sedin twins in Vancouver and the Niedermayer brothers in Anaheim.
(Probable cost: The Flyers had a serious need for defence before they went out and got Kubina and Grossman. So the only likely way Toronto can nab Schenn is if the Leafs and Flyers get involved in a three-way trade or cap space-clearing trade to land Philly a goaltender. But for the sake of putting a price on him, we'll say Kadri, Franson, 2nd 2012. With the way Bryzgalov's play has picked up so dramatically down the stretch, Schenn likely won't be a Leaf)
Eric Staal (6'3", 200lbs, 81GP, 24G, 45A, 69PTS, -17, 52.2% FO)
The number two overall pick in the insanely talented 2003 draft is the definition of a winner. He may never top the NHL in goals or assists or points, but he just finds a way to win.
Staal became the 23rd member of the triple gold club with his Olympic, World Championship and Stanley Cup wins. He also won the All-Star game MVP in '07-'08 and has been an All-Star 4 times in his brief career.
The (Ontario born, for you Don Cherry) guy brings a big body that is not afraid to go to the dirty areas and create space for his line mates while having dirty hands to make him an elite play maker.
Staal is literally everything the Leafs are/have ever been looking for in a number one guy. Staal had a really rough start to the year surrounded by rumours that he was unhappy in Carolina and tired of being surrounded by the likes of Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu as line mates.
GM Rutherford has said that he wouldn't trade Staal, "the face of his franchise." But perhaps if ownership or Rutherford really want to be players in the offseason, they'll be looking to shed the $8.25M salary for another four seasons of Staal (the Canes have the fourth-lowest cap hit in the League) and hand the "Face Of The Franchise" tag off to the up-and-coming and fan favourite, Jeff Skinner.
The chances of landing Staal are maybe only slightly better than landing Getzlaf, but not impossible. He would legitimize and stabilize the entire top-six forward group and significantly help both the PP and PK teams.
(Probable cost: 1st 2012, Colbourne, Gunnarsson, MacArthur)
Jordan Staal (6'4", 220lbs, 62GP, 25G, 50PTS, +11, 51.0%FO)
Hey, if you can't get Eric, why not grab his ultra-talented brother? Jordan has never been the offensive dynamo that his brother has (reaching a career high of 50 points this year). However, he's never had the kind of opportunity to run his team's offence the way Eric has.
Eric came into the league as his team's number two center, and then when Rod Brind'amour retired, he got handed the captaincy and the keys to the number one line.
Jordan came into the league as a number three center (behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin!) with spot duty on the number two line whenever the Pittsburgh Penguins coach shifted Evgeni Malkin to the LW spot on Crosby's line.
Some would argue that he never grabbed the opportunity when both Crosby and Malkin missed significant time over the past three years, especially. But most of the time when either Malkin or Crosby has been out of the lineup, Staal has either also been out of the lineup with injury or just recovering and not yet up to full speed.
Regardless, Jordan Staal brings the same size and physical prowess as Eric (actually, an extra inch and 20lbs of size) and some very underrated hands (four-time 20 goal scorer). And he would bring instant defensive credibility to the Lupul/Kessel line—something that has seriously been a weakness this year—and a dangerous PK weapon (seven shorthanded goals in his rookie season '06-'07, three SHG this year, and 13 SHG for his career).
Pittsburgh might be willing to let him go because after next season both he and Crosby are UFA's, and Malkin, Letang and Orpik are up the year after. So affording to give Jordan a raise might be out of the Penguins' price range. With the way Jordan has been ripping up the Pens playoff series against the Flyers, he has certainly earned himself a very nice pay bump.
(Probable cost: 1st 2013, Colbourne/Kadri, also possibly biting the bullet and taking Paul Martin's contract in return)
Possible Free Agent Options
Players via Free Agency, and What They Might Cost
Jarret Stoll (6'1", 209lbs, 77GP, 6G, 14A, 20PTS, +3, 54.9% FO)
He's a big-bodied, defensively responsible center, but his offensive days are probably behind him.
Between Kessel and Lupul he could probably still put up about 50-60 points and add some defensive responsibility to that line, but there are serious doubts he could keep up with Kessel the way Bozak can. Combined with a likely high price point, he's a UFA the Leafs will (hopefully) not go with for their answer to their number one centerissues.
(Probable cost: $4-4.2M for three to four years)
Olli Jokinen (6'3", 210lbs, 81GP, 23G, 38A, 61PTS,-12, 46.5% FO)
He's got the size and the hands and the playmaking ability to play with Kessel. He's finally found a "fit" in Calgary, and after years of rumours that Jokinen was a "locker room cancer," he appears to have meshed well with the Flames core.
However, the Flames, after finishing outside of the playoffs yet again, may be finally faced with the fact that they need to rebuild and retool a team of aging veterans and a complete lack of talent in the pipeline.
This makes Jokinen an intriguing option. He's clearly the best center available in a very shallow free agent class, and he is a borderline number one center and (at least in theory) an upgrade at the number one slot over Bozak.
If Burke can't swing a trade and Colbourne, Kadri and McKegg are deemed not ready to takeover the number one role, then Jokinen is certainly worth a shot on a short term deal if he is still available.
(Probable cost: $5-6M for two to three years)
Let me know if you think I missed someone or if I've laid out the best options. Or maybe you hated every word of this that you read and are even now seething and slipping into an uncontrollable rage, at which point you grow 10 times your normal size and turn green... Everyone's gonna go see the Avengers on the 4th right?
I love a good hockey debate, and whether you think I'm right or wrong, doesn't matter, let me know. I always reply.
Watch for Part 3 - "Fixing The Blue Line" later this week.
Here's a link to Part 2 - "The Goaltending Situation" -
And a link to "Brian Burke's NHL Draft Game Plan" -