The Toronto Maple Leafs have several weaknesses preventing the team from becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and even though goaltending is near, or at the top of the list of changes that must be made, general manager Brian Burke must first fix the lack of a true No. 1 center on the team's roster.
Goaltending was the biggest problem for the Leafs last season, but it's not a flaw that needs to be fixed ASAP because the team still doesn't know if young goaltender James Reimer is the real deal. Once this is determined, then solutions to the goaltending issues can be looked at.
Which weakness should Burke address first?
The team must find a real No. 1 center as soon as possible because the team doesn't have anyone capable of filling this role at the moment, and there aren't any elite center projects in the organization who project to be this kind of player.
Joe Colborne is a quality prospect, but he will likely never be the team's ideal first line center.
When you look at some of the top teams in the NHL, one common denominator is the presence of a No. 1 center.
|Los Angeles Kings||Anze Kopitar or Mike Richards|
|Boston Bruins||David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron|
|New York Rangers||Brad Richards|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin|
|Philadelphia Flyers||Claude Giroux|
|San Jose Sharks||Joe Thornton|
|Detroit Red Wings||Pavel Datsyuk|
|Vancouver Canucks||Henrik Sedin|
|Chicago Blackhawks||Jonathan Toews|
It's so hard to compete for a Stanley Cup without a top-tier first line center, and even though strong goaltending can take an average team on a deep playoff run, having a center who can make plays and score goals is crucial to postseason success.
Toronto has a number of quality wingers, like Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk. They are already good players without a great center alongside them. If Burke can add a top center to the mix, the Leafs' offense would be pretty scary for years to come.
So how should Burke address his team's need for a No. 1 center?
There's always the possibility of a trade, although if you want to acquire a top line center, the price is going to be extremely high, especially if that player is still in the prime of his career.
Free agency is the best option for Burke, but there's only one legitimate No. 1 center who could hit the market, and that's Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks.
The problem with Getzlaf is that he may not want to go to Toronto if it doesn't look like the Leafs are going to be contenders in the Eastern Conference. He can sign with a contender and still make a lot of money.
It's also possible that the Ducks offer him more than anyone else to ensure that one of their franchise cornerstones and captain remains in Anaheim long term.
Some other quality centers who could be available in free agency next summer are Mike Ribeiro of the Washington Capitals, Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils and Stephen Weiss of the Florida Panthers. These guys are good players, but none of them are true No. 1 centers.
Burke might not have enough time to wait until 2014 to sign a top center in free agency, but the class of free agent centers in the summer of 2014 could include Joe Thornton, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Stastny and Joe Pavelski.
If Burke can make some moves before and during the 2012-13 season to improve his roster, the Leafs' ability to sign an elite center in free agency will improve significantly.
They need some of their top prospects (such as Nazem Kadri) to take huge strides in their development, and also find a top-tier goaltender, whether that's Reimer or someone like Roberto Luongo.
The Leafs need goaltending, that's obvious. But finding a true No. 1 center will help the team improve dramatically at both ends of the ice. It's a weakness that must be corrected as soon as possible for Toronto to end its playoff drought.