Center of Attention: Leafs Need New Middle-Man for Phil Kessel

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst INovember 18, 2009

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for a faceoff in a game against the Calgary Flames on November 14,2009 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. The Flames won 5-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

When Phil Kessel became a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs many wondered who on the team would be able to adequately center a line with him.

It has become very apparent in the seven games he has played, that player isn't on the Leafs.

Kessel has been stellar since stepping on the ice for the Leafs, with five goals and eight points through his first seven, but other than collecting the easy assists that come with playing on a line with him, his center man have been essentially useless.

Matt Stajan has been the center on his line for the majority of the time, but at this point it should be questioned whether he can even play in the NHL, let alone on the first line. His play has left Leaf fans scratching their heads for years, but this year it has gotten to a point where it can't continue.

His play on defense is the best part of his game, because when he has the puck in the offensive zone, nothing seems to work. His play along the boards is terrible as he can never really maintain possession for very long, usually ending the shift laying on the ice as the opposition skates down the ice.

His faceoff ability is suspect, his physicality is non-existent, and he has never really been able to show much of a consistent offensive game.

No, Stajan is not Kessel-line material.

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John Mitchell has not only been useless on a line with Kessel, he's been useless on the team in general. He has played all 19 games this season and has two goals to show for it; that's one more than fourth-line grinder Wayne Primeau has.

He has looked out of place for most of the season and regularly tries things on the ice that even the most talented players would think twice about. He may think he's been blessed with super-star skills, but Mitchell has yet to show the skill that would warrant him deserving or able, to play on a line with Kessel.

Mitchell is lucky there isn't a fifth-line; he is definitely not the answer at center for the Leafs.

As for Mikhail Grabovski playing in the middle on a line with Kessel, it’s not something that has been tried very much, nor should it, since the only thing Grabovski has ever passed is gas.

He isn't one to feed the puck to too many people and is not the right fit at center with Kessel either.

Simply put, the Leafs do not have a center that is good enough to play with Kessel. Too many times is Stajan unable to feed him the puck, Mitchell unable to keep up, or Grabovski wildly spinning around in the corner with the puck in his own little world.

If the Leafs want to maximize the skills and abilities that Kessel has, they are going to have to either trade or sign a free agent in the offseason who can play the position they are in desperate need of.

So who out there would look good in blue and white? Well, if they go through free agency, there are some options that may suit the Leafs.

Patrick Marleau is a free agent at the end of this season and the 30-year-old is on pace to have his best season ever with 13 goals and 25 points already. He has also played under Leafs Coach Ron Wilson in San Jose, which may be a reason for Marleau to want to come to Toronto.

But even with Toskala's contract coming to an end (and seriously, if you think the Leafs are re-singing him you're crazy), which will free up $4 million of cap space, the $6.3 million Marleau is making this year might be too steep for the Leafs.

Olli Jokinen will also be on the market, barring a re-singing with Calgary, but there is no way Burke would pay the over-rated center the same $5.5 million contract he has now and he isn't the type of player who would fit into the setup role too easily anyways.

Matt Cullen would be an interesting fit with the Leafs but he isn't a solidified first-line center, and the Leafs might be looking to go a bit younger than the 33-year-old.

Even Sam Gagner, Joe Pavelski, Peter Mueller or Devin Setoguchi, who are all Restricted Free Agents come seasons end, could be worth an offer sheet from the Leafs.

The one player that makes the most sense though, and gets has Leaf Nation giddy with excitement at just the thought, would be for Brian Burke to work his magic and have Marc Savard sign in Toronto in the offseason.

Not only would the soon-to-be free agent fit right in with the style that Burke wants his team to portray, but Savard is the more familiar with Kessel than any player in the league.

The two played together in Boston and made a habit of putting up points. The two are a match made in heaven and Savard would finally get the respect he deserves in the media bonanza that is Toronto.

I'm not saying that Burke has already got a spot in the dressing room ready for Savard, or that it is even in his future plans, all I am saying is that this Leafs team cannot be successful with their current situation up the middle.

No one on the team is good enough to play with Kessel, and with Savard most likely looking for a contract in the $5.5 million range (he's making $5 million this season), he might be a guy the Leafs want to pursue come the offseason.

Picturing a first line for the Leafs that includes Kessel and Savard would have fans in Toronto planning the parade right from the start, and fans in Boston wondering if having two Leaf first-round picks is better than the Leafs having their former two best players.

A trade is also a very possible alternative, and with rumours flying already about Tomas Kaberle being shipped out for some offensive talent it's clear things are in the works, though trading Kaberle now might not be the best idea, since he's turned out to be the leader of the team, and a worthy choice for team captain.

In a season that is going downhill fast it is all too clear that Kessel needs someone better to play with who can keep up and be in the right spot at the right time to feed him the puck.

Whether it's free agency or through a trade, the pressure should be on Burke to get this team one step closer to where he wants them to be.

No more mediocrity up the middle, with Kessel doing everything on his own right now, the Leafs need someone else to help.

Let’s hope Burke realizes it before it's too late.

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