Monday, October 24, 2011

Crowded House: Making Space For New Talent - Centers

Leaf fans, it seems, are always talking about cupboards.  The cupboards were bare when Brian Burke took over, and now they seem to be a little overfull.  For years our organizational depth has been laughable and our prospect pool was almost non-existent but now our management team is faced with a different challenge.  How do we make space for these guys?

Oddly, the Leafs' greatest need is at center and their best depth is at center.  What?

The Leafs need a true number one center, no doubt about it.  Tim Connolly is a good player, as is Grabovski, but neither are ideal longterm fits for Kessel.  Having said this, both are great second line centers.

Bozak and Lombardi are very good third line centers who bring a defensive element.  Lombardi has great speed, Bozak has been strong on faceoffs and has shown this season that he can fill in with Kessel in a pinch.

David Steckel has won better than 61% of his faceoffs so far this season and seems to win all the key draws.  When the game is on the line, you can bet that Steckel will be the one taking the draw.

Those are five NHL centers, and only Grabovski's deal is expiring.  Given the season he put together in 2010-11 and all of the positive accolades he's received from Ron Wilson and Brian Burke, you would expect that the team brass would like to keep him around.

Add to the equation that Joe Colborne has put up 12 points in 6 games with the Toronto Marlies and there are some tough decisions to be made in the next year.

Centers (signed through)

Tim Connolly (2012-13)
Mikhail Grabovski (2011-12)
Tyler Bozak (2012-13)
Matthew Lombardi (2012-13)
David Steckel (2012-13)
Joe Colborne (2012-13)

Granted, Matthew Lombardi is a capable winger and could be moved there in a pinch.  When the roster is fully healthy, he probably slots in as a third or fourth line winger.  Colborne is the player that really complicates the equation.  He's absolutely shredding the AHL right now and he's got the kind of size that our forward corps is lacking (6'5", 220).  He's a great passer with good hands and pretty good agility but he doesn't have the speed required of a high-end winger.  He'll be in the lineup no later than next season and he'll command top-six minutes.

It's been widely speculated recently that Bozak is on the trading block.  In some ways this makes sense; he's young, has shown some upside, and has the versatility to slot into a top-six or bottom-six role.  His contract is an easy fit at a mere $1.5M per season.  But what kind of value does he have?  If I had to guess, it's probably comparable to the 2nd rounder that Edmonton received in return for Andrew Cogliano.

Moving Bozak also doesn't really clear up the appropriate slot for Colborne.  Bozak is the third line center in a healthy Leafs' lineup and, as I said, for Colborne to develop properly, he should really be getting top-six minutes.  Do we really see Connolly skating on our third line?

I love Grabovski, and so does Ron Wilson, but his departure might make more sense than shipping out Bozak.  First of all, he's a UFA at season's end.  This means that he'd be an attractive deadline acquisition for almost any team in the playoff race.  He's good in all three zones and has a modest contract (less than $3M).  His value would probably be closer to what we got for Kris Versteeg (1st and 3rd) and might even exceed it if he's on pace to lay down similar numbers to those he put up last season.

If Colborne looks ready to make the jump to the NHL in February, don't be surprised to see Grabovski shipped out.  Even if the Leafs are in the playoff race, this is just good asset management.  The worst case scenario for this team would be to see Grabovski walk as a free agent for nothing.  Our organizational depth has improved dramatically but we certainly can't afford to have one of our best players leave with no return.

The way Brian Burke and the Leafs' braintrust deals with our center depth may define Burke's tenure to nearly the same degree as the Phil Kessel deal.  It might not be as sexy but it's absolutely critical that we get this one right.

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