Friday, March 1, 2013

Spring Shopping List: A 1st Line Center

Somewhere in California, with his tie slightly undone (just enough to make you ask why he bothers wearing it in the first place) Brian Burke is smirking at the Leafs success.

The team seems to be a spitting image of the one Burke hoped to create 4 years ago. A nice mix of scoring and finesse on the top 2 lines with tenacious checkers and men quick to drop their gloves in the bottom six.

The goaltending has moved from league worst to the top third of the league. The defense, while imperfect, has been strong enough that Carlyle has kept Jake Gardiner, once thrust into the throngs of an NHL season, out of the NHL lineup and unsure as to where he will even slot in. A good problem to have if you’re Dave Nonis.

Alas, one remaining issue plagues the team and its roster – that of the never-ending search for player capable of playing 1st line center minutes. The hole left by Mats Sundin has proven to be deeper than many fans were willing to admit. It’s been temporarily filled by the likes of Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov, Tim Connolly, and most recently by Tyler Bozak.

Rumours have circulated for quite some time over replacements that could be signed or traded for to stabilize the position. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are both unrestricted free agents this summer and the speculation is that Anaheim may only be able to retain the services of one. Both will be looking for deals north of 7 million dollars per year for an extended time. Getzlaf represents the prototypical 1st line center that can play in all situations and would certainly end all questions about the position in the foreseeable future. However, the free agent market can be extremely fickle, and placing the team’s future in the hands of pending UFAs can be dangerous.

There exists no shortage of trade partners for the Maple Leafs to explore retrieving a center. The question becoming now what is Nonis willing to give up in return. With the overflow of NHL talent on the backend – recent benching of Liles, and strong play of Cody Franson the team certainly has pieces to dangle in front of the noses of opposing GMs. Sam Gagner has been spectacular this year in Edmonton, and at the age of 23 seems to be finally delivering on the promise of his rookie campaign. Edmonton has a number of young, talented players; however, with Hall and Eberle already signed long term the team may be forced to move one or two of its young offensive pieces.
In Florida there have been whispers about the availability of Stephen Weiss. The 29 year old Panther is a pending UFA and seems unlikely to return to the team in the summer. He has a career high of 60 points and has generally hovered around 20 goals and 35 assists per season. While I do believe Weiss would be substantial improvement over our current #1 center, the situation bears a curious resemblance to the Connolly signing, in that it may represent a player who is only a temporary solution to the problem at hand.

The Avalanche have officially matched the Calgary Flames offer sheet to center Ryan O’Reilly, thus potentially making Paul Stastny available at the trade deadline. The 27 year old has registered 3 seasons with over 70 points, although has fallen on tough times of late with the emergence of Duchene and O’Reilly in Colorado - Relegating him to the 3rd line at times. Depending on the asking price from the Avalanche, he could be an interesting addition to the Leafs top 6.

Lastly, we have the player that requires no offer sheet, new contract, or trade talks – the internal candidate – Kadri.

I was one of many who doubted the youngster after a few years of unrealized potential and rumours of a lacklustre offseason regimen surfaced. I, like some fans, was prepared to move on from Kadri and looks for a new solution. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Kadri has looked absolutely dynamic on the ice this season, creating scoring chances both for himself and his teammates.

Nazem currently sits with 21 points (8 goals, 13 assists), leading the team despite not skating on the top line. Detractors have pointed to his inconsistent work in the faceoff circle (43%) as a key reason to keep him from the 1st line. Tyler Bozak currently wins 55% of his face-offs – meaning that for every 20 face-offs taken Bozak would win 2 more than Kadri. While the team would no doubt prefer better faceoff work from Kadri, it hardly seems like it warrants being the determining factor when Kadri brings such a unique skill set to the line. It seems that given his current success it’s worth at least experimenting with Kadri on the front line to see if he can help in bringing new life to Phil Kessel's stalled goal scoring. He would represent the most gifted playmaker Kessel has skated with since his days in Boston playing alongside Marc Savard.

While the #1 center position remains unfilled, Leaf fans can take some solace in the knowledge that now, more than ever over the last 5 years, the team appears to have options. Whether it is ultimately addressed through free agency, trade, or promotion from within there are players on the horizon hat can help to stabilize the 1st line and bring Toronto’s offensive capabilities more in line with the other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

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