Centre Of Attention: What The Future May Hold For Toronto At Centre?

August 15th, 2012 9 Comments

Throughout Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s tenure there have been two constants—inconsistency between the pipes and the lack of a number one centre.

Without question, both organizational needs are imperative to the teams success which, to the surprise of few, is yet to materialize as the Maple Leafs are yet to make the playoffs since Burke’s arrival in November of 2008.

Head coach Randy Carlyle will give off-season acquisition James van Riemsdyk a shot at centre this fall, but with JVR lacking experience at the position there are still plenty of questions to be answered.

Tyler Bozak did a solid job as the Maple Leafs de facto number one centre last season, but he too has his shortcomings. Meanwhile prospects like Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne have yet to demonstrate that they are up for the task. There is hope that Kadri may emerge as a centre of consequence as early as next season, although Kadri looks better suited as a winger.

Anaheim Ducks star centre Ryan Getlaf has been rumored to be on the trading block, but thus far all the chatter about Getzlaf has been nothing more than fodder. With Getzlaf seemingly staying in Anaheim that means in order to fill the number one centre role Burke will have to rely on JVR, Kadri or Colborne to make the huge step, find a trading partner or get lucky in the free agent market next summer.

The smart money suggests Getzlaf will not be traded as the Ducks, while rumored to be in a money crunch, would probably be better served trading Bobby Ryan, who is not a centre.

Few NHL teams are lining up to trade their top centres, which means Burke’s best bet will likely be acquiring a centre via free agency. According to capgeek.com several centres will be UFA’s next summer with the likes of Getzlaf, Patrick Elias, Mike Ribeiro, Andy MacDonald, Derek Roy and Travis Zajac leading the way as the best centres available.

The problem is, most of those players will not make it to free agency. More likely they will re-sign with their current teams so landing any of them would be a crap-shoot at best.

At 27-years old, both Getzlaf and Zajac would appear to be the best options. Both players have plenty of upside left and have already demonstrated they can handle the pressure of being a number one centre with their respective teams. Roy (29) is a decent centre, but I am not so sure he is the right player for the Maple Leafs as he is better suited to a second line role where Toronto currently employs Mikhail Grabovski—whom I would like to see get a shot at the first line assignment.

That means Burke will have to rely on one of Getzlaf or Zajac making it to free agency, which might be wishful thinking.

Today’s NHL demands that you develop your own talent. Salary considerations and the uncertainty of the free agent market make it difficult for teams to upgrade, and with Toronto being a place many players want to avoid these days it is that much tougher for Burke to bring in quality players.

Toronto currently employs three centres that could potentially become UFA’s next summer in Tim Connolly, Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi.

In the case of Connolly he has much to prove after a brutal season in 2011-12 with the Blue and White. Unless Connolly can raise the level of his game considerably Burke will likely turn his back on him, which would be fine with many Maple Leaf fans.

In the case of Lombardi, injuries took their toll on him last season and, much like Connolly, he will have to demonstrate the ability to raise his game before Burke would consider re-signing him.

Both Connolly and Lombardi have probably already played their best hockey and neither one seems capable of assuming the number one centre’s role, so its kinda of a moot point anyways.

Which brings us back to Getzlaf and Zajac—does anyone believe either player would want to come to Toronto?

Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner might be a player that peaks Burke’s interest, but the Oilers are yet to make a serious effort to trade him. Should the San Jose Sharks fail to make the playoffs next season they may choose to go in the direction of a re-build which could see “Jumbo” Joe Thornton hit the trade market, but again, that may be more wishful thinking than anything.

Of course there is always the chance that Tampa Bay Lightning centre Vincent Lecavalier becomes available, but with his lofty salary I doubt Burke would be interested.

The David Backes rumors out of St. Louis went nowhere last season (and rightfully so), as did the Paul Stastny rumors out of Colorado.

While there may have been some truth to the Stastny rumors the return would have to be significant for the Avalanche to give him up. Try as I might, I cannot see the St. Louis Blues being interested in moving Backes.

Simply put, Burke looks to be behind the eight ball where acquiring a number one centre is concerned.

One thing Burke does have at his disposal is a deep pool of young prospects. That said, his best prospects would appear to be on defense with Morgan Rielly, Korbinian Holzer, Matthew Finn, Jesse Blacker and Stuart Percy leading the way.

Prospect Greg McKegg (a centre) is an interesting option, but he looks to be at least a full season away from being part of the conversation, maybe more.

Burke will have a laundry list of free agents to deal with over the next two summers with Joffrey Lupul becoming a UFA in 2013-14 followed by Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf in 2014-15.

Should Burke fail to improve the Maple Leafs dramatically there is a real risk that all three players will go to free agency and should Burke lose any of them his team will be impacted dramatically.

Imagine Lupul leaving, what would Kessel think? And if Kessel and Phaneuf hit the free agent market the following season, well, let’s not go there.

The point is there is a real urgency surrounding Burke’s ability to land a number one centre. If JVR or Kadri emerges Burke would feel very fortunate. Should both players fail, Burke has a bigger problem on his hands.

The past few summers have proven that the top free agents, while looking to line their pockets with buckets of cash, are also putting a priority on signing with top clubs/Stanley Cup contenders. No number one centre likely means the Maple Leafs miss the playoffs and few of the NHL’s top players are looking to sign with teams that will not contend for a Cup.

With many good prospects in the system the long term success of the Maple Leafs looks to be bright. That said, anytime you are talking about prospects there is no certainty whatsoever, so don’t bank on all of them working out.

Any way you slice it, the success of the Maple Leafs franchise is currently hinging on JVR and/or Kadri—how confident are you that either one of those players will emerge as a star?

Burke said this summer would be the most important one for him since signing with the Blue and White. Finding a number on centre would go a long way in securing his employment with the club, failure to do so might just spell the end of Burke.

Until next time,

Peace!

9 Comments

  1. Louis Pisano says:

    I caught some of Canada Russia (challenge) and Morgan Reilly looks pretty good, obv not a centre but I really didn’t see much of him before (hurt most of last year) and wasn’t really looking for him.
    What can Burke do? His hands seemed to be tied, and we need someone to step it up at centre, bigtime. I don’t wanna be on the outside looking in,again, when the playoffs roll around.If theres even going to be a season!
    Peace

  2. MarkRitter says:

    Rielly looks solid. But yeah, wish he was a centre!

  3. Steve McNeice says:

    Wendel Clark was a defenceman in junior and was converted by the Leafs to a left winger. Could the Leafs do it again with Reilly?

  4. MarkRitter says:

    Steve-
    You’re reach’in bud!

  5. MarkRitter says:

    Louis-

    I think that is what I was say’in, try as he might Burkie’s hands are kinda tied. Step it up in deed! Hope Kadri shows up and proves he was worth the seventh overall pick!

  6. Dave says:

    I’m with you Mark – lets hope Kadri steps in there and makes an impact. And when I say impact, I mean 5-60 points. I think thats a reasonable number for a first year guy with his talent if he’s given a consistant chance. No more up and down with the guy. Will he show some shortcomings? Yes, definetly. All first year players do and especially defencemen and centres. Simply put, that would be normal and fans can’t jump all over the guy, nor can coaches and management. They need to teach and he will learn with the ice time and experience and a maturation period. Come year two and three is when most guys with his talent really begin to shine and churn out a point a game.

    My 2cents? Put him at centre and let him play – period. Is there a risk? Of course, but he needs to develop and the NHL is the best place for him now.

    Dave

    Dave

  7. Dave says:

    That should have read 50-60 points…..

    Kessel and Loops will help him get there….

    D

  8. MarkRitter says:

    Dave-

    Welcome back Brother!

    Yep. Kadri needs a good amount of ice time. Burke and Carlyle need to find out if he is for real and only time will tell. The way I look at it is that at this point what do we have to lose? I am with ya, give him 30-40 games with premium minutes (good training camp pending) and see what ya got. If Bozak can hit the 47-point mark, Kadri should be able to duplicate it and then some.

    Be well dude!

  9. Dave says:

    Thanks bro…you too. And no worries, I was never really gone – just enjoying the daily read!

    I’ll have to shoot you a message on FB – some interesting tidbits for ya!

    D

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