Although Toronto’s top line produced well this year, most educated Leafs fans are well aware that Joffrey Lupul is due for a big regression next season, and Phil Kessel for a bit of one, as well. While things were great were those two were scoring, Tyler Bozak, God bless him, just isn’t deserving of his current rank in the lineup, and isn’t fit to carry the mail when Lupul and/or Kessel falter. Heck, he isn’t fit to do so even when Lupul and Kessel are producing.
It’s news to almost no one: the Leafs need a number one ‘C’.
For a free agent signing that cost the Leafs nothing, Tyler Bozak has been a great addition to this team. He was NHL-ready at the time of his first NHL contract, he’s proven himself to be a reasonable point producer, and has become the Ernie to Phil Kessel’s Bert.
Of course, 47 points in 73 games isn’t exactly spectacular when you’ve been playing between two point-per-game players – especially when you’ve been the beneficiary of some puck luck. Bozak’s 16.5% shooting percentage is far too high to be sustainable, and, since this was also the case with both of his principal linemates this season, we can expect a downturn in his offensive numbers as well.
109 shots is simply too few chances generated for a guy that spends 14.82 minutes on the ice at 5v5. His Corsi numbers look poor, even on a bad team. His on-ice shooting percentage reflects the good luck that he, Lupul, and Kessel had this year, although their PDO’s don’t look so hot because of the terrible goaltending that has plagued the the post-lockout Leafs. The only slightly redeeming number at Behind The Net are his zone starts. At least he seems to finish his shifts in the right zone.
All of this is to say that while Bozak may be a fine 3rd or 4th line centre (a very admirable and worthwhile occupation), someone else needs to be brought in if the Leafs are to be taken seriously in the months of April, May, or June.
Possible In-House Solutions
Mikhail Grabovski is the closest thing the Leafs have to a first line centre. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that he works so well between Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, our dear Grabbo would likely have seen a lot more time on the first unit. To tear apart the Leafs’ "second" line, however, would just make it that much easier for opponents to shut them down. A more balanced attack will be necessary for any playoff push. Let’s leave Grabbo where he is.
Tim Connolly was brought in as an alternative to Tyler Bozak. The problem is that Connolly really isn’t capable of contributing more points than Bozak, especially with his propensity to get injured. I’m not sure if there is a whole lot of good that can be said about TIm Connolly that doesn’t begin with "his contract expires in a year". The man pushes some other replacement-level NHLers out of the lineup (again, when he’s healthy), and that’s great, but he’ll never be a viable option for the Leafs as a pivot for Kessel and, dare I say it, Lupul.
As far as prospects are concerned, Nazem Kadri doesn’t seem to have the defensive acumen to handle the job at the pro level, and Joe Colborne is unlikely to develop the offensive flair. Matt Frattin? He’s a truly wonderful player to have been plucked in the fourth round (99th overall), but he’ll never be a top-line center on a contending team.
The Open Market
The problem with free agents is that when dealing with them Brian Burke is just as likely to shoot himself in the foot as he is to actually benefit his team in some way. Names like Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, and Colton Orr are sure to haunt the annals of Maple Leafs history for decades to come.
Having said that, is there even anyone worth persuing?
When Olli Jokinen is the top point-producing centre coming available, you should probably close the book on this chapter. Maybe another top-six winger is the real solution, but we’ll leave Zach Parise for another post.
The Trade Market
Here’s where things get crazy. I can’t very well speculate on who is actually available because there is just no way to know (see: Dion Phaneuf trade).
On top of this, it seems that every player whose name comes up in conjunction with the Leafs is a winger. Rick Nash? Winger. Alexander Semin? Winger. Bobby Ryan? Winger. James vanRiemsdyk? Winger. Heck, these are only pipe dreams, anyway.
I mean, who would be crazy enough to move a legitimate first-line centre? Tavares? No. Elias? No. Staal? No. Kane? Hm, no, even if he is a crazy party animal.
I won’t mince words here: I don’t see how Brian Burke is going to conjure a legitimate first-line centre out of the spare parts he’s assembled so far in Toronto. Not even in a trade. A UFA? Even less likely.
Let’s hope the Leafs get plenty more scoring from the wings next year.