Which first-line centres were available?

One of the major concerns about Brian Burke’s tenure thus far in Toronto is his inability to find a first line centreman for Phil Kessel, and, to a lesser extend, Joffrey Lupul. (This is ignoring that Burke already has a first-line centre in Mikhail Grabovski, but I think recent history has shown that you can’t go too far without two good guys down the middle. There’s still that need.)

I’ve looked at it before and if there is a concern about the Leafs not having a goaltender, it’s because they missed out on Kari Lehtonen, Craig Anderson and Jose Theodore, and possibly even Jaroslav Halak. Using the same sort of analysis, are there centremen that have been moved in Burke’s tenure that were both attainable and good enough to be on Toronto’s first line?

First thing I did was look through Hockey Reference at centres who have been moved and have scored at least 50 points per 82 games played over the last four seasons:



Player GP Pts Pts/82 GP
Brad Richards 290 282 80
Mike Ribeiro 304 265 71
Jeff Carter 291 245 69
Mike Richards 316 252 65
Derek Roy 277 218 65
Tim Connolly 259 190 60
Nathan Horton 258 187 59
Olli Jokinen 319 222 57
Jordan Staal 268 178 54
Saku Koivu 285 185 53
Rich Peverley 287 182 52
Jason Arnott 273 168 50
Scott Gomez 273 166 50

Okay, wait a second. Tim Connolly is sixth in this? Since Connolly hasn’t exactly worked out in Toronto (he has only played the one season, mind you) we may be better off looking at guys ahead of them on the list.

The big board:

Brad Richards:

Well, he signed a 9-year deal worth $60M, one that I don’t think was a particularly shrewd investment by Glen Sather. I don’t think this one will pay off, and while he was a popular option, I doubt that New York will see many more 60+ point seasons out of Richards, who is 33 next season.

Mike Ribeiro:

Mike Ribero was traded at the draft for Cody Eakin and a 2nd round selection. That’s pretty good value, but Ribeiro only has a year left on his deal before he’s a UFA. That’s a lot for Toronto to give up when they shouldn’t expect to compete this season. If he makes it to the UFA market and the Leafs are still lacking a centreman, Burke really ought to make a pitch with all the players on the Leafs also reaching free agency.

Jeff Carter:

He got moved twice. Philadelphia got a great package that included the eighth overall pick and Jakub Voracek, assets that the Leafs neither had nor the flexibility to give up. Less than a year later, Columbus traded him for Jack Johnson and a conditional first round choice, and I’m pretty convinced the Leafs ought to have paid a price to acquire Carter. He’s a pretty good hockey player that was missed out on.

(FYI: The reasons given for why Carter wouldn’t fit on the Leafs in this Toronto Star piece are hilarious.)

Mike Richards:

Last summer, Richards went for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a second-round pick. Who knows what opportunity the Leafs had to put together a package, but that’s a pretty steep price and falls into Nazem Kadri territory, but also an important roster player Toronto probably didn’t have. Here’s Steve Simmons making himself useful:

The Leafs won’t confirm this, but they would have made the Richards deal for Kadri and Kulemin if Holmgren would have accepted it.

Bottom line was, Holmgren was looking for more. When Los Angeles offered up centre Brayden Schenn, winger Wayne Simmonds and a second-round choice, the Leafs have nothing they could offer of similar value — and Philadelphia found their price met in exchange for the man they no longer wanted as captain.

This is the difficulty Burke often finds in the trade market. There are players he wants who are available. There are deals to be made.

But with a limited roster, it’s tough to close on a big trade when you have so few cards in your deck.

“The Leafs won’t confirm this, but Nikolai Kulemin tried to poison my drinking water.”

Derek Roy:

A divisional foe giving up a good player for a guy like Steve Ott to be able to compete physically against the Bruins? How many big top-six forwards with play-driving ability do the Leafs have to give up?

And the rest:

Okay, maybe only Jeff Carter (second time around) was available for the Leafs. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good amount of centremen who have been moved with the defensive ability to allow Kessel and Lupul to do their thing.

Checking Behind the Net.ca, here are players listed as centremen with positive relative Corsi numbers (signifying they are plus-possession players) in at least three of the last four seasons who have been moved:

-Andrew Cogliano
-Antoine Vermette
-Artem Anisimov
-Benoit Pouliot
Brad Richards
-Brandon Dubinsky
-Brian Rolston
-Dominic Moore
-Edward Purcell
-Eric Belanger
-Jason Arnott
-Jordan Staal
-Marcel Goc
-Matt Stajan
-Mike Modano
-Mike Richards
-Paul Gaustad
-Rich Peverley
-Scott Gomez

We’ve already crossed off both Richards’, Mike and Brad, and I think we can take the axe to a few more names. Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky were traded for Rick Nash. Dominic Moore and Matt Stajan have already been here, with mixed results. Mike Modano is old, Paul Gaustad went for a first-round pick and Scott Gomez is Scott Gomez, and too expensive for what he brings, although he is still a serviceable defensive forward.

Here’s the amended list:

-Andrew Cogliano
-Antoine Vermette
-Artem Anisimov
-Benoit Pouliot
Brad Richards
-Brandon Dubinsky
-Brian Rolston
-Dominic Moore
-Edward Purcell
-Eric Belanger
-Jason Arnott
-Jordan Staal
-Marcel Goc
-Matt Stajan
-Mike Modano
-Mike Richards
-Paul Gaustad
-Rich Peverley
-Scott Gomez

Here’s what these players were moved for:

Andrew Cogliano: A second-round pick in 2012.

Antoine Vermette: A second-round pick in 2012.

Benoit Pouliot: Unrestricted free agent.

Brian Rolston: Available (!)

Edward Purcell: Jeff Halpern.

Eric Belanger: Unrestricted free agent.

Jason Arnott: Available (!)

Jordan Staal: More than the Leafs can afford.

Marcel Goc: Signed as a UFA in both Nashville and Florida (to a three-year Dale Tallon special).

Rich Peverley: In a package with Boris Valabik for Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. Also, listed at C, but plays on the wing.

To me the only ones available were Cogliano, Pouliot and Goc. I’m not sure if the team could use Rolston or Arnott at this point right now, and Belanger took three years in Edmonton that probably wasn’t worth the hassle. It would have been interesting to know if the Leafs had any sort of interest in Vermette, who still has three years left on his deal and could have been a good pickup with the long-term in mind.

Conclusion:

When some of the guys you’re looking at are Andrew Cogliano and Benoit Pouliot, you know it’s a pretty dry age for player movement. There are a couple of guys who went to other teams for value Toronto could have provided, and, like with the goaltenders, Burke failed to pull the trigger.

Guys like Cogliano or Pouliot or Goc pop up every season, but getting those good Cs who can play both ways like Carter and Vermette who are on contracts are the players Burke needs to target. The problem is until guys are moved, we don’t really know who is available.

If Colin Wilson is an option, I think Burke can sacrifice a prospect. The worst case scenario in 1-for-1 deals is you’re trading a player who could become an NHLer for a player who is an NHLer, and nuts to ceilings if the team is trying to compete now. Burke can’t go through another period of rebuild.

    • Grabovski should be given a long look on the first line with Lupul and Kessel, he would improve it in every facet, particularly defensively. Connolly should be given a shot on between JVR and MacArthur on the 2nd. Kulemin, Bozak and Frattin could be solid 3rd line.

        • RexLibris

          Ha ha, yeah Bozak seems to be given every opportunity to excel.

          Hopefully with the full off season to reset Carlyle has been considering all his options. It seems like a good solution if none are forthcoming via trade. Grabovski is our best center and by far the best defensively. Connolly has his limitations for sure but he might actually fit (thrive?) perfectly on the 2nd line. With JVR and MacArthur he’s got some good talent to work with.

          It also sets up a nice scenario for Kadri or Colborne. Chances are that Connolly gets injured at some point, either Colborne or Kadri could get a shot centering the 2nd line. It certainly would be an easier jump for either guy than having them leap into the 1st line center role.

  • The other point here is that Burke not only hasn’t traded for a 1C but he hasn’t signed a 1C (Connolly was a stop gap for Colborne to develop in marlies and was plan B behind Richards) and he hasn’t drafted a competent 1C either.

    And Burke traded away 2 first round picks (lotto and top 10 pick) which could be used to address the 1C via the draft. But that said, Burke and his largest NHL scouting staff did take a chance on Kadri and he traded for a Colborne (but he was more a project than a surer thing) to address the 1C.

    It appears he has inadvertently set up Kessel and the leafs to fail in that he didn’t have the “right” parts to build a competitive team and went out to acquire Kessel using futures. But the team maybe “better” but still similar position of not having the right talent to build a winning playoff team. This in totality, shows poor judgement and decision making on Burke’s strategy.

  • One thing, who tries to build their team around a winger??? You either build from the net out, do what Boston did an build around a defenseman or you get a 1c so I find it hard to believe that Burke couldn’t get a 1c for the outrageous price he paid for kessel. Oh wait yeah doesnt Boston have a 1c from that kessel trade?

    • I agree with this 90%. Kessel is a good player. He’s one of the best at his position and yet, he can’t help the team win like a two-way C or a two-way D can. Same thing with Rick Nash in Columbus.

      Teams ought to build around good Cs and good Ds. I’m an advocate of trading Lupul and building around Grabovski and Phaneuf for this reason, and figuring who that second C and second D will be.

      Not sure where Kessel fits in there, but he ought to have been added as a “final piece” rather than “the guy”.

    • RexLibris

      Exactly. This entire blog only says what most people already know. Getting top end centers is practically impossible outside of the draft. It’s not that Burke had a hard time getting a center. Who doesn’t? It’s that Burke traded for a winger and gave up the picks needed to get a center

  • Trade Kessel, get a number 1 center for him, sure he can score a goals, but he doesn’t help the team in there own zone. We can get good value for him. Not sure if Kardi could handle the first line wing with Lupul, but maybe second line? and JVR to replace Kessel?? Then get Luongo, play him for 4 years, buy out his contract and be done with him! I think that would change the team enough to pull some free agents in Toronto the next offseason. Just a thought!

  • So if I’m hearing you correctly….

    All the Leafs need is a number 1 C, and number 2 D, a number 1 Goalie, a new GM, more talent in the farm system, and maybe a new coach….

    But they have nothing to trade to get these things….

    Where’s Harold Ballard when you need him!!!

  • RexLibris

    Quick note – Cogliano was moved for a 2nd round pick in 2013.

    I was arguing over on FlamesNation that Feaster ought to have traded for Carter. They’ve been looking for a center for as long as most fans can remember, yet all the fans balked saying that he wasn’t worth more than a 3rd round pick.

    Now they are looking at a roster whose center depth starts with a converted right-winger and an undrafted forward from the KHL.

    Much like the Leafs, your point about them not having the assets available to acquire the players they most need and thus being stuck betwixt and between, is almost an exact replica of the problems faced by the Flames.

    The Oilers spent a decade in the same position.

    The reason most people argue that these players need to be drafted is because the cost of acquiring one by trade is exorbitant and they so rarely hit free agency that the competition for one can be crippling.