With the NHL draft in the rearview mirror, it’s time to shift our focus from the future to the present. As of now, the Leafs currently have a hole in their centre depth from when they last played, with the potential of Brian Boyle leaving the team to free agency. They currently have Auston Matthews with two years left on his ELC, Nazem Kadri with five years left on his contract, and Tyler Bozak in the last year of his 2013 contract. But what should they do about that other spot? Let’s look at several options.
1. Re-sign Brian Boyle
First, there is the obvious option, and that’s to bring back Boyle to fill the role on the fourth line again. After all, the play of the fourth line saw a significant boost after the team acquired Boyle, and suddenly the Leafs could roll four lines whenever they felt like it, without worrying about the fourth line getting caved in and lit up. While his boxcars don’t pop out at you (three assists in 21 regular season games, and two assists in the playoffs), but it was the other things that made him a big part of the lineup. While he only ranked 13th among the Leafs who played at least 20 games in CF% at 49.5%, that’s not bad considering that he mainly played with the guys ranked 17th and 18th out of 21 in Martin and Soshnikov. The only concern with bringing him back is his contract. At 32, Boyle is in the twilight of his prime, so he’s bound to fall off a bit due to age. So, bringing him back for a couple years won’t be a terrible idea, but if it’s 3+ years at $2+ million, then that’s a problem, considering they’re already paying Matt Martin that, and it would start to cross into the “re-sign Matthews and Marner” phase. However, it sounds like he’s probably going to look elsewhere in free agency.
Best Case Scenario: Boyle signs a two-year, $2 million contract, and plays on the fourth line at a cheap cost.
Worst Case Scenario: Boyle signs a three-year, $2.5 million-ish contract, and plays on the fourth line, but causes a few cap issues
Ideal Center Depth: Matthews (1C), Kadri (2C), Bozak (3C), Boyle (4C)
Likeability Ranking: 4 out of 5 sexy Brian Boyle ‘staches
2. Convert William Nylander to Center
While originally drafted as a winger, the Leafs started to develop Nylander as a centre in 2015, playing him down the middle on the Marlies, and even on the Leafs when he joined the team post-deadline. But, after drafting Matthews, the Leafs saw less of a need to develop him as a centre, at least for the short term. While they experimented with him on the fourth line for a game or two, he primarily played on the wing with either Matthews or Kadri. Babcock has said that they might eventually play him at centre, but won’t be the case next year. So, this is a very slim possibility, but it has some upside. This gives the Leafs a chance to develop him more down the center, and an even stronger center depth down the middle if it pans out, at the cost of literally nothing, since he’s already in the organization. It even opens up a spot in the top 9 for Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov, or Kerby Rychel, another problem that the Leafs have been facing.
Best Case Scenario: Nylander excels down the middle, and gives the Leafs four lines of first or second line level centres (except maybe Bozak), and the Leafs flourish with their elite center depth.
Worst Case Scenario: Nylander looks less than appealing down the middle, and he has a down year, which also makes his contract extension a bit more team friendly.
Ideal Center Depth: Matthews (1C), Kadri (2C), Nylander (3C), Bozak (4C)
Likeability Ranking: 5 out of 5 golden locks of Nylander’s hair
3. Sign Joe Thornton
Since the Leafs have a lot of cap space for the next couple seasons (a shade over $14 million this offseason) until they have to re-sign Matthews and Marner, why not take advantage of it and go after one of the better centers in free agency on a one or two-year deal, even if it brings up the price tag a bit. The Leafs have been linked to Joe Thornton already, who’s the closest thing we’ve had to an elite centre in free agency for a while. And by the looks of it, he’s probably the only option. This would give the Leafs a centre depth similar to if Nylander was there, if not better because of his experience at centre. Thornton is still an excellent playmaker, and is superb defensively, although you’ll have to put him with a couple of goal scorers to boost his offence since his goal scoring has fallen off a cliff. It would also give the Leafs some more playoff experience, while also giving Thornton a chance to get his Cup. However, Thornton is apparently seeking a three-year deal, which is one year too many for the Leafs.
Best Case Scenario: Thornton signs a one or two-year deal at about $6 million, and excels in a lesser role alongside JVR and Marner, improving that line defensively.
Worst Case Scenario: Thornton signs a three-year deal at $6-7 million, and drops off a cliff offensively during the course of that contract while screwing up the Leafs cap.
Ideal Center Depth: Matthews (1C), Thornton (2C), Kadri (3C), Bozak (4C)
Likeability Ranking: 5 out of 5 Jumbo Joe beards
4. Sign a Low Key Good Center
So, pretty much any other centre on the market. However, that’s not me giving the Leafs the green light to sign any centre but go after someone who is good, but not as well known as good. That’s a bit harder than going after a winger, due to the premium for centres, but there are still a couple of options. There’s the “low key good centre” from last year in Sam Gagner, but he’s certainly not going to sign for league minimum this time. Some other options also include John Mitchell, or bringing back Byron Froese, but regardless, if they can’t bring back Boyle, or sign Thornton, this should be the route they go.
Best Case Scenario: The signing pans out really well, as the player puts up a reasonable amount of points while also being good defensively, and allowing the Leafs to roll four lines.
Worst Case Scenario: The player is so bad that they make Ben Smith look like Patrice Bergeron.
Ideal Center Depth: Matthews (1C), Kadri (2C), Bozak (3C), New Guy (4C)
Likeability Ranking: 3 out of 5 Kyle Dubas glasses
5. Address Within the Organization
If all else fails, the Leafs can look within the organization to fill the fourth line centre role. And I put a strong emphasis on all because this isn’t a very good option. Whether this is Eric Fehr, Ben Smith, Frederick Gauthier (when he returns from injury), Trevor Moore, Seth Griffith, or Colin Greening, the Leafs aren’t exactly screwed if none of the first four options happen, but it’s not ideal either. The only players that I’d be confident in giving a shot to are the latter three, but those are also the three least likely in the list that Babcock would use. So, it’s not the best strategy, but it’s *a* strategy, and while it didn’t really work last season, the Leafs could at least float with it. Now, if one of Jeremy Bracco or Adam Brooks blows the roof off in training camp and gets a shot down there, that might be better in the long run, but it’s highly unlikely that happens.
Best Case Scenario: Bracco or Brooks have an amazing training camp and have a solid rookie season down the middle on the fourth line.
Worst Case Scenario: Ben Smith sees at least a minute of ice time.
Ideal Center Depth: Matthews (1C), Kadri (2C), Bozak (3C), Depth Guy (4C)
Likeability Ranking: 1 out of 5 grits