As Christmas quickly approaches, so does the trade deadline. With some key UFAs on the Leafs roster, they need to decide sooner or later what’s going to happen to them. While this may not affect the Leafs at all this season, it’s a good idea to see who should stay, who should go, and who should come in their place, and know what to expect next season.
First on the list is Tyler Bozak. The center is currently the longest tenured Leaf, and has always been a focus of the Leafs community, whether it be the analytics wars during the Carlyle era, or whenever he’s been struggling this season. Despite being a college free agent signing, he has put up 341 points in 548 games, over the course of nine seasons with the Leafs, albeit mostly playing with Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and more recently, Mitch Marner. Not known for his defense, Bozak has been best used in a sheltered offensive role with the team, which Babcock has used him in since he took over the bench.
He’s been great, but can the Leafs do better? Let’s look at five ideal replacements for Tyler Bozak going into next season, in no particular order.
Let’s kick it off with a replacement within the organization. Nylander was drafted as a winger, but has been developed as a center in the minors before playing the wing since the start of last season. He’s been the unofficial heir since Matthews was drafted, and Babcock said he’d start with Kadri, Bozak, and Matthews down the middle. As soon as one left, Nylander seemed all but guaranteed to take over.
It might be a rough transition to start, but eventually having a one-two punch of Matthews and Nylander down the middle, with Kadri rounding it out, will be a center depth that almost no one could match. Nylander played solid down the middle in his 22 games in the 2015-16 season, but in his brief stints last season, he looked less than impressive. With Matthews out, Nylander has looked much better when he’s been put down the middle, so we don’t exactly know what we’ll get with him when the time comes.
But, it’s William Nylander. He’ll probably do fine.
Of all the *realistic* free agent options, Backlund might be the one I think the Leafs should pursue. Just imagine this – the Leafs sign Backlund, use him as the shutdown line center, toss Kadri and his offensive play-driving ability on the sheltered line, and let that line destroy worlds, in addition to Matthews and Nylander on the top line.
Not to mention that Backlund can produce as well, so he wouldn’t be a Komarov-esque shutdown player, he’d be another Kadri-esque shutdown player. Last season, he put up a career-high 22 goals and 53 points, and has consistently been one of the better possession players in the league. Also, he’ll only be 29 at the time of the contract, so if you can keep the contract reasonable, he probably won’t perform too badly in the later years of the deal.
An offseason signing from the KHL, Aaltonen impressed in the preseason this season, and was close to taking the spot on the fourth line from Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr. While he might not be the best option at the third line, he’s been solid in the AHL this season, and could either be developed enough to be a good 3C next season, or close enough that the Leafs could pull a Chicago Blackhawk, and insert him in it as a cheap option.
However, if he isn’t a clear candidate for the third line center role, it’s unlikely that they don’t just Nylander there, and replace him on Matthews line with someone more capable as winger. But, there’s definitely a chance he could be ready next season, it’s just not likely.
I don’t really need to say a lot about Thornton that you don’t already know. One of the best playmakers in NHL history, Thornton is still absent of one thing on his already impressive resume: a Stanley Cup. While San Jose has been good this season, and they *could* win the Cup this season, if they haven’t, how hard do you think it would take for his buddy Patrick to convince him to join the team for a year or two as the third line center.
Inserting him on the sheltered line might be a good idea in his 39-year old season, as he would be relieved of a lot of pressure, and be put in a good role to put up more points, and make the Leafs three lines even deeper. It probably wouldn’t be cheap, depending on his performance this season, and he might not be the best option, but if the Leafs want to go all in, and Tavares isn’t an option, Thornton wouldn’t be a bad second option.
Speaking of Tavares…
A man can dream, can’t he?