While things have been pretty quiet in Leafland (not unexpectedly) the last couple of weeks, it’s been interesting to witness the discussions (some even within the organization) about how the Leafs might fill the much-talked-about “first line” center spot this coming season. (This assumes we will have a season, depending on the fruitfulness of ongoing labour talks…)
Of course, there is still plenty of time for a trade. As I mentioned yesterday, I don't doubt Burke and company will be burning up the phone lines talking with rival GM’s (what team doesn’t want to try and get better…). That said, precisely what they might do, if anything, is up for grabs. Mostly, our uncertainty in that regard has to do with what would have to go the other way in any big deal. By that I essentially mean that it has become (seemingly) clear that Burke is intent on building with young players. He will add the right kind of veteran, to be sure, but he does not, it seems, want to part with many/any of the young prospect stable he has built up with a certain amount of zeal the past few years.
So while a “big trade” is always a part of the organizational discussions and possibilities, “plan B” is no doubt filling the aforementioned first-line center position void internally. It would appear that van Riemsdyk is a possibility, given the public chatter from Carlyle a couple of weeks. (Though, I should throw in here that this is a summertime hobby for a lot of organizations. They talk out loud about roster juggling and various possibilities. It throws fans off the scent. They ‘blue-sky’ about all kinds of things that could happen at training camp.) But I do think it is entirely possible van Riemsdyk is a strong consideration. The feeling within the organization is no doubt: if it works, great. If the experiment does not last, van Riemsdyk will go back to playing the wing, and then we’ll hear the usual quotes from him about how he loved playing center, wanted to help the team, but is, naturally, more comfortable on the wing, etc..
They can still make Grabovski the first-line center, I suppose. While I’m not sure he will ever really be that, he has been—at times over the past two seasons—pretty close to a “1A”. So it’s not quite as big a stretch as we might think. I’m not certain we would want to go into a playoff matchup against a team that is really tough down the middle with Grabbo as our lead guy, but there is plenty of time before the Leafs (and we) have to worry about that.
Burke has also opined that Bozak can still fill the role, and the young forward does sometimes inspire hope that, given his strong skating and his his ability to see the ice, he may well continue his development as a relative late-bloomer. But while I like Bozak as a player, I’m not sure I see him fitting a first-line slot just now, if ever.
This brings me to my thought of the day, which may now seem as though I’m simply playing off what the mainstream media has said of late. That is, giving young Nazem Kadri a legitimate shot at being a front-line (at least second line, if indeed Grabovski was the de facto number-one) center with the blue and white.
The funny thing is, I always thought Kadri playing in the middle was the plan when the Leafs drafted him. Set aside for the moment the up and down yo-yo string they’ve had him on the past two seasons. I never really envisioned how this has actually played out; that is, his playing on the wing. I pictured him from the get-go as a center. (Those of you who watched him develop as a junior, did he not play a lot of center under Hunter with the Knights in London? I wasn’t close to that situation so I may be off on this one.)
In any event, I honestly figured him as a center. Now, he certainly has puck skills and vision. His foot speed is OK at the NHL level, I guess. Has his quickness improved? He is working out with Gary Roberts this summer, and that seems to make a difference for just about every young player who takes advantage of that opportunity.
As I’ve often mentioned here before, I wish the Leafs had not, in a panic, turned to Kadri in the fall of 2010 as a guy they thought would help them score goals. I think it hampered his development, and I’m glad he spent most of this past season where he should have been all the year before. Playing in the AHL has rarely, if ever, hurt a young player, in my memory. He has certainly had good coaching as best we can tell from Dallas Eakins and his staff, so you have to think that, after two years as a professional and a summer of intense work with Roberts behind him, the young man will be as ready as he will ever be to crack the Leaf line-up in September.
The question, guaranteed contracts aside, is this: where does Kadri fit? Is he a winger, or is he in fact best utilized as a center? The need we have right now is in the middle. (If we're honest, we have needs everywhere, but you know what I mean...) When there was first talk of Kadri making the big roster, much of the organizational chatter had to do with things like, he has to get “bigger and faster” and he has to cut down on his turnovers. While those things are always important, I’ve also been anxious to see what he could do if he was simply allowed to play without worrying about every step and every little mistake.
The other comment about him was that he had to be a “top-six” guy if he was going to fit here. Yet, he was bounced all over the line-up when he has been up with the big team the past two years, so I don't even know what the brass really thinks at this point. But I assume (if he is not traded as part of a package to get a more NHL-ready center or defenseman/goalie in the next few weeks…and I firmly believe his name has been offered in several trade discussions over the past year) he is part of the “plan” and he will be a top-six player with the Leafs this coming season.
Do I think he can be a first-line center right now? I really don’t know. The young guy has skill, and says all the right things, but I haven’t been blown away yet. Oh, yes, he has certainly made some neat, eye-catching moves every once in a while, but I’m talking about being the kind of player that a coach can look down the bench and, in a tight situation, think to himself, “that’s one of the guys I’m comfortable sending out there right now…”. It may be unrealistic to expect that of him just yet, but the Leafs need guys who can be that player now.
So the jury is still out for me, but I guess what I’m saying is, if he gets a shot at being a front-line center with the big club at training camp, it wouldn't surprise me. I thought this is where we were headed when we drafted him three years ago…..