Quantity doesn’t usually trump quality, which is part of the reason why I still have my suspicions when it comes to the Leafs and who will carry the load in 2012-’13 as their front line centers.
Finding an elusive “number-one” pivot has been a challenge for this franchise since Mats Sundin played his final game in blue and white several years ago. Nothing that has happened this summer has really shifted the level of concern that we just can’t compete well with the top teams in the East—much less in the rest of the league—when it comes to strength down the middle. Our goaltending is unproven (though I remain hopeful Reimer will return healthy and steady) and while we have plenty of guys who can play the center position, there isn’t one who is truly, in my view, an absolute first-liner.
The derailed CBA talks (the meetings seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and by the time the two sides meet again next week, there will be only two weeks to go before the September 15 “deadline”) have likely stalled some of the progress that Burke had intended, but regardless, there is still work to do. I’m not sure we have made the inroads that many of us thought were priorities a few months ago, when the last season ended. We have the same personnel in goal (minus Gustavsson). We haven’t acquired a lot of experience or leadership, and we aren’t any tougher—and those were all publicly-stated management objectives. So while some moves have been made this off-season, we are still lacking many of the ingredients that make up really good NHL teams.
But back to the center-ice discussion: I’m probably missing someone, but off the top of my head, here are the main guys who play center that we have in place heading into training camp—whenever that will begin:
-Kadri (though I realize he will likely end up as a winger again)
(I haven’t even included the much-ballyhooed possibility that van Riemsdyk will take over the number-one center spot.)
Now, I realize centers tend to be versatile performers, but I’m not generally a fan of guys playing out of position. If I have a choice between taking a center and asking him to play another position, or a winger who is a little less skilled but knows how to do his job on the wing, I’d usually rather have the winger. In any event, I’m not much for math, but the list above suggests we have 9 or perhaps even 10 centers—and nary a first-line player among them. (Grabbo is certainly by today’s standards a second-line center for sure, but beyond that…)
So I guess I have a two-pronged question today: 1) Do you think we have addressed management’s earlier stated need to add experience and toughness to the roster? And 2) who will emerge as the top four centers for the Leafs once the season does get underway?
I always think back to Rick Dudley’s comment last season (I was surprised it didn’t get more play) when he—at least the way I interpreted it—essentially predicted Colborne would be a number-two center by this coming season. (Hopefully someone will correct me if I got Dudley’s comment wrong…). Dudley made the statement while still in the employ of the Leafs, and he was prone to puff up the Toronto prospects to boost Burke’s efforts. (Not that I don't respect Dudley’s reputation as a talent evaluator, simply that he was not being fully objective because the Leafs, by the end of last season, were clearly having Nonis, Poulin and Dudley doing public relations media interviews to promote the idea that the pipeline was filled with prospects and things were actually getting better, results to the contrary.) If Colborne is ready for that kind of responsibility, that means that as things now stand, Grabovski becomes the first-line guy and since McClement was signed to take over the fourth line responsibility, there are six guys or so fighting to be this team’s third-line center.
If Colborne does not emerge this fall, I’m not sure the picture looks any brighter. Who is a real number-two? Bozak?
I guarantee one thing: if Connolly scores two goals in an exhibition game, or Lombardi (who has always been an outstanding skater) has a nice game, many will think, “great, we’ll be fine up the middle this season after all…”. But I can’t accept that. Guys who are where Connolly and Lombardi are in their career, well, while it is possible they could have resurgent seasons, I just don’t see it happening. A good game here or there is not what the Leafs need. They need excellent play from all their centers on a consistent basis, just to be close to some of the other teams who will be vying for a playoff berth—much less some of the really good teams in the East.
Maybe the lockout does come at a good time!