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Who will the starting centers be for the Maple Leafs this season?

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!


  1. Colborne isn't going to play much in the NHL this year unless he turns into an absolute AHL beast and they are forced to call him up. I don't see that happening, he has been a bit soft so far.

    Aucoin is also destined for the AHL.

    I think all this will sort itself out this year.

    Unless Conolly, Lombardi and Steckel play very well they won't be back. I allready see McClement as a replacement for Steckel. My guess is all three are involved in deals for drat choices at at the deadline, unless they are key parts of an impending miracle...the long awaited Leaf playoff run.

    Perhaps Bozak and Kadri might be trade bait. Perhaps Burke swings for the fences and adds Morgan Reilly and that's what it takes to get get Getzlaf from Anaheim before he goes UFA.

    Maybe a year from now the centers are:


    That seems like a better mixture of speed, size, grit and two-way play.

  2. Your projected line-up at center certainly is more appealing, DP!

    I'm still not sure it gets us where we need to go, but it would be a step in a better direction. I like your break down- thanks.

  3. I must admit that I had been assuming McClement was pegged for the third line as an experienced guy with some skills to put a couple of young wingers on either side of (Kadri and Frattin?) and that Steckel would remain on the fourth and whenever we need to win a face off.
    Like DP, I have been thinking Colborne and Aucoin where dead certs for the AHL - unless Colborne is shipped out as part of a deal for someone like Getzlaf.
    If it's the case that they really do go with JvR on the first line and Grabo's a lock for the second, that does indeed leave Connolly, Bozak and Lombardi completely redundant (and at a combined cap hit of 9.75m - Jesus wept). If I had to keep one as back up for a failed JvR experiment I'd go Bozak: while he's not looked like a 1C, he has looked like he's got better every year. To your point, Connolly and Lombardi are known and insufficient quantities, at least Bozak hasn't hit his ceiling yet.

  4. 1) hell no
    2) bozak, grabovski, mcclement, steckel (Connolly)
    Man that's a depressing group of centers. Philly traded away their top two centers last year and still had giroux come through and they beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs. (so to answer our question from your other post, yes. Damn right I'm envious of holmgren)
    I feel Connolly and steckel will be in and out of the lineup. Lombardi on the wing or marlies. Not a chance colborne slides in as a number two this year, if ever. Leafs brass do a pretty good job of "selling" their prospects to the media and fans. Not sure if they actually believe what they tell us sometimes but if they do I think it's time they evaluate their scouts. Like you said, quality trumps quantity.

  5. You may be right on McCLement and Steckel, KiwiLeaf.

    To your point on Bozak, I, too, feel there is more there. I've always liked him- now, whether he can ever become more than a nice player, we still don;t know.

    Whatever the configuration, unless we somehow bring in a really good center between now and whenever the new season starts, I just don't think we're good enough up the middle- regardless of where we put guys.

    Thanks for posting on this one, KiwiLeaf

  6. To the point, honest and on the money. Thanks Cartsy!

  7. Well Michael, you are asking the same questions that are on every Leaf fan's mind. Plain and simple there are no clear cut answers.

    At center, lets consider the 4th line and work our way up to the first line. For the 4th line, Steckel is the obvious choice. He has excellent faceoff skills and is a true defensive centre. For 3rd line centre McClement would likley be the guy if you want another pure defensive line. However, if you want some offense as well, then he's better suited as a 4th line winger or backing up Steckel at center. Lets not forget, both he and Steckel will be used a lot on the PK.

    Like you I'm not seeing Kadri as a center in the NHL yet. Maybe someday, but for now he just doesn't have what it takes (i.e. experience, maturity, 2-way discipline, leadership).

    Lombardi has speed but frankly I've never seen much else out of him. Certainly there is no consistency to his offensive game. Nice experiment, but he'd be a better fit elsewhere. Consistency is also what plagues Connolly, but I want to think he can still contribute. They moved him around a lot last season, and he had some injury setbacks (sounds familiar right?). He can play center or wing, so he could be a handy guy. This being a contract year for him, just maybe he'll step it up. However, if he could be packaged for a better player in a trade, that would be fine. IF he is still here, and he returns to better form, he could handle any of the top three center positions.

    Okay, #2C right now is Grabo, and I don't see that changing. I'm not a big Grabovski fan as some Leafs are, but there is no arguing with his stats. He produces good numbers, and is defensively responsible. My biggest complaint with him is that he is unpredictable, and lacks size. When he has the puck, most people have no clue what he is going to do. A bigger winger or center can usually out-muscle him for the puck. IMHO, he in no way is a #1 center.

    So who's a number 1 center? We don't have one! You can try auditioning JVR in that role, but I doubt he'll be able to adjust back to center. Maybe with time he could make the switch, but I'm not sure Leafs have that time. So by default Bozak is your #1C for now. He lacks a bit of size but has great playmaking skills. He can get too caught up playing offense with Kessel and Lupul and can forget his defensive responsibilities. Carlyle might set him straight.

    So where does that leave Colborne? Well he's best suited at center, and has the size we have needed up the middle. I think he's ready to make the jump to the NHL, and would slot him in at #3C. After a while we'll know if this kid has the potential to move up to one of the top two lines. I'm cautiously optimistic about his future.

    Aucoin is AHL material and a nice backup should one of the defensive centers get injured.

    Finally let me say I hope Poulin and Dudley didn't put their professional integrity aside to beef up prospects on behalf of Burke. I'd like to think they were being more or less honest. Their comments, along with Eakins, provide some important insight as to how these players are developing.

    P.S. Wouldn't Getzlaf be a nice fit as Leafs #1C?

  8. Outstanding post, TML__fan.

    We seem to see project things similarly, Don. Grabbo is a nice player, but not sure he is more than we we have seen so far. And that's OK, I think.

    Colborne is a wildcard. he's young, and if healthy, will get a chance to show what he is capable of at the next level.

    As I mentioned to KiwiLeaf, I like Boazak. I'd like more consistency, but we can say that for just about any player.

    To be clear, I think the Leaf brass is being "honest" when they speak, but at the same time they are protecting Burke and trying to shape the perception fans have around their own handiwork, eh?

    Yes, Getzlaf would look good in blue!

  9. Hi Michael

    1) Not even close. Assuming that there is hockey can you imagine how much fun it is going to be to play Buffalo this year? Or pretty much anyone else except Montreal? We are in for a world of hurt I fear.

    2) Bozak, Grabovski, Connolly, McClement (unless he does a Dupuis).
    I am not a fan of wingers playing center. And we have still not managed to attract a legitimate first line guy.
    I don't know what the answer is. The free agent market as we knew it is gone for good, teams are locking up players long term.

  10. I thin you're just being realistic, cbh747. I'm trying to do the same thing. We haven't (yet) addressed the much-talked about need for a) more experience b) more grit and toughness c) goaltending help and d) a first-line center. We can say Burke has made great moves to "stock the system", but I still see huge holes, four years in.....Thanks!

  11. Here's a happy thought. If my imaginary deals went through and we ended up with these centers:


    Then the lines could look like...from left to center to right wing:

    Lupul Getzlaf Kessel
    JVR Grabovski MacArthur
    Kulemin Colborne Frattin
    D'Amigo McClement Brown

    I sorta like that team. There is size, speed grit, and two-way ability on every line.

    I think those guys could make the playoffs.

  12. That is more promising, DP! I'd like to see more of D'Amigo this season with the Marlies, and see if he could indeed eventually fit as you suggest with the big club....

  13. 'Long-term planning' and 'Leverage' are my key words in this quantity for quality muddle in which we appear to be mired.

    Burke came aboard with a long-term plan and we suffer not knowing what it is!

    However... if we knew, so would all the other GMs... not a particularly encouraging prospect in future negotiations for Burke, the Leafs or the fans, I dare say.

    Of course, the fun comes in the speculation about the hints of which we are aware. So here's a'kick at the can' that may come InTimeFor13 (or 14):

    BB has been surveying the NHL (and CBA) landscape, from a Leaf perspective, for enough time to have developed a sense of possible scenarios that might play out. We see a glut of middling/average players and wonder how such pawns could land us a higher quality piece on the board. It may just be about long-term positioning before the board is set for the checkmate.

    All the expiring contracts that are on the board may well have some value to other teams as we move forward, especially as the trade deadline approaches (and I don't expect a looong lockout) and these particular players are motivated for their next contract value to be sustained or higher. Such players may well yield prospects/picks that may allow other developing prospects to be used in trade packages.

    There have been many possible scenarios in these postings, any of which could be in the mix as pawns are sacrificed moving toward the ultimate goals to which we are not privy.

    I, too, like Bozak (but I wonder: if his agent pursued a 'Stajan-like' contract, whether we would like him as much and I always liked Stajan, too, but felt he contractually benefited by having no one to replace him on the 1st line and 'liked him' less after the increase in pay). Unless Bozak can take a role on the 3rd line (with McClement on the 4th and Steckel in a trade down the road), then I don't see him being around to negotiate a new contract with the Leafs. If Bozak remains on the 1st line, then I expect him to be traded.

    I believe Lombardi will regain, at least, some of what was lost and it make him more valuable in trade, though it will slow the arrival of prospects in the pipeline. Connolly is much the same in my eyes and will likely be given some opportunity to shine for his showcasing to be realized with a return (perhaps this is how Bozak will be 'relegated' to another role, yet still available in the event of injury).

    With this glut of Centres, I imagine that JVR MAY still get some opportunities to tryout on the 1st line (maybe on offensive zone faceoffs and during the powerplay - the latter with Connolly on the point, perhaps, as a backup).

    I still remember Sundin on the wing with Gilmour and recently was reminded, by some vintage early 70s footage, of where even Sittler got his feet wet with some time on the wing before moving to Centre. I'm interested to see how a maturing JVR may respond to the challenge (especially if Connolly's value is increased with some harder time on the first line, while JVR is sheltered for a tryout).

    I only believe Getzlaf will be on the table should the Ducks flounder and the Leafs be legitimately a contender this year. That doesn't mean his rights may not be sought before he becomes a UFA.

    I believe that there are so many scenarios in the offing that there is a direction in place, even if no specifics are even possible beyond speculation. I, for one, look forward to the realization of the reward that patience brings... and, man, have I been patient.

    Though I was born InTimeFor62, my tale of woe is aggrandized by the fact that I started listening to Foster Hewitt and watching my beloved Leafs in 1968... There's some food for thought regarding patiently awaiting the desired goal!

  14. So you are (which only makes sense, given you were born in 1962) one of those cases of Leaf fans who were only hockey "sentient" starting in 1968- a year too late! No wonder patience is your calling card, InTimeFor62!

    Plenty of food for thought in your post- the Bozak-Stajan references rings true. The JVR-Sittler/Sundin analogy is apt as well. (I well remember Sittler on the wing in his early days with the Leafs. An amazing junior career, but no room at the time in the middle with Ullman, Keon, Jim Harrison, etc...)

    Loved the post. I'll aim to keep your 'patience' manifesto top of mind, InTimeFor62....

  15. I suspect Connolly will start the season as #1C, but will be replaced by Bozak within a month. It may then be Bozak, Grabovski, McClement & Steckel. I'm perfectly happy with the last two both being in the bottom six, but I suspect Burke will continue aiming to trade for a true #1C throughout the season. I see Lombardi being traded during training camp (to Phoenix?) & the rest sent to the Marlies. All this presumes a season, of course...

  16. You may be right about Connolly in the early days of the season, at least...
    Bozak may ultimately be the guy.

    I do wonder, Peregrine 11, how serious they are about the JVR "experiment"...and if he could play a top center role here?


  17. One thing to keep in mind in these discussions is RC's coaching philosophy, he is a true coach in the sense he builds lines with a purpose, and then matches them with a passion.
    His #1 unit to open, or at least try, seems to be JVR, Phil and Joffrey.
    Next is where he breaks with "tradition". RC believes in a shutdown line that plays against the other team's top line, pretty much always...this will be the line Mclement was brought in to centre, and I see Kulie as the one winger here, not sure the other yet.
    His "3rd" line (numbers do not mean much to Randy) is a secondary scoring line. This is where I see him using a Grabo/Frattin combo with another winger, again not certain who at this point. Fourth line is an energy/low minute line, I figure they would like to see Steckel, brown, komarov be this group.
    These scenarios in a Carlyle system leaves a lot of players on the outside looking in and opens up a lot of possibility for trades that now become selective instead of just random deals to try to acquire better players.
    Can Bozak or Colborne grow in to the secondary scoring centre role? This may make Grabo expendable for a true #1 centre...which moves JVR or Lupul to the secondary scoring line...
    I think Burke/Carlyle's plan will come together, still missing a few pieces, but I do see it getting closer.
    Defence is still a work in progress, and I may be in the minority but I think dealing Schenn and a hopefully healthy Liles along with the addition of Holzer may surprise many with their play this year.
    Key in it all is Reimer, I have followed this kid since he was drafted and I think he can recover, I have felt for a long time he was the real deal....preferred him over Pogge at the time.
    For whatever it is worth, I look at the situation with some optimism, far more optimism that I have for the cba mess being straightened out.
    cheers all ... Go Leafs Go

  18. You raise a very good point, freshwind, when it comes to Carlyle. Not that Wilson was not a well-preapred coach, but Carlyle certainly has a "plan", and you have outlined some elements of his philosophy. It may be that his coaching approach may mesh with what this roster needs- I'm just not sure that he has, right now, the guys to make it all work. But we can be hopeful. Thanks freshwind.