Leafs are searching for a center, but true greatness comes from within

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

According to Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs are looking for a center to help their depth. From the same piece, Tomas Jurco and Martin Hanzal are on the block, but I doubt either of them are targets for the Leafs.

It doesn’t seem there are a lot of center options for the Maple Leafs to pursue. There’s a potential to call St. Louis about pending UFA Patrik Berglund, to see if he’s available. Acquiring him would be overdoing it a bit, but he’s a really good player for the Leafs to shore up the center position with.

Two things appear to be at work here: the Leafs are not quite satisfied with Gauthier so far, and Ben Smith may still be a ways away. But is it possible there’s an internal solution to this problem?

Heading into this season, one of the questions I had about the construction of the Leafs’ roster was about the 4th line center position. We knew Auston Matthews was coming and was announced as the 3rd line center. This meant the obvious choices for 1st and 2nd line were Bozak and Kadri. But who would play on the 4th?

Some hoped Peter Holland had a chance to stake a claim on that role, but Babcock and the Leafs decided he wasn’t a good enough fit there. Most of Holland success the past season had come on the wing, where he was also played in pre-season, so a long-term role at center likely wasn’t in Babcock’s plans for Holland anyways. After a few games trying him there, the Leafs claimed former Leaf Ben Smith, who got locked into this 4th line center role from then until his unfortunate hand injury. 

From then forward, for the last 15 games, it’s been Frederik Gauthier. The much-bemoaned former 1st round pick of the Maple Leafs, Gauthier had a ridiculous start to this season, statistically. His Corsi numbers were in the high 30’s, and his goal-share numbers were in the high 70’s. It was amazing to see, for better or worse. 

Now, things have settled down for Gauthier so it seems appropriate to take a look at the comparisons between him and the other in-house options for the Leafs’ bottom-line center. 15 games is the mark where Corsi numbers start to have the predictive power we care so much about, so that combined with Smith starting to skate again, and the Leafs’ apparent pursuit for a centerman make this a very timely discussion.

If you stretch the limits a little bit by moving people off of wing to center, the Leafs have 7 options for the 4th line center. You’ll see them in the table below. Ideally, you want someone defensively responsible, and who can chip in offensively. And preference is given to a natural centerman.

Player TOI P60 Rel.CF60 Rel.CA60 Rel.CF% Rel.xGA60 Rel.xGF%
BEN.SMITH 467.5 0.9 -11.51 6.28 -7.53 -0.22 -3.75
BYRON.FROESE 537.42 0.56 -7.91 -6.88 -0.44 -0.18 0
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 187.6 0.96 -12.96 -1.26 -5.28 -0.19 -3.84
LEO.KOMAROV 1387 1.38 2.91 -0.97 1.57 -0.14 0.88
TYLER.BOZAK 1284.34 1.87 2.72 3.08 -0.15 0.13 -0.12
WILLIAM.NYLANDER 837.52 1.58 7.63 -3.07 4.28 0.04 2.66

All stats are 5v5, score zone and venue adjusted, from 2015-2017, and retrieved from Corsica.

Since Komarov came from Russia (where he played a bit of center) I’ve wanted the Leafs to try Komarov in the 4th line center role, so I included him here. And Nylander is a natural center who has played a few games there this year, so he definitely factors in for me. Bozak is there in case you want to move him down and insert one of the above options in the top 9. 

As I said above, the prerequisites here are capable defensively and offensively. Looking at the stats above, two things become clear:

  • Bozak doesn’t fit the mold for being capable defensively
  • Ben Smith, Frederik Gauthier and Byron Froese don’t fit our mold for being capable offensively

That leaves the somewhat left-field option of Leo Komarov, and elite rookie William Nylander.


This is clearly a complicated mess. The preference would be to put Nylander as a center in the top 9, but displacing any of those 3 players that are currently there to the 4th line would be a bad call. As such, the recommended option here, from the data alone, is probably Leo Komarov as the 4th line center.

Or, you can simply abandon the prerequisites and go with the best defensively that isn’t too offensively inept, and that’s Byron Froese. Here we get a natural centerman, who is legitimately good defensively, and, well, only a little bit of a garbage pile offensively. 

Either way, the conclusion here is that the Leafs have internal options that are better than either of Frederik Gauthier or Ben Smith, without having to spend assets to acquire one.

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  • Marcel DePass

    I think Gauthier had been good in his role, he isn’t the issue. Soshnikov sould be in a different role, doesn’t have the body strength to play the style of game that is required. He’s pushed off the puck too easy, and not effective enough on the forecheck. Gauthier, I believe, is the second best faceoff man on the team, and can make a good pass, and has improved on getting too the scoring areas. Problem is that his wingers haven’t been getting pucks to the net, where The Goat scores. This is where Leivo comes in. Other than speed, Leivo is an upgrade in every way, and gets shoots on net, and has the size to be effective on the 4th line. Let Soshnikov sir for a while, heal, and gain the needed strength required. Let Marner replace him on the PK, he’s decent at it. The options are already signed.

    • Stan Smith

      Question, the Leafs are playing great right now. If you go back their last 20 games or so they are one of the hottest teams in the league. Why would you want to screw around with that and make changes? I think that roster stability is the best thing, and it appears that Babcock agrees with that assessment.

  • Stan Smith

    I disagree with the 4th line needing to be equally capable offensively and defensively. Just as I believe the third pair on defence have to be better defensively, I think the 4th line should be looked at on a similar light.

    One of the problems with using Corsi and Fenwick to judge is that you are talking attempts in both cases. In most of the cases they are failed attempts. Why should failure be a key component on judging the players? I prefer to look at success.

    In goals against per 60 minutes 5 on 5 while they are on the ice, the top three Leafs forwards are Gauthier 1.00, Martin 1.32, and Sohnikov 1.56. All three of the players that comprise the fourth line.

    If you want to bring offence into the equation, Gauthier is on the ice for 2.51 goals for per 60 minutes, Martin 1.81, and Soshnikov 1.76. That puts Gauthier 7th, and the others near the bottom, but if you combine both, the GF% for Gauthier is a whopping 71.4%, first on the club by a mile. Martin is 2nd at 57.9% and Soshnikov 5th at 52.9%.

    Sure, you can say they are playing fewer minutes against lesser opposition, but they are a 4th line, playing, in most cases against other 4th lines. In that case they are better than the 4th lines they are playing against. What more can you ask for?

    I personally think that Gauthier is by far the best player the Leafs have had centering the 4th line this season, and Babcock has to see that. Hell, he is starting to use him more and more for key defensive zone faceoffs.

    If the Leafs are looking to add a centre, and I repeat, “if”. I wonder two things. One, are they planning on dealing Bozak, and two, are they starting to realize Nylander is better off as a winger?

    • Kanuunankuula

      Seems like I had the same conversation before, but again, goals are not good indicators of future goals. This is why we use shot attempts (which are significantly better). Since they’re so few goals per game, you getting a tiny sample size. Shots are 10x bigger sample size. Failed attempts still account for something, you got to have the puck to shoot it. And again, shot attempts is a pretty good proxy for time of possession.

      Per 60 stats also inflate 4th liners and such because they play so little. The extrapolation is not always accurate.

      • Stan Smith

        No one has yet proved the me that simply tracking the number of shots is any better despite the larger sample size, and that it relates in any way to possession.

        As for indications of future goals, I do believe that if a player has a lifetime shot % of 10%, while scoring 20 goals a season, that if he scores 30 one year with a shot % of 20% that you can easily say the odds are that he will not score 30 again.

        Corsi and Fenwick are more about team play, and utilization of the coaching, rather than a rating of a player’s ability. All you have to do is look at Bozak and JVR’s numbers under Carlyle and under Babcock can see that.

        While a 4th line does play fewer minutes the fact that the per 60 is pro-rated in no way inflates their numbers. The smaller sample size would mean the numbers could change faster, but the numbers as they are, are the actual numbers, and facts.

        I am in no way against the use of advanced stats as a tool to help judge players, and team peformance, I just think Corsi, and Fenwick are way over-rated stats.

        • Kanuunankuula

          You could try our own Draglikepull’s work http://www.pensionplanpuppe….

          Corsica’s primer you should probably read: http://www.corsica.hockey/b

          Some good articles are lost since the writer got hired (coff Oilers coff).

          As to sample sizes, this is basic statistics taught in school. A bigger sample size gives you a more reliable hypothesis and results, since it’s not affected by randomness so much (here’s the issue with using goals as evaluaters).

          So you do ‘believe’ in some basic statistical concepts, like regression here with sh%. Which is good, this has been the most observed aspect.

          Coaching absolutely has an effect on performance and stats (see Carlyle). Nobody is disputing this. You still can evaluate players separate from this. You can look at a player under different coaches (most players have played under different coaches) and how they fare compared to teammates (who have the same coach). JVR and Bozak were baaaaaaaaaaaaad under Carlyle. Under Babcock they’re better. But they’re still not great compared to the team.

          You said it yourself. One goal swings their /60 stats way more than someone who plays 20 minutes a game. You replace Matthews with Gauthier. They play the minutes and competition of the one they replaced. Gauthier is going to caved in, and Matthews is going to have a great G/60. It tells you something whether a player is under of over utilized, but it’s not absolute. Like most stats, it need context.

          If you dislike Corsi and Fenwick, there is much more available if you look for it. (Edit.) I actually like xG, which is more complicated but a better predictor (and faster, works on smaller sample sizes) of future goals of than goals or Corsi.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Re- “According to Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs are looking for a center to help their depth”

    According to LukeWarmWater ….Gauthier is looking for Elliotte Friedman.

    • LukeWarmWater

      You got that right brother Luke and we all know what the Goat did to that Hab goon in the last game between the leafs and Habs. I hear the Goat has been studying videos of the Sacramento King center Cousins on how to conduct oneself with the media.

  • Stan Smith

    You are correct in that the “rankings” compare them to their teammates but the numbers themselves are against their opposition. Taking Gauthier for example it means when he is on the ice 5 on 5 the Leafs score 2.51 goals per 60 minutes, and they give up 1.00, with the end result being a +1.51 positive. In case you are wondering for players with at least 100 minutes played he ranks 7th overall in the league, which is pretty impressive. Yes you are correct that it is an average and isn’t going to happen every game. But that can be said for all numbers.

    I find it interesting that the Corsi and Fenwick lovers agree that the Leafs’ problems stem from their defensive play, yet tout the importance of a stat that depends on unsuccessful attempts to score as a way of measuring a player’s ability.

    One thing we can agree on is that the Leafs fourth line is actually pretty darn good at their role as a fourth line. If Gauthier keeps playing like he is I would really be surprised if he doesn’t remain with the team permanently.