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Photo Credit: John Hefti / USA TODAY Sports

Leafs Potentially Shopping For a 3rd Line Center

With apologies to everyone who was dead set on Tavares coming to Toronto, it looks like the 3rd line center position will not belong to Nazem Kadri. It also looks as if the plans aren’t to move William Nylander over to the middle anytime soon.

Buried in thought 23 on Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts:

23. Pittsburgh has shown legit interest in Max Domi there’s a long history between Tie Domi and Mario Lemieux.

Toronto is looking for a third-line centre, Tampa Bay a right-shot defenceman.

I’m curious to see what the Rangers do with Vladislav Namestnikov. He’s arbitration eligible, and the numbers are very good.

We’ll skip past the fact that those seem like 4 separate thoughts, and focus on how this affects the Leafs.

Bye, Bye Bozak

I think a lot of people have come to appreciate what Bozak has provided for the Leafs in the past couple of years, and he’s proven that he has value beyond being Kessel’s personal center.

At the same time, Bozak being a defensive black hole isn’t exactly prototypical of a Mike Babcock center and I’m sure the team is content to move on at this point.

Free Agency Options

It makes sense to start here since that’s probably the most feasible way of addressing a bit more of a depth position. By the nature of free agency the Leafs would be going with an older option here, again something that could appeal to Mike Babcock, as well as Dubas, if older also means going short term. A one or two year deal would avoid any future complications with the Matthews, Marner, Kapanen, and Gardiner contracts which will take effect in 2019-20.

The best options:

Joe Thornton: The Leafs might wish to consider their newly established trend of being the San Jose Sharks retirement home and see if Joe Thornton can be brought in for a year. It’s a chance to reunite him with Marleau, join a contending team, work with Mike Babcock again, and play in his old backyard.

From a Leafs perspective, they’d have a very respectable 1-2-3 with Matthews, Kadri, and Thornton, as long as Thornton’s back issues aren’t a bigger worry than I assumed by putting him on the list. Certainly going with a year by year contract from Thornton would be the ideal, but is that enough to get him to leave San Jose? Does he just want to take what he can get there?

Valtteri Filppula: He was around for much of the Babcock era in Detroit, and who am I to say whether familiarity is a pro or a con here. Filppula wasn’t kept around in Detroit, so I’m going to say these two aren’t looking to be reunited, and there’s also the fact that Filppula might be more of a fourth line center option at this point in his career. The biggest appeal seems to be that he’d be cheap and take short term.

Derek Ryan or Riley Nash: I’m lumping the two of these players together since they are both “off the radar”, but very much on the radar options. Neither of these players would have earned much consideration for this role prior to last season, but they may have played their way up to it. The downside of that, is they are both probably going to get a decent raise and require a bit of term. There is also a gamble of whether they can keep it up with a new organization and you may be stuck with expensive fourth line depth instead. If Dubas isn’t as risk averse as I am, he might consider them.

Tomas Plekanec: It could happen. It probably won’t and it also shouldn’t be something we really want, but as time moved on Plekanec demonstrated he was serviceable for the Leafs provided he wasn’t asked to do the heavy lifting.

You’ll notice that I’ve left Paul Stastny off this list. Stastny’s salary and term will likely exclude him from Leafs consideration. The moral of the story is that outside of Tavares, Stastny, and Thornton there really isn’t a way of addressing the center situation in free agency. Maybe it’s time to revisit Bozak?

Trade Options

I feel like I’m pulling names out of the ether here. The name that is most out there as far as centers go is Ryan O’Reilly, and would require a hefty payment on behalf of the Leafs. The upside to that is they would have something very close to a 1A, 1B, 1C situation with their centers, similar to if they pursued John Tavares.

I’ll make a couple of assumptions here and assume the Leafs are looking to find someone inline with Babcock’s belief that centers should be two way players, especially in a bottom six role. I’ll also assume that the Leafs options would primarily be limited to teams that are likely to be bad next season or looking to dump some salary. Here are the centers that fit those perimeters…

Artem Anisimov: He doesn’t really fit with the Babcock center philosophy, but as part of the annual Blackhawks salary dump, he could be an option for the Leafs. The advantage here would be not having to give up a significant asset.

Tyler Johnson: If the Lightning need to start shedding salary, Johnson might be the player that has to go. It’s doubtful he goes within the division and to one of the teams that will be most competitive with Tampa, so we can probably rule him out, but he’s probably the best name that I’ll put on this list.

Nick Bjugstad: Here’s an absolute prototypical third line center option that Mike Babcock would probably be quite smitten with. There has been some mention of Bjugstad being available in the past and dealing with Dale Tallon is something we should hope the Leafs will do, albeit it would be better to take one of their right shooting defensemen.

Sam Bennett: I personally commit some time every month to reflect on what the Leafs should do if the Flames give up on Sam Bennett. There’s some risk associated with adding Bennett and he’s still not going to be cheap, but the idea of potentially adding another 21 year old to the core of the Leafs puts him on the list.

Darren Helm: I could see Helm being someone that Babcock would lobby for. Detroit is a long way from being good, and Helm isn’t young. It’s probably best to gain some cap flexibility and middling prospects for the long road ahead. That said, Helm isn’t young or cheap, and aside from potentially appeasing Babcock, I’m not sure why you’d add someone who never hit 40 points or 20 goals in a season.

Jason Spezza: Depending on if he gets bought out or not, Spezza could either be a trade or free agent option. His one year remaining makes his current contract appealing, but something similar should be achieved through free agency. Giving Spezza some talented wingers to work with he could at least be a Bozak replacement for the season. If the Leafs were interested in more of a two-way center option, the Stars are also overpaying Martin Hanzal for what he does, though committing to a second year of an aging reclamation project seems less appealing.

Mathieu Perreault: There is a lot of interest in bringing Paul Stastny back for another year in Winnipeg, and in that situation Perreault could be the odd man out. Perreault has been consistently good for the Jets, but his age may be catching up with him, as can be said for most players entering their 30s. He’d certainly be worth considering, but I wonder if the Jets will try to move out Little instead.

That’s a healthy list of “yeah, right” and “god no” options and I’m sure the truth will fall somewhere in between. That truth might be some of the arbitration eligible restricted free agents like Riley Sheahan and Boone Jenner, who would fit a 3rd line role comfortably. In both cases, I can’t see their teams not qualifying them or being overly worried about the cap hit assigned in arbitration.

What if They Don’t Replace Bozak

The Leafs still aren’t picking from the worst possible options here, and may be better off going this route anyway.

William Nylander needs to get a look an extended look at center to know completely what the Leafs have in him. Going through a full training camp as a center would probably give him a better chance of being successful.

Patrick Marleau has played more than enough center in his lifetime that he should be capable of reprising the role in a sheltered capacity.

Miro Aaltonen is a stretch, and probably needs to be considered for a fourth line center role or 13th forward role before leapfrogging him into the top 9, but his skill set says he could be an option and he’s got some familiarity with Johnsson and Kapanen, who will definitely be in the NHL next season.

In Closing

We’re still riding the high of living in a world where teams are giving up assets for the rights to Nolan Vesey. Everything seems possible, and it’s an amazing time to be alive. It’s a little early to really know what will happen next because we’ve just seen the buyout window open, and we’re still likely a week away from teams knowing what the salary cap will be next season.

Once the salary cap has been established things become a little more clear about what teams are going to do and we won’t have to cast such a wide net with our speculation.

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