Leafs Off Season: First Line Center Search

The biggest hole in the Leafs lineup that GM Brian Burke has been trying to fill for a couple of summers now is the first line center role and that hole in the lineup still exists and needs to be addressed before the Leafs can be serious playoff contenders.  Tyler Bozak was given a chance and failed (though it was probably overly optimistic to expect him to be that level of player) and the hopes of getting a top center in a Kaberle trade also did not pan out (though Colborne is a fine center prospect and may be a quality center a few years from now).  High first round draft pick Nazem Kadri is another option but as of yet hasn’t developed into that level of player.  That said, if nothing changes Kadri is the guy penciled into that role but that wouldn’t be an ideal situation entering the 2011-12 season.  Not only is that putting a lot of pressure on Kadri (who has enough on his shoulders already)  but some within the organization have suggested Kadri might be better suited as a winger than a center.  Regardless of the reason, Burke is desperately in search of a true, established first line center.  Let me take a look at a few of the options.

The only real first line center option in the unrestricted free agent market is Brad Richards.  At 31 years of age he probably has at least 4 or 5 really good seasons left in him and he is a very good playmaker and overall offensive player and likely be a significant boost to the woeful Leafs power play but he is a liability defensively which is a concern for me.  The question is, what are you willing to pay for him as there will be ample competition for his services from Dallas, the NY Rangers and probably others.  Since Burke is against handing out long term deals more than 5 years it may cost Burke 5 years at $8-8.5M per season to get Richards signed.  The Leafs have the cap space to do it, but should they commit that much to Richards?  Would you? Personally, I think if you can get him for $8M or less you do it.  Anything more is getting a bit rich.

The other option for filling the first line center hole is through trade.  Two teams that I can think of that are deep at center and may be (or need to be) looking to make changes are the Flyers and the Sharks.  The Flyers have depth at center, very little cap space, would like to re-sign Ville Leino (but would be at a significant increase in salary) and need to spend some money improving their goalie situation as well (Vokoun?).  They have Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Danny Briere, James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux who have or can play center.  I’d love to see a Jeff Carter or James van Riemsdyk in a Leaf uniform but van Riemsdyk is still on a cheap rookie contract so doesn’t really solve the Flyers money issues and Carter has one of those long term deals that Burke doesn’t like to hand out.  Briere would probably be available and not cost much but his cap hit is $6.5M for four more seasons and he’ll be turning 34 around the time the 2011-12 season starts so he isn’t really someone I see Burke being interested in.

San Jose just suffered another playoff disappointment at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks so one has to wonder if they finally bite the bullet and make a significant change to their core group of forwards.  They have Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and my rookie of the year pick Logan Couture as players able to play the center position and all are capable of being first or second line centers.  Of the four, Pavelski might be the most ‘available’ but he is also probably the least suitable as a first line center so I am not sure the Sharks are an ideal trading partner for a center.

Another player that the Leafs might be able to trade for is Paul Stastny.  There were rumours of his availability at the trade deadline but I am not sure how significant those rumours were.  Stastny is a very good offensive player who would definitely fit into the Leafs #1 center slot.  People wonder why the Avalanche would want to trade Stastny and the answer is in an ideal world they probably would not but attendance and revenue have been falling and trading their most expensive player may be a way to save some money.  Furthermore, they have Matt Duchene who is a developing superstar in the league and will be the Avalanche’s #1 center for the next decade and who knows who they will be able to draft with their high pick in this years draft.  That means if the right deal came along they would probably listen.  Would the Leafs be willing to trade, one of the first round picks they have, a roster player and probably a quality prospect or two for Stastny?  Maybe.

Should the Dallas Stars find a way to re-sign Brad Richards then certainly they would make Mike Ribiero available for trade (if he’d waive his no trade clause).  Ribiero is a good playmaker so that makes him a good fit for playing with Kessel but like Kessel is weak defensively and lacks size so that probably isn’t a good combination.

Another center often rumoured as being available on the trade market is Florida Panther Stephen Weiss.  While Weiss is a good player, he is kind of like Pavelski in that he is not really a true #1 center and may be better suited for a second line role.  That said, if given better players to play with maybe

The only other center that might be available is Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils.  I have my doubts that the Devils would trade Zajac who is on a reasonable contract, but they also need to find some cap space to re-sign Zach Parise and of all their other forwards, Zajac would be the easiest to move (no one wants the contracts of Rolston or Elias and probably not Zubrus either).  Zajac is kind of like Pavelski and Weiss in that he may not be a true top #1 center but he has played that role in New Jersey, has good playmaking skills and is solid defensively which would be welcome along side Kessel who isn’t as sound defensively.

There have been some people suggesting that the Leafs might make a run at a guy like Steven Stamkos via restricted free agency.  Unless Stamkos has made the decision that he doesn’t want to play with the Lightning and wants to move on (which I highly) then we should consider these rumours as unlikely to come true.  Burke may very well want Stamkos but I highly doubt that Tampa GM Steve Yzerman would let him go at any price and they have ample cap space to keep him.

Here is a table with the player ratings for last season and for the past 4 seasons combined for the top centers that I believe are (or could be) available via free agency or trade.

Player 2010-11 HARO+ 2010-11 HARD+ 2010-11 HART+ 2007-11 HARO+ 2007-11 HARD+ 2007-11 HART+
Brad Richards 1.300 1.051 1.175 1.030 0.833 0.931
Jeff Carter 1.394 1.215 1.305 1.109 1.017 1.063
Daniel Briere 1.368 0.966 1.167 1.075 0.876 0.975
Joe Pavelski 1.088 1.036 1.062 0.912 1.079 0.996
Paul Stastny 1.105 0.915 1.010 1.107 0.926 1.017
Stephen Weiss 1.000 0.843 0.921 1.033 0.985 1.009
Mike Ribeiro 1.223 0.835 1.029 1.076 0.929 1.003
Travis Zajac 0.966 0.933 0.950 0.924 1.139 1.032

Of those players Brad Richards is the easiest obtainable player as he is a restricted free agent and his playmaking skills would be a nice addition to Kessel’s line, but I have my reservations about bringing in another weak defensive player.  But, if the price was right ($7.5M or less) he’d have to be seriously considered because it costs nothing to get him.  My gut tells me that the Rangers will throw whatever money is needed at him to get him signed (and deal with the salary cap ramifications afterwards) so I highly doubt Richards ends up a Leaf.

Carter is probably the best of the bunch but is more of a scorer than a playmaker making him less of a match for Kessel’s line.  Furthermore, if the Flyers made him available there will be a lot of teams interested who might be willing to give up more to get him and who the Flyers might be more interested in trading him to (i.e. out of conference).  On one level Carter to the Leafs makes some sense, but I struggle to see it happening.

Briere would be cheaper to acquire but is too old and will likely be a salary cap liability in a couple years and Burke probably wants to go with a younger player.  Ribeiro would be cheap to acquire too but I don’t see Burke having any interest in him.  Stastny is probably the only other player with true first line offensive talent and isn’t as weak defensively as Richards so he might be the best player to target but it will cost a lot to acquire him (think a first round pick and maybe Joe Colborne or Kadri and probably another prospect or pick).

Pavelski and Zajac are interesting options as they are less of an offensive presence but would provide a nice defensive presence on Kessel’s line while Weiss might be a bit better offensively.  Any of these three guys would be decent secondary targets if the Leafs fail to acquire Richards, Carter or Stastny but won’t give them a true first line offensive center.

So Leaf fans, who would you like to see as the Leafs first line center?  Sign Richards as a UFA?  Trade for Carter or Stastny?  Trade for a secondary center like Pavelski, Zajac or Weiss?  Or simply wait and see if Kadri and/or Colborne develop?

This article has 8 Comments

  1. I say that Briere would be an ideal target, if he’s willing to move his NMC. Yes, he costs a lot of money for another four years, but that makes him an ideal target. Phillie wants to get cap space off the books, and 6.5 mil for another 4 years is a big load off their chests.

    A trade for Carter would require giving up too much, in addition to any draft picks, such as a current roster player. Who are you willing to give up? It’d have to be from defense, since that’s the only place we’re deep. Maybe Gunnarsson, if the Phillies want him, but that’s about it. Anyone from forward would be too much to give up. Kulemin? Grabbo? Kadri, now that’s he’s finally showing promise? No, we’re too thin there.

    A trade for Briere, if he’s willing, would be much easier. Since we’re doing the Flyers a favour by taking so much money from their cap space, and they’re doing us a favour since we have no 1st line centre, we’re on even terms for a deal. Who knows what the price would be, but I’d be willing to bet it could be done for just picks, maybe a 1st and a pair of 2nds, or even better?

  2. I would love it if the Leafs could land Richards, and I wouldn’t be opposed to overpaying Richards given that there is so much cap space. The market is dictating that top Centres are at a super premium, most teams are locking up their stud centres long term. (More on Jeff Carter later) The main drawback with giving Richards the amount of money he would require for his services (7 to 8 years, 55 to 65 million) will be the even greater amount of scrutiny he will receive every day of his career in Toronto. Anything short of the next Doug Gilmour would be considered an overpayment. If he is up for that challenge of playing in that pressure cooker, amazing. Does Richards want to do that? I don’t know. Am I making a bigger deal about this than needed? Maybe? Does Burke WANT a 7-8 year contract? Probably not. He might have no choice if he wants to court the idea of signing him though. The Stars may re-sign him, the Rangers or Kings may trade for his rights, it might not even be an option anyway.

    While a trade for a Centre like Carter or Stastny could be a potential avenue as well, and you can trust Burkie to pull off a big trade, I would like to suggest another UFA possibility: Tim Connolly.

    At first glance I was not impressed with the idea of Connolly as a Leaf, however considering all the options I think it would be a good fit.

    The Leafs needs: A set up man for Kessel. I like Bozak but better suited as a 2nd or 3rd Centre though.
    An improved powerplay.
    An improved penalty kill.

    Connolly’s strengths are his special teams. Similar to Richards, Connolly can play the point on the PP so if the leafs wanted they could put him on with the Grabo line OR put Bozak/Kadri/Colborne on a PP and give us some different looks.
    He was a trusted Penalty Killer, was Ruff’s go-to in 5 on 3 SH situations.

    Connolly has a reputation of being injury prone, i’m hoping having players like Orr, Brown and Aulie to protect our skill players might help over the course of the season.

    2 years at 4-5 Million would get you a player without giving up any assets. I’m not sure if Connolly would be looking for 3+ years, it may be a stretch for him to ask for that given his past injuries and last season being a down year for him.
    After 2 years we might have a better idea if Kadri/Colborne/or another current prospect is ready for a first line center role.

    In summary: Connolly- A First Line Center whose strength is in special teams that if successful would be obtained for nothing and if a failure would buy our prospects 2 years to develop.

    1. Connolly is a good player with good play making skills but he is too injury prone for my liking. In the six seasons since the lockout he has played 63, 2, 48, 48, 73, and 68 games. If I were confident in his health, maybe, but with his health issues he’d be well down on my list of centers I’d like to see the Leafs acquire and even then only on a shorter term contract (no more than 3 years).

  3. I’m surprised that nobody has given mention to Richard’s previous concussion. To me, this is the single biggest reason why I hope Burke doesn’t pursue him.

    Why give anyone any length of contract past a season when he hasn’t even really been fully tested? You know the Rangers will, but they pay any amount for anything.

    I like Stastny and Carter. Stastny is a better fit given Carter’s tendancy to shoot first.

  4. I see Toronto as the frontrunners for Richards. Rangers have alot of money that they have to get rid of plus i see Toronto giving him the best contract.

  5. Paul Statsny would be a great option for the leafs. As a guy who has put up 80 points before, with about 60 of those being asists, he would set up Kessel great. Pavelski, Zajac, or possibly David Backes should also be considered.

    1. Good prediction. As I said above, I don’t mind Connolly but I am glad it isn’t for a long term commitment. Fills the gap between now and when Kadri or Colborne are ready or when a better first line center is found. I am happy with the signing.

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