The Toronto Maple Leafs finally had their prayers answered 11 months ago when they won the draft lottery to be able to select a legitimate #1 center Auston Matthews.
The club is stronger up-the-middle at the NHL level this season than they’ve been in recent memory, with Nazem Kadri scoring a career-high 27 goals and Tyler Bozak working well with linemates James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner, but the lack of organizational depth at center is something that GM Lou Lamoriello and Assistant GM Mark Hunter must address in the upcoming NHL Draft and over the summer.
Head coach Mike Babcock indicated that Bozak playing against the Philadelphia Flyers at Air Canada Center would be a game-time decision, after the center did not participate in Thursday’s morning skate.
Bozak missed one game in late February due to an infected cut on his hand and his absence would necessitate moving veteran Brian Boyle up in the lineup and inserting recently acquired Eric Fehr on the fourth line.
The Leafs in the short-term have journeyman Ben Smith and rookie Frederik Gauthier as depth options, but there is not much help available to them after that from the Toronto Marlies.
Sheldon Keefe’s crew is short-handed after dealing Byron Froese in the Boyle deal and shipping Colin Smith(AHL contract) to San Antonio. The Marlies have used winger Colin Greening up the middle at times and on Wednesday found it necessary to acquire veteran Cal O’Reilly on loan from the Rochester Americans.
After the season, Boyle and Smith are unrestricted free agents, Fehr(who has played mostly on the wing in his NHL career) is rumored to headed to Las Vegas in the expansion draft, which leaves Gauthier with the inside track for the fourth line job.
Babcock said last month that William Nylander (who played the entire 2015-16 season at center) will stay on the wing through next season, but could be moved back to the middle in 2018, which coincides with the end of Bozak’s contract.
The Leafs are chock full of promising forward prospects, but only 2012 draftee Dominic Toninato (a senior at Minnesota-Duluth) and 2016 fourth-rounder Adam Brooks are centers.
Toronto may look to the KHL as they did with Nikita Soshnikov and Nikita Zaitsev (rumors of interest in Ak-Bars Kazan’s Vladimir Tkachev surfaced last fall), but it is more likely that the Leafs scouting department will be looking for reinforcements at center almost as much as they will be defense in the early rounds of the draft in Chicago this June.