The 2016-17 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been exciting. This young team has proven to be a fast and skilled bunch whose success is being driven largely by speed and pressuring the opposition on every play. We are past the quarter point on the season and many questions that surrounded the team in training camp have been answered. The team is progressing nicely and it’s the kids who are driving the bus. But we have yet to see how the line combinations will play out and for this team to keep progressing there will need to be some changes. Which brings me to a question that has been on my mind recently…Are the Leafs about to trade a center?
Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that the Leafs brass is certainly toying with the idea and a case can be made some of the happenings surrounding the team as of late may be a window into what Babcock and company have planned for 2017 and beyond.
Here are 5 points leading me to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs are about to trade a center who plays regularly.
1 – Let’s start with William Nylander
Much has been made the last few weeks about Nylander’s work ethic and commitment to defence, and for the record I’m having none of it. Granted my opinion is based solely on the much maligned “eye test” but from what these eyes tell me, William Nylander is a hard working young man who is consistently skating hard and back checking with regularity. What he is guilty of however is of making youthful mistakes that most young forwards make when attempting to break into the NHL full time (That and having commercial grade hair). Now Mike Babcock is a smart and reasonable man, and as such it is highly unlikely that he woke up one morning and thought “I’m going to punish William Nylander by putting him on the 4th line with Matt Martin and Ben Smith….but at center”. This little experiment is clearly a test as to whether Nylander can handle the defensive responsibilities of being an NHL center. Putting him on the 4th line allows the Leafs to limit his exposure and turn up the difficulty when they see fit by moving him up in the lineup.
2 – Brian Burke
This week when he went on his “Dougie Hamilton skates like a deer” tour, it was classic Burke. Full of bluster, insults and raging about leaks and the media. Say what you want about the man but he is a quote machine that is unequalled. Now this particular rant was classic Burke in all regards but one….he didn’t slam the Toronto media. In fact he went out of his way to state that the leak regarding Hamilton did not originate in the Toronto organization or even the Toronto media. He instead blamed an as of yet unnamed “idiot GM” (cough…John Chayka). Now it’s clear to most that Calgary and Toronto have recently engaged in some sort of trade discussions that resulted in Flames GM Brad Treliving taking in the Leafs – Capitals game on November 26th and Leafs Assistant GM Kyle Dubas attending the Sabres – Flames game on November 21st. If these trade talks actually occurred then it is reasonable to assume that Burke has a pretty good idea of what Lou Lamoriello is looking to do and if so, that explains why he was so sure the leak didn’t come from Toronto. Looking at the Flames roster and comparing it to the Leafs, one thing becomes clear: 3 of the Leafs 4 centers have outscored every Flames center so far this season. If the Flames are looking for an upgrade at center, the Leafs may be a team that is a fitting dance partner.
3 – The emergence of Nazem Kadri
For all intents and purposes, Nazem Kadri has had a breakout year. In the offseason, Kadri signed a 6 year, 27 million dollar deal with an AAV of 4.5 million. With 10 goals and 7 assists for 17 points in 24 games and usually drawing the toughest defensive assignment this season, he has certainly lived up to the contract. His name has even been mentioned as a possible Selke trophy candidate. So there are two ways to look at this: The team can sell high on Kadri, with the team acquiring him receiving a young, two way player with upside on a long term, team friendly deal or, the Leafs may be more confident than ever that Kadri is in their long term plans and decide to move Tyler Bozak who himself has 5 goals, 12 assists for 17 points in 24 games. It is worth noting that either of these players would immediately become Calgary’s highest point producing center this season. If Nylander makes the move to center permanently, one of Kadri or Bozak would have to go and Burke is obviously very familiar with both players.
4 – Mike Babcock’s prediction for Auston Matthews
Back on November 15th, with Auston Matthews in the middle of a goal scoring drought, Mike Babcock had this to say about the Leafs prized young centerman:
“We need him to be a dominant, dominant center for us and we think he’s going to be by Christmas time. We think he’s a very good player already, but we think he can be lights out both with and without the puck”.
The key part of that quote is the time frame. “Christmas time” is a couple of weeks away and I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that as the calendar turned from November to December, Babcock began experimenting with Nylander at center. If the Leafs expect Matthews to be dominant, there’s only one place for him in the lineup to accomplish that. First line center. In which case one of Kadri or Bozak would need to be traded as Nylander will not be centering the 4th line for very long.
5 – Lou Lamoriello
Lou Lamoriello has been known to run his front office as if it were the Pentagon. Leaks rarely happen and usually when they have it was by design. The history of the Leafs general manager suggests that when real trade talks are occurring, the cone of silence descends and word does not get out. Most trades that Lou makes come out of nowhere, without a rumour of the players involved showing up in the media. To that end, the only Leaf center that people are expecting to be traded is Peter Holland and that was definitely cleared by the Leafs brass as it was Holland’s agent who disclosed it. If the Leafs are throwing around the idea of trading a regular center off the roster, it is part of Lamoriello’s modus operandi to keep the talks silent and even create a smoke screen by allowing other names to leak. It’s interesting the Peter Holland disclosure happened when it did.
So if the Leafs do indeed trade a center, what would their lineup look like? For starters, assuming the Leafs are targeting a defenceman, they would most likely call up a player from the Marlies to fill the void on the wing. The smart money would be on Kasperi Kapanen who has 11 goals and 9 assists for 20 points in 21 games so far for the baby Leafs. Let’s have a look:
van Riemsdyk Matthews Marner
Hyman Nylander Brown
Komarov Kadri/Bozak Kapanen
Martin Smith Soshnikov
To me, this lineup looks more like a Mike Babcock coached team and gives the Leafs 3 very dangerous scoring lines. In my opinion, it is inevitable that Matthews and Marner will end up on the same line eventually and when it happens it has the potential to be a dominant line in the NHL for a long, long time.
Let’s face it. We just don’t know if the Leafs intend to trade a center and even if they do, it’s not easy finding a fit with another team in today’s NHL landscape. With that said, I am convinced that even if a trade does not come to fruition, the Leafs are at the very least exploring the possibility of trading either Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri and preparing as if it is going to get done. William Nylander is far too skilled to be on the 4th line and has the skillset to command his own line at center. It makes sense to make him a top 6 centerman on this team.
Matthews and Nylander as a 1-2 punch down the middle? Yes please.