“If the player wants to be here and we want him, my experience has been that generally we find a way to make it happen.”
– GM Dave Nonis, April 3, in regards to a possible Tyler Bozak extension.
It’s worrisome if you believe Bozak, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ weakest link among their top-nine centres. The statistics support that claim, as Bozak seems to excel at faceoffs and not much else. His defensive play is suspect and he’s generally a passenger on the top line considering the amount of ice time he receives. He leads all Maple Leafs in time on ice per game with 20:09 and he’s third in power play minutes among forwards with 3:06 per game.
Still, Randy Carlyle has cemented Bozak on the top line and he remains one of the only players who has yet to shift lines. It’s a strange decision on Carlyle’s part as he generally seems to sit or demote players based on snap judgments. Mikhail Grabovski ranks third on the Maple Leafs in quality of competition faced and he continues to play tough minutes with only 36.4 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive end. Despite this, Grabovski remains in Carlyle’s doghouse and has been the subject of criticism from his coach.
One has to wonder if Grabovski, who signed a five-year contract extension last season, still has a future with the Maple Leafs. If Bozak is indeed re-signed that would leave the Maple Leafs with an identical depth chart down the middle.
It’s unlikely Nonis believes his centres are good enough to compete among the elite in the NHL so one has to assume changes are on the horizon in that area. Nazem Kadri will certainly be re-signed as restricted free agent this summer and the same goes for Joe Colborne, who’s scoring at a near point-per-game pace in the second half of the Toronto Marlies’ season. Colborne is 23 years old and could be ready for a promotion to the big club come training camp next season.
What happens then? Jay McClement is a lock on the team and should slot in as the fourth line centre. That would leave Bozak, Grabovski, Kadri and Colborne fighting for three centre spots. Even if Colborne shifts to the wing, which he may have to do in order to eventually crack the roster, the Maple Leafs’ centre position is still lacking on the top line.
It should be clarified that Bozak is not a bad player. In fact, he’s probably an above average third line centre and his faceoff abilities are certainly useful in certain situations. But if Toronto fails to upgrade their first line centre position externally, doing so internally should at least be considered.
If Bozak walks as a free agent, that would free up the first line centre position for Kadri or Grabovski. Both are probably better-suited as second line centres but it’s still an upgrade over Bozak. That would also allow Colborne to slot in as the third line centre if he has an impressive training camp.
Alternatively, if the Maple Leafs recognize Bozak as a third line centre and pay him accordingly, that’s also an option. That seems unlikely, however, as Carlyle currently plays him more than Kadri and Grabovski. So if that were to happen it would likely mean the end of Grabovski in Toronto, as Kadri is a lock and Nonis would look to upgrade at centre in the off-season.
There simply wouldn’t be any room for Grabovski on the depth chart unless Carlyle used him properly as a second line centre, which seems unlikely at this point.
To further elaborate on that point, re-signing Bozak as a third line centre would require an external acquisition, preferably via trade as the free agent market is rather bare at centre, with Derek Roy being the only decent option available.
The Maple Leafs have limited options to upgrade at centre should they choose to re-sign Bozak. Kadri and Grabovski are better options as top-six centres but with Carlyle’s inexplicable preference of Bozak as the top line centre it seems unlikely either of them get a promotion unless Toronto decide to hire a new coach, which is unlikely.
With that in mind, the best option for the Maple Leafs may be to let Bozak walk and either trade for a first line centre or roll Kadri-Grabovski-Colborne as the top-nine centres next season, which seems the unlikely option.