The Center Gamble
With the April 3rd trade deadline sneakily approaching, teams are starting to get more active. The Toronto Maple Leafs recently traded Mike Brown and Dave Steckel for a 4th round pick (conditional 3rd) and a 7th, respectively. These trades were purely to open up roster spots for returning forwards Matt Frattin and Joffrey Lupul.
But can Leafs Nation expected any big deals this 2013 trade deadline?
Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis is in his first year as the boss. This means - whether he realizes it or not - that he has as much job security now as he ever will. Being the GM of the Leafs is an awfully scrutinized position. Unless Nonis' Leafs start winning cups, his success will always be questioned, along with his job.
Nonis' current job security should encourage him to be bold this trade deadline. However, the Leafs have had long stints without two of their top-6 forwards, Frattin and Lupul. An assessment of the true capabilities of this team therefore becomes very difficult. The Leafs have had contender status at times this year; the February 9th 6-0 dismantling of the Habs was as dominant as anyone has been against the first-place Canadians this year. However, the Leafs have been in a funk as of late, losing 4 straight.
Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle likely don't even know themselves what this Leafs team can do.
Currently in 7th in the Eastern Conference, a finish between the 5th and 8th spot is expected, and finally a playoff birth. A first-round win would be a success. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine this team as a cup contender right now. But they have time. They are the second youngest team in the league (average age of 27.1). This is only the beginning for these Leafs.
Nonis should not trade young pieces or draft picks for a veteran to boost a playoff run. Previous Leafs GMs have had a tendency to do this, and it never works out.
One giant hole still remains, however: first line center. Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Frattin and Lupul form 5 of a solid top 6. Neither Tyler Bozak nor Mikhail Grabovski are capable of becoming a first line center. Kadri might be able, but he's not proven it yet. The farm system has no one to fill this role in the coming years, either. Joe Colborne and Greg McKegg have shown no indication that they can become top tier centers.
This leaves two options: trade or draft. With the Leafs only getting better, our draft position will only get worse. Finding a stud center at the 15-25 pick range won't be easy. Furthermore, if Nonis can steal a gem late, the player will probably need at least a couple of years to be NHL ready.
One option remains. Trade time.
Trading for a first line center is much easier said than done. Teams never want to part with them. Guys like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Jonathan Toews are obviously going nowhere.The key for Nonis is to find a standout center before he is considered unmovable. He must gamble on a center becoming elite. This gamble will presumably determine his legacy as GM of the Leafs.
Logan Couture might be a player Nonis should place his chips on. Couture is only 23 and is in his 3rd season. He was a 2012 NHL all-star. His previous two campaigns have been 30-goal years. Through 26 games, he has 12 goals and 21 points.
The San Jose Sharks currently sit in 8th in the immensely tight Western Conference; 14th place and 3rd is separated by just 6 points. They have not been living up to expectations after starting 7-0. The offense has been in a funk, and they have even been playing defenseman Brent Burns at forward! Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 33, Martin Havlat, 31, and Dan Boyle, 36, form an aging core. The Sharks have so much depth at center that they usually play Couture, James Sheppard, and Michal Handzus at the wing. A final Stanley Cup push will require a roster shake-up.
The asking price for Couture may be through the roof, in which case Nonis can't be blamed for not trying. But Couture is a restricted free agent come 2014, the same year Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, and Joe Pavelski are all unrestricted free agents. The Sharks would be smart to move someone soon.
The Leafs could package depth, a prospect, and a draft pick for Couture. Could Carl Gunnarsson, Clarke MacArthur, Stuart Percy, and a pick be enough? Who knows.
Couture is an ideal candidate, but he's not the only candidate. Patrick Berglund of the St. Louis Blues would be a project, but at 24 it might be time to see what he's got. He has 13 goals and 17 points in 27 games with 17 minutes of ice time. He likely isn't first line material, but might be worth a risk. Bryan Little is 25, and has yet to produce steady numbers despite his abundant talents. A change in scenery would do Little well. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier could blossom into first liners, but won't get the chance at center with superstar Claude Giroux there. The Philadelphia Flyers have been disappointing all year, and a shake-up surely couldn't hurt. Could Derek Stephan be pilfered from the New York Rangers? The Rangers have been underwhelming, and with Stephan due for a big payday at the end of the year, the Rangers could consider moving him.
There are various options for the Leafs to gamble on. Who can be realistically obtained isn't quite clear. What is clear, however, is that Nonis will have to gamble at some point on a first line center. And the time to gamble may as well be now.