Going into the 2011-2012 season, many people wondered if the Toronto Maple Leafs had enough talent at the centre position. The Leafs had been having this problem for years on the top line, with a legitimate scoring forward playing down the middle on the second. While the problem hadn’t exactly been fixed by October 6 of this year, it appears as though Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly had shaped into a nice one-two punch down the middle.
Connolly was the Maple Leafs’ prized possession of the 2011 off-season. After failing to land Brad Richards, the Leafs immediately signed Connolly, as general manager Brian Burke and company knew─just as everyone else did─that an improvement had to be made one way or another.
Even with a proven centreman set to join the Leafs’ roster, though, no one was convinced that the team had enough at the position to compete for a playoff spot. After breakout seasons from Clarke MacArthur and some gradual improvement from Joffrey Lupul, the Leafs knew that they had enough talent on the wings to go along with Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin.
Mikhail Grabovski had played very well with Kulemin and MacArthur, but it was unknown if they would be able to continue that play into this season. They haven’t, which has made Burke and his staff look very smart by signing Connolly to a two-year contract, although seen as hefty in price by many.
Connolly brought both experience and talent to the Leafs. While he had struggled to stay in the lineup during his time with the Buffalo Sabres due to injury, he was very productive when he did play.
At first it was believed that Connolly may have great chemistry with Kessel. Their playing styles seemed to mesh perfectly, and they did for the first few weeks of the season. However, after a while it was time to try something new.
When Connolly was moved down to the second line, nothing changed. He continued to put up points and still is (six goals, nine assists, 15 games).
Not only is Connolly valuable five-on-five, but two of his six goals have come on the man advantage. His offensive skill set is enough to help run a power play and he has done so to the best of his ability.
On the penalty kill, Connolly is not afraid to back down from blocking shots. He has been great at getting in the passing lanes and taking away opportunities; unfortunately, the Leafs’ power play is still struggling.
Connolly has quite clearly rounded into a valuable second line centre. With MacArthur and more recently Colby Armstrong on his line, the 30-year-old has not slowed down one bit.
But with Connolly playing with the second trio rather than the first, who takes over the top spot? Tyler Bozak.
Bozak, 25, is coming off of a horrible sophomore season; he had just 32 points with a minus-29 rating through all 82 games, and was seen as a defensive liability at times. Turnovers and terrible reads put him in some nasty positions.
This season has been the exact opposite of terrible for Bozak, though. Rather than looking back on last season and focusing too much on correcting his mistakes, Bozak appears to have put his struggles behind him. He has emerged as a true two-way forward this season. While he still makes the odd mistake in his own end, Bozak has clearly improved both offensively and defensively.
Like Connolly, Bozak has seen some time on the power play. As the number one centre, Bozak has earned 70:20 of total power play ice time to date, good enough for fifth on the team and first among centres.
His speed and agility have helped him become the Leafs’ top-line centre, giving him the chance to play alongside the league’s most dangerous duo of Kessel and Lupul.
However, is he good enough to be considered a number one centre on any team? Certainly not; he’s more of a third line player, second at best.
With six goals and 13 assists through 29 games, Bozak is on pace to finish with 16 goals and 35 assists for 51 points in 80 games. While he is good enough to last on the top line as long as the Leafs need him to, a time is going to come where the Leafs will need to make a switch. No, not a trade or a free agent signing.
So, after all of that we have learned that the Leafs are still without a true top line centre. Tim Connolly can provide some scoring and certainly knows how to create plays, and Tyler Bozak is a solid two-way forward who can help out in just about every facet of the game. However, neither are first line material, meaning that is still an issue that the Maple Leafs must address.
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