There’s a handful of items that championship-caliber NHL teams have in common. Solid goaltending, sound defense and experience are a few of those items. That said, you will be hard-pressed to find a competitive NHL club that lacks depth at the center ice position.
The 2018-19 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues saw center Ryan O’Reilly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Fellow pivots Brayden Schenn and Tyler Bozak played vital roles. The runner-up Boston Bruins sport a dynamite top-two in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, while trade acquisition Charlie Coyle was a huge piece of the puzzle as the third-line center.
In the Eastern Conference alone, you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point with the Tampa Bay Lightning and even Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck of the Florida Panthers. The list goes on. While the Maple Leafs have their own deadly one-two punch in John Tavares and Auston Matthews, the depth was shaken up with the trade of long-time Maple Leaf pivot Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Maple Leafs’ center ice position and the depth they will carry into the 2019-20 season.
Leafs Nation hit the lottery in the summer of 2018 when John Tavares took his talents back to his hometown and signed a seven-year, $77-million contract, a deal that solidified the Maple Leafs as a true Stanley Cup contender.
Tavares certainly didn’t disappoint in his first season in blue and white as he put up career highs in both goals (47) and points (88) with his new club. While the 88 points he posted narrowly edged the 86 he tallied in the 2014-15 season, the 47 goals shattered the previous career high of 38 he posted in that same season. While he certainly didn’t learn how to score goals just 11 months ago in his first action with the Maple Leafs, there’s little doubt that Mitch Marner played a starring role in Tavares’ career season.
As a result, Marner’s ongoing contract negotiations are of particular importance to Tavares and his production. Considering Zach Hyman will miss time to begin the season, missing Marner as well means Tavares would be skating with two new wingers. Nonetheless, having Tavares — the NHL’s seventh-highest point-getter since entering the league in 2009-10 — atop your depth chart is something most teams in this league would accept in a heartbeat.
From the moment Matthews scored four goals in his first NHL game back on Oct. 12, 2016, in Ottawa, we knew he would be something special. He went on to score 40 goals in that rookie season; however, he has dealt with injuries in each of the last two seasons, missing 34 games in the process. He’s been as productive as ever, as his 111 goals since his NHL debut ranks fifth in the league despite playing far fewer games than his peers. To emphasize the potency of the Maple Leafs’ top two centers, it makes sense to consider who No. 3 on this list is as well.
For good measure, Matthews is also the NHL’s even-strength goals leader since his debut with 79, four more than Connor McDavid who has skated in 30 more games than the American center.
Matthews has been a positive possession player in each of his three seasons, however he continues to improve elsewhere on the ice, including in the face-off circle where he’s won 53.2% of his draws over the last two seasons. With a clean bill of health entering the season, one has to wonder if this is the season that he can set new career highs across the board while turning into a legitimate top-five player in the NHL.
Kerfoot, acquired in the same deal that saw Nazem Kadri shipped to Colorado, has spent time at both center and wing in his two-year NHL tenure. However, the expectation is that he will take Kadri’s vacated spot as the third-line center with the Maple Leafs this season.
After tallying 19 goals and 43 points as a rookie in 2017-18, Kerfoot managed 15 goals and 42 points in his sophomore 2018-19 campaign. His 19-goal rookie season came on the heels of an unsustainable 23.5% shooting percentage, but he came within arm’s length of that production last season despite a greatly-reduced 12.9% shooting percentage thanks to increasing his shot total from 81 to 116 — a difference that represents a 43% shot increase. That’s an encouraging figure entering season three.
Not only did Kerfoot improve his shot total dramatically a season ago, but he also increased his face-off winning percentage by a whopping 13.9% from just 42.1% in his rookie season to an impressive 56% last season. He’s also been an advanced stats darling with a 55.5% Corsi For% (CF%) at even strength across the first two seasons in the league. Whether he will represent an improvement over Kadri — whose advanced stats and face-off success were also favorable last year — or if he’s simply a cheaper, younger version remains to be seen. Either way, it appears the Maple Leafs got their hands on a young, reliable third-line center — and one that is among the most interesting players to watch on this team next season.
We’re not sure what the exact market for Spezza was this offseason after a couple of down years offensively on the back nine of his career, but it seemed both player and team were eager to unite on what turned out to be a league-minimum, one-year deal.
After spending 11 seasons with the rival Ottawa Senators, Spezza skated five seasons with the Dallas Stars, the first three of which were rather productive as he posted a healthy 0.78 point-per-game clip. However, over the last two seasons, he managed just 54 points across 154 games, good for a 0.35 points-per-game.
While the Maple Leafs should probably expect something similar from a points perspective in 2019-20, Spezza was brought in for more than goals and assists. On top of his leadership and experience, the team’s front office undoubtedly noticed his work in the face-off circle both throughout his career and of late. He cleaned up in the face-off dot to the tune of a 58.2% winning percentage last season, tied for the highest mark among players who took at least 800 draws last season. He owns a career face-off winning percentage of 53.8%, but he has eclipsed that number in six of his last seven seasons.
While Spezza has recorded just 54 points over the last two seasons, he has notched 23 of those points — or 42.6% — on the power play. He remains a well-above-average puck distributor, so expect him to be a focal point on the Maple Leafs’ second power play unit.
The man known in Leafs Nation as “The Goat” — a nickname closely attributed to his surname rather than his production on the ice — appears to once again be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Maple Leafs’ fourth-line center spot — a spot almost assured to Spezza, barring some lineup adjustments.
Gauthier has played in parts of four seasons with the Maple Leafs, but achieved a career-high 70 games in the 2018-19 campaign. In doing so, he logged just 8:22 of ice time per game and notched 3 goals and 11 assists for 14 points in the process. In his defense, he started a whopping 73.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone last year. Combined with his minimal ice time, it couldn’t be realistically expected for him to put up any sort of notable offensive figures. He also won face-offs at a career-high 53.7% last season, pushing his career mark to a solid 51.8%.
Still, Gauthier remains a rather one-dimensional player. His big body and reach were valued in the defensive zone, but in terms of puck skills and his abilities in the offensive zone, Spezza is just an upgrade that the Maple Leafs couldn’t resist. As noted, the major qualities he brings to the table in terms of experience, leadership, elite face-off ability and power play contributions are all aspects to the game that Gauthier does not carry with him. He’ll be on the outside looking in, but given the inevitability of injuries, the Maple Leafs are happy to have a familiar face — and a fan favorite — awaiting playing time down the middle.
After spending last season in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 26-year-old Nick Shore will return to North American hockey this season after signing a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs in late July.
The former Los Angeles Kings’ third-rounder will compete for a spot on the fourth line at training camp and could certainly play the right wing if needed — perhaps the only spot on the roster that is up for grabs to begin the season.
However, Shore has never scored more than six goals in an NHL season and notched just 3 goals and 16 points across 37 games in the KHL last season. His best NHL season came in 2016-17 when he skated in 70 games, scoring six goals and 17 points in that time. He will be in tough to make the club out of camp, but thanks to his NHL experience, would represent one of the top names to get the call should the Maple Leafs run into some injury woes up front.
Nic Petan / William Nylander
Here’s a case of two players likely to crack the opening night roster — Nylander’s obviously a lock — who can both slide to center in a pinch. In his case, he skated at center during the Maple Leafs’ first-round series against Boston last season after Kadri was suspended and played well in doing so.
In Petan’s case, his best shot at making the team will be as the team’s fourth-line winger, though he has experience at center as well. If a full-time Maple Leafs center were injured and set to miss time, it’s more likely than not that either Gauthier or Shore will slot in down the middle. However, for an in-game pinch, both Nylander and Petan are options to help out at center.
A diehard hockey fan from the get go, Brenton has honed his craft covering hockey on a journalistic basis at such sites as thesportsgeek.com and FantasyPros. While he maintains an interest in a wide variety of sports, hockey has always reigned supreme. After years working in the investment industry, Brenton decided to follow his true passion and turned to hockey journalism on a full-time basis.