Leafs Delivering With Depth at Centre

There was so much chatter about the need for a shutdown defenceman as the Toronto Maple Leafs entered this week’s lead up to the NHL Trade Deadline. But on Sunday, they made a move to shore up their depth down the middle by acquiring veteran centre, Tomas Plekanec, from their rival Montreal Canadiens.

The acquisition cost the Leafs two prospects along with a second-round pick in upcoming NHL Draft — a draft in which the Leafs do hold another second-rounder. While the Leafs might still be in the market for a defenceman as Monday’s deadline looms, what they did do with this trade is give themselves arguably one of the best depth charts down the middle as they head toward a playoff run.

Leafs Left in Good Shape

While the Leafs did give up two prospects in the deal in Rinat Valiev and Kerby Rychel, they didn’t jeopardize their future in any way.

Related: Canadiens Trade Plekanec to Maple Leafs

Rychel’s struggled to find a way into the NHL, both with the Columbus Blue Jackets (who drafted him in 2013) and with the Leafs. That said, he’s had two good seasons with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies since the Leafs traded for him in 2016 – tallying 52 points in 73 games in 2016-17 and 30 points in 55 games so far in 2017-18. Still, he never cracked the Leafs lineup and, with the depth of their prospect pool, simply found himself as the odd man out in Toronto.

Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec
Plekanec has been a major piece for the Canadiens for his entire career. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

As for Valiev, he was falling into a similar spot to Rychel’s in the Leafs’ system. Drafted in 2014 by Toronto, the third-round pick played just 10 games for the Leafs in 2015-16, but spent most of his time over the past three seasons with the Marlies.

While he reached 23 points in 60 games in 2015-16, his first full season with the Marlies, he’s been more of a defensive defenceman over his career with the Marlies. That said, he did have 15 points in 40 games for the Marlies before he was moved in the Plekanec deal.

Finally, the Leafs shipped out a 2018 second-round pick – arguably the most valuable asset they gave up. That being said, they still own a second-round pick in the draft that originally belonged to the San Jose Sharks.

The biggest hope for the Leafs heading into the deadline was that they better their club without forfeiting their future – a goal they were able to stick to in bringing in Plekanec.

What Plekanec Brings to Toronto

Maybe a surprising acquisition, Plekanec adds even more depth to a team that seems to have a bunch down the middle. Assume for a second that Auston Matthews isn’t dealing with an injury and imagine this team healthy. What you’re left with is Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Plekanec – in no exact order.

Now, assuming the Leafs don’t move Bozak before the deadline, that leaves Dominic Moore as the odd man out at centre. That’s a good problem to have.

Dominic Moore Maple Leafs
Dominic Moore might be the odd man out for the Leafs down the middle. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Plekanec, the Leafs get a penalty killer. They get a shutdown, two-way centre. And they get one of the better fourth lines in the Eastern Conference. Plekanec, alongside Kapanen and possibly Leivo provides the Leafs with a quick, skilled bottom six.

On top of all that, Plekanec provides the young Leafs with yet another veteran. He brings 981 games of regular season experience and nearly 100 games of postseason experience – something the team could definitely use with their lack of experience when it comes to the playoffs.

He’s a puck possession player and while his career Corsi-for Percentage might not show that definitively, at 49.6 CF%, his numbers over recent campaigns is much more to the liking of those engaged in advanced statistics. In fact, this season he’s 51.3 CF% and over the last three seasons he’s closer to the 52 CF% mark. As for his Fenwick this season, he is much better than his career number (49.7 FF%) at 52.3% over 60 games with Montreal.

Tomas Plekanec Montreal Canadiens
Plekanec will slot in on the third or fourth line to give the Leafs major depth down the middle. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If that wasn’t enough, the Canadiens will retain 50 percent of Plekanec’s remaining contract which will allow the Leafs to still add another $3.4 million to their cap, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

The Leafs also picked up 25-year-old Kyle Baun who has 16 points in 54 games for the AHL’s Laval Rocket this season.

While Baun won’t be a big piece for the Leafs this season, Plekanec, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, is the big catch for a team that will look to top last year’s first-round exit.

The Leafs at Centre

Now consider this, with Matthews healthy, the Leafs have four centres that are averaging a combined 0.64 points per game. That’s led by a 20-year-old who has 50 points in 53 games – an average of 0.94 points per game.

Regardless of whether Plekanec lines up on the third of fourth line (fourth being more likely), his ability to play at both ends of the ice will give the Leafs four lines that should be tough to play against – in theory.

Among the four middle men, Bozak might be their weakest link defensively. Matthews has developed into a worthy two-way player and Kadri has bought into the role as the Selke-type player on the team. While each of them will be able to learn something from the newly acquired veteran, what he does on the ice will be what defines the depth of the Leafs at the centre position for the remainder of the season.