Of all the frustrating aspects of an NHL season, nothing irritates and stresses out a fan base more than the injury bug. Whether it is a lot of injuries, or injuries to key players, many anxious moments occur. Toronto has found themselves in one of these bugs early this season. However by a stroke of extraordinary bad luck, the Leafs’ top three centres have been wiped out. It is tough overcoming injuries in such a significant position and how General Manager Dave Nonis and Head Coach Randy Carlyle react will be crucial in the team maintaining pace in the competitive Atlantic Division.
Under the regimes of Pat Quinn and John Ferguson Jr. the early part of the last decade was riddled with ill-advised trades and quick fixes, leaving few prospects in the system. Overall there was a serious lack of depth in the entire organization. This improved under former General Manager Brian Burke and has continued under Nonis, as there is a lot of young talent in the system. Defense and Left Wing in particular have a variety of talent and potential. One position that still lacks in depth however is the Centre.
Ever since the retirement of the legendary Mats Sundin, centre depth has eluded the team. Matt Stajan, Tim Connolly, and Tyler Bozak have all been used in the role of number one centre, to varying degrees of success. Additionally, several prospects and acquisitions have not panned out, including Joe Colborne, Matthew Lombardi, and Keith Aucoin. Although the past few drafts have focused on rectifying the problem, adding Tony Cameranesi, Dominic Toninato, Frederic Gauthier, and Carter Verhaeghe, many of these additions are in college or junior and are therefore too young to help the team right now. This failure to adequately fix the depth issue at Centre right from when Sundin retired has hampered the Leafs’ ability to compete today.
With Nazem Kadri, Dave Bolland, and Tyler Bozak currently out options to replace them are limited. Trevor Smith was signed in the offseason to provide depth and since the start of the season has been frequently shuttled back and forth from the NHL to the American League. Smith is an adequate replacement in the short-term and could make up for one injury. However with three centres out, and Bozak and Bolland out indefinitely, the recall of Smith will not be enough. Other centres on the Marlies, such as Gregg McKegg and Sam Carrick are not ready for a call up, meaning options outside the organization will need to be acquired to address the injury problem. This could be accomplished through free agency, trade or a waiver-wire pickup.
Two of these options have been used, including free agency. Jerred Smithson, the 34 year old ex-Predator, Panther, and Oiler was signed after being on a tryout contract with the Toronto Marlies. He adds solid penalty killing skills and strong faceoff skills. He is more of a short-term fix, but can step in and play a fourth line role, allowing existing players such as Jay McClement to move up in the lineup. Perhaps the most intriguing option that was utilized was trade. Yesterday, former 15th overall pick Peter Holland and Brad Staubitz were acquired from the popular trading partner Anaheim Ducks for two 2014 draft picks, and developmentally stagnant defense prospect Jesse Blacker. This trade has the potential to pay off a ton, as Peter Holland was a highly regarded talent in his 2009 draft year, with many projecting him to be a future number one centre. Expectations have been tempered, but nevertheless Holland has the potential to be a good second or third line centre with two-way ability. Although the trade was made in near desperation to address and urgent need, it has the potential to pay off both in the short run and the long run.
The hockey Gods have been having a laugh at the Leafs’ expense, leaving them without their top three centres. GM Dave Nonis worked to fix the issue with the signing of Jerred Smithson and the Peter Holland trade. Nothing guarantees that these moves will work. This doesn’t rule out other moves, such as moving James van Riemsdyk to centre. Best case scenario, Holland flourishes in a new environment, providing a spark of excitement to Leafs Nation, the injured players come back quickly, and the team does well while the injured players heal. Worst case scenario: Holland and Smithson struggle, and Bolland and Bozak take longer to get back than expected, the Leafs fall in the standings. It is not easy to say what will happen but due to the lack of centre depth in the system, the team’s resilience will be put to the test, their season hopes resting in the balance.
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Main Photo Credit: Hannah Foslien via Zimbio.com