The Pittsburgh Penguins have spoken with five teams about acquiring a third line center. While speculation has centered on names like Matt Duchene and Jordan Staal, the Toronto Maple Leafs have telegraphed their next move: Trading at least one veteran to make room for recently signed Patrick Marleau. Centers Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are two prime candidates and two players the Penguins could use.
The Leafs now have 19 NHL calibre forwards, which is five too many, after signing Marleau to a three-year deal with an annual value of $6.5 million. One or more Leafs could be on the move. Mike Babcock discussed the situation with the Toronto Star (read the full piece here).
“They’re real good players,” the coach said. “And two of them or . . . any way you look at it, we can’t all be on the team as we move ahead. It doesn’t work like that. We have to figure out a way when you have opportunities to do what you can.”
Opportunities. Like the glaring hole at center on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Given the Leafs surplus and current salary cap issues, the price for the veterans should be affordable.
Toronto is hoping to use its barrel of forwards to acquire defensemen. They also need to move salary as the team is only about $2 million under the salary cap, with restricted free agent Connor Brown yet to be signed.
Reunion: Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel
The most expendable name on the list, excluding bottom line winger Komarov, is Bozak.
Bozak, 31, is not without pedigree or history with potential Penguins linemates. Bozak and Phil Kessel were inseparable during their four years in the blue and white. The pair played nearly 85% of their 5v5 minutes together from 2011 until Kessel’s trade in 2015. Bozak was the pivot when Kessel scored 82 points in 2011-12, and 80 points in 2013-14.
Since Kessel’s trade to Pittsburgh, Bozak’s game has grown. He once was the center who had one job–get the puck to Phil. Last season, Bozak became a quality two-way center as the Leafs rapidly changed from young upstart to contender.
Over the last couple seasons, Bozak has become a complete center. He no longer gets lost or looks disinterested when he crosses his own blue line. His faceoff percentage has gone from an acceptable 52% to a strong 56.7%.
The Regina, Saskatchewan native also picked a career high 37 apples last season (apples are assists, for my non-hockey slang folks) and 55 points. Bozak received begrudging praise from the Toronto analysts who largely (and rightfully) were critical of his past performances. (Read the EditorInLeaf analysis here).
Bozak is in the final year of a contract with a $4.2 million cap hit, so a new team would not be stuck long term if things did not work.
Since Kadri is only 26-years-old and became a strong two-way center under head coach Mike Babcock (and had a great First Round series against the Capitals), the price for Kadri could be a legitimate top-four defenseman. It isn’t unrealistic to suggest Brian Dumoulin or Olli Maatta.
Kadri is signed for five more seasons at an annual cap hit of $4.5 million. Last season, the London, Ontario native set career highs with 32 goals, 61 points and 95 penalty minutes.
Like Bozak, Kadri was a failed number one center whose game was not complete. However, under Babcock, Kadri blossomed. His official coming out party was a punishing playoff performance against the Capitals (19 hits and six blocked shots).
Last season, Kadri boasted a 51.5% Corsi, despite starting over 62% of his shifts in the defensive zone. That is an amazing stat, and one reason Kadri will not come cheap, if at all.
While I am a fan of van Riemsdyk’s emerging power forward game and Komarov’s sandpaper intensity, both are better wingers than centers.
Perhaps the Penguins could take a gamble and return either to pivot, but it doesn’t seem a good use of resources.
5 Teams and Mystery
The Penguins have indeed talked with the Avalanche about Matt Duchene, but as we’ve subtly pointed out, it isn’t a good fit. The Penguins have also talked with the Montreal Canadiens about Alex Galchenyuk, but the Habs signed him to a 3-year deal today. He also wasn’t a great fit as a third line center.
If we’re circling names which truly fit, add Bozak’s name with an outside chance at Kadri to the list which includes Jordan Staal. While the Penguins would undoubtedly take Kadri, the price tag may not be a fit.
So, the great summer mystery continues. And we’ll keep chasing leads and clues…
(Props to Twitter follower Lukas Dreger @Dr_Dregz for first alerting us the story in the Toronto Star)
Salary Cap info from CapFriendly.com