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by @TheDailyBites on 05/13/12 at 07:49 PM ET
This is the third article in a series looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs organizational depth by position. Thus far I have completed my review of goalies and defensemen and next up will be a look at the organizational depth at the center ice position. Since most forwards can play multiple positions and often do throughout a season, I will do my best to categorize players as center, right wing or left wing. For example, I am not including Nazem Kadri in the center evaluation. Although Kadri plays center with the AHL Toronto Marlies, he has almost been exclusively a winger in his stints with the Maple Leafs which suggests that he will be a winger at the NHL level.
Center’s on 2011-12 roster:
The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to search for the prototypical big first line center that they have been lacking since the departure of Mats Sundin. Although the Maple Leafs did not have a bonafide number one, the production from the center ice position was acceptable. Tyler Bozak had his best NHL season putting up 47 points in 73 games and found good chemistry between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Bozak is much better suited in a second or third line role but he as at least proven that he can be a scoring center in the NHL. Mikhail Grabovski had another good season with 51 points and he continued to improve his defensive game. Grabovski was often matched up with the opposing teams’ top line and he still managed to be a consistent offensive threat. Grabvoski signed a 5 year contract extension near the end of last season and at a cap hit of $5.5 million the Leafs will be expecting more offense from their second line pivot. Tim Connolly was signed to a two year deal as an unrestricted free agent prior to last season and was an utter disappointment. It was expected that Connolly would play alongside Phil Kessel and put up good offensive numbers. An injury early in the season set him back and he was never able to get back on track. With Bozak finding success on the first line, Connolly found himself on the third unit and near the end of the year he was even used as a checking line winger. Surely last season didn’t go as planned for both Connolly and Maple Leafs management and they will both be hoping for better in the 2012-13. David Steckel was acquired by Brian Burke in a minor deal prior to last season. Steckel performed his role adequately as he was one of the top faceoff men in the league and he was a good penalty killer. The Leafs will be looking for a similar performance next season and Randy Carlyle might lean on him even more in a defensive role. Matthew Lombardi was not expected to play this season after essentially missing the entire 2010-11 season, but he managed to get into 62 games with the Maple Leafs. He struggled through most of the season, but considering he was coming off of a concussion and it was questionable whether he would even play again, it had to be viewed as a success in his eyes. Lombardi is a wild card next season. There are many people calling for him to be bought out or demoted to the AHL, but I think the Leafs should stick with him as the reward could be a good one. With a full off-season of proper training Lombardi could get back to where he was 3 years ago when he put up 53 points with the Phoenix Coyotes. A very good example of what Lombardi went through is Patrice Bergeron. After missing nearly all of the 2007-08 season, Bergeron struggled in his first year back with only 8 goals in 64 games. The following season Bergeron bounced back with 19 goals and 52 points in 73 games and he is now playing some of the best hockey in his career. No one knows if Lombardi will ever get back to where he was pre-concussion, but it is reasonable to expect that he will be much better next season with a full summer of proper training and preparation.
Joe Colborne was acquired in a trade that sent Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins two seasons ago. The former first round pick has the size (6’5” and 213lbs) that every team is looking for in a high end center. However, the knock on Colborne has always been that he doesn’t use his size to his advantage. Colborne stormed out of the gate with the Marlies with 16 points in his first 9 games, earning himself AHL player of the month honours. Leaf fans and management alike were drooling at the thought of Colborne starting to fulfill all of his potential. Unfortunately, Colborne could not carry that early success throughout the entire season, putting up only 23 points in his final 56 games. Clearly he is not ready to make the leap to the next level, but time is starting to run out for the big center. He will need a breakout season at the AHL level next year to show Leaf management that he should be a part of the future.
Greg McKegg was the Maple Leafs third round pick in 2010 and after an impressive 2010-11 campaign in the OHL he seemed to take a step back this past season. This can tend to happen to a player in his fourth full year in the league, two of which he was dominant. McKegg was traded from the worst team in the league, Erie Otters, to the best team in the league, London Knights, halfway through the year and responded well with 41 points in 30 games. The change of scenery appeared to give him some motivation. McKegg has struggled with injury throughout the OHL playoffs but is back and healthy and Leaf fans will get a chance to watch him in the 2012 Memorial Cup. McKegg should make the move to the AHL Toronto Marlies next year and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to playing against bigger, stronger and faster players. Ultimately McKegg projects as a second line forward, whether he gets there or not we will have to wait and see.
Spencer Abbott was signed as an unrestricted free agent out of the University of Maine at the conclusion of this past college season. Abbott was dominant at times this past season with the Black Bears putting up 62 points in only 39 games. The Hamilton, Ontario native is said to have great speed to go with hockey sense and vision that can’t be taught according to Maple Leafs assistant GM Dave Nonis. Abbott just turned 24 years old and only signed a one year deal with the Maple Leafs so he’ll have to make a good impression next year if he wants to stick around with the organization. Abbott will most likely start with the Marlies next year to see how he adapts to the pro game.
Andrew Crescenzi is another undrafted player that was signed by the Maple Leafs. After going undrafted in 2010, Crescenzi was invited to the Maple Leafs 2010 training camp as a free agent and impressed the Maple Leaf brass enough to sign him to a 3 year entry level contract. Crescenzi has great size at 6’5” but still needs some work to fill out his big frame. He enjoyed his best OHL season to date posting 24 goals and 47 points in 52 games for the Kitchener Rangers. Although he does not have high end offensive skills, he could see himself become a valuable bottom six forward in the NHL similar to that of David Steckel. Crescenzi still needs some seasoning and will most likely spend a few years in the AHL before making the leap to the big club.
Sam Carrick was the Maple Leafs fifth round pick in 2010 and fits the mould of a Brian Burke player. Although not overly big at 6’0” and 208lbs, Carrick is a physical forward that isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. Carrick just wrapped up his best OHL season in terms of offensive production with 37 goals and 67 points in 68 games and was also the captain of the Brampton Battalion. Carrick was rewarded for his strong season by signing a 3 year entry level deal with the Maple Leafs. Carrick projects as a bottom six forward and could play a similar type of role to a Gregory Campbell at the NHL level.
Tony Cameranesi might be the most intriguing prospect of all that I have gone through today. Cameranesi was drafted in the fifth round of this past year’s draft out of Wayzata High School in Minnesota. Cameranesi spent this past season with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League and is committed to playing with the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2012-13. Cameranesi is a long term project but he is said to have great speed and playmaking ability. At only 5’9” the deck is stacked against the small forward but he will have some time at the college level to increase his strength and to show if he can make the jump to the pro level.
It is fairly clear that the Maple Leafs have no prospects at the center ice position that are ready to make the jump to the big club. Joe Colborne appears to be the closest but I think he will most definitely start next season in the AHL with the Marlies. With only Colborne and McKegg as legitimate top six forward prospects in this group, the Maple Leafs will be wise to address the center position with the 5th overall pick in the upcoming draft. Alex Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko come to mind as two players who might be available at their draft spot.
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