Leafs are searching for a center, but true greatness comes from within

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:00 am by Ryan Hobart

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

According to Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs are looking for a center to help their depth. From the same piece, Tomas Jurco and Martin Hanzal are on the block, but I doubt either of them are targets for the Leafs.

It doesn’t seem there are a lot of center options for the Maple Leafs to pursue. There’s a potential to call St. Louis about pending UFA Patrik Berglund, to see if he’s available. Acquiring him would be overdoing it a bit, but he’s a really good player for the Leafs to shore up the center position with.

Two things appear to be at work here: the Leafs are not quite satisfied with Gauthier so far, and Ben Smith may still be a ways away. But is it possible there’s an internal solution to this problem?

Heading into this season, one of the questions I had about the construction of the Leafs’ roster was about the 4th line center position. We knew Auston Matthews was coming and was announced as the 3rd line center. This meant the obvious choices for 1st and 2nd line were Bozak and Kadri. But who would play on the 4th?

Some hoped Peter Holland had a chance to stake a claim on that role, but Babcock and the Leafs decided he wasn’t a good enough fit there. Most of Holland success the past season had come on the wing, where he was also played in pre-season, so a long-term role at center likely wasn’t in Babcock’s plans for Holland anyways. After a few games trying him there, the Leafs claimed former Leaf Ben Smith, who got locked into this 4th line center role from then until his unfortunate hand injury. 

From then forward, for the last 15 games, it’s been Frederik Gauthier. The much-bemoaned former 1st round pick of the Maple Leafs, Gauthier had a ridiculous start to this season, statistically. His Corsi numbers were in the high 30’s, and his goal-share numbers were in the high 70’s. It was amazing to see, for better or worse. 

Now, things have settled down for Gauthier so it seems appropriate to take a look at the comparisons between him and the other in-house options for the Leafs’ bottom-line center. 15 games is the mark where Corsi numbers start to have the predictive power we care so much about, so that combined with Smith starting to skate again, and the Leafs’ apparent pursuit for a centerman make this a very timely discussion.

If you stretch the limits a little bit by moving people off of wing to center, the Leafs have 7 options for the 4th line center. You’ll see them in the table below. Ideally, you want someone defensively responsible, and who can chip in offensively. And preference is given to a natural centerman.

Player TOI P60 Rel.CF60 Rel.CA60 Rel.CF% Rel.xGA60 Rel.xGF%
BEN.SMITH 467.5 0.9 -11.51 6.28 -7.53 -0.22 -3.75
BYRON.FROESE 537.42 0.56 -7.91 -6.88 -0.44 -0.18 0
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 187.6 0.96 -12.96 -1.26 -5.28 -0.19 -3.84
LEO.KOMAROV 1387 1.38 2.91 -0.97 1.57 -0.14 0.88
TYLER.BOZAK 1284.34 1.87 2.72 3.08 -0.15 0.13 -0.12
WILLIAM.NYLANDER 837.52 1.58 7.63 -3.07 4.28 0.04 2.66

All stats are 5v5, score zone and venue adjusted, from 2015-2017, and retrieved from Corsica.

Since Komarov came from Russia (where he played a bit of center) I’ve wanted the Leafs to try Komarov in the 4th line center role, so I included him here. And Nylander is a natural center who has played a few games there this year, so he definitely factors in for me. Bozak is there in case you want to move him down and insert one of the above options in the top 9. 

As I said above, the prerequisites here are capable defensively and offensively. Looking at the stats above, two things become clear:

  • Bozak doesn’t fit the mold for being capable defensively
  • Ben Smith, Frederik Gauthier and Byron Froese don’t fit our mold for being capable offensively

That leaves the somewhat left-field option of Leo Komarov, and elite rookie William Nylander.


This is clearly a complicated mess. The preference would be to put Nylander as a center in the top 9, but displacing any of those 3 players that are currently there to the 4th line would be a bad call. As such, the recommended option here, from the data alone, is probably Leo Komarov as the 4th line center.

Or, you can simply abandon the prerequisites and go with the best defensively that isn’t too offensively inept, and that’s Byron Froese. Here we get a natural centerman, who is legitimately good defensively, and, well, only a little bit of a garbage pile offensively. 

Either way, the conclusion here is that the Leafs have internal options that are better than either of Frederik Gauthier or Ben Smith, without having to spend assets to acquire one.