Muddy in the middle

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

EDMONTON -- Toronto has gone from being the centre of the hockey universe to the centre of centres.

In the spring, general manager John Ferguson had as many extra centres sitting outside his office as Bad Boy Lastman has fridges and microwaves.

But gradually, bright orange clearance stickers were slapped on NHL faceoff ace Yanic Perreault (who signed with Chicago), Travis Green and eventually, Mike Peca, who engaged in a long slow dance with the Maple Leafs that eventually left the respected dressing room lieutenant without a partner. He's now with the Columbus Blue Jackets, trying his comeback from a broken leg he suffered last December.

But the Leafs still are trying to get through a long line of candidates by Oct. 3. Time will tell if they erred in letting the aforementioned veterans go in favour of the younger, cheaper pivots.

The middleman master plan began to take shape this week when coach Paul Maurice put expensive new winger Jason Blake with No. 1 centre Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov in Sunday's Blue and White intrasquad game. They'll be back together for a bigger test tonight in Winnipeg after Maurice initiated Phase Two last evening, playing part-time winger Kyle Wellwood between Darcy Tucker and Blake's first-line predecessor, Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Maurice also tried third-line hopeful Matt Stajan against Edmonton, with John Pohl's chance coming tonight. And to add 224 pounds of intrigue, 6-foot-4 winger Chad Kilger started a game at centre for the first time as a Leaf last evening, ahead of bulldog Kris Newbury on the fourth unit.

Maurice has made great sport of teasing the media and hockey poolies about his line composition in the days leading up to Toronto's eight exhibition games. But after pumping the tires of all his centres through the summer, it's time to see them on the road.

Wellwood, whose 5-foot-10 frame didn't benefit from the rigours of playing on the side, seems ready to stay at centre permanently. He's not sure if the sports hernia surgery that cost him almost half the season was related to his position.

"I just know (centre) is less taxing on my shoulders and I have to battle less along the walls," he said before facing the Oilers.

Centre was a high-risk occupation last season for a lot of Leafs, as Wellwood, Sundin, and Peca went down, with Green and Perreault eventually brought in.

Stajan, who played all eight exhibitions last year and all 82 regular-season games, made the most of it to move up the depth chart -- doing too well, if you take into account the summer trade talk he sparked.

Kilger played plenty of centre in junior and early in his career with Anaheim and Winnipeg.

But he developed a bomb of a shot coming down the left side, potting 31 goals the past two years with Toronto, his first consecutive seasons in double figures since the late 1990s.

"I played centre a bit last year, usually right after the second power-play unit came off," Kilger said. "Nowadays, you need people who can play both positions when injuries occur.

"Centre would be fine again. Being a bigger guy will help me play better defence at centre, too."

If Blake and Tucker can light it up off the side and big men Sundin, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Kilger and Boyd Devereaux establish the forecheck, the Leafs might get that elusive scoring balance.


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