Leafs need beef up the middle
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf leads the team off the ice after losing their final game of the season the Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on April 9, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
When Ron Wilson saw rookie Joe Colborne make his NHL on Saturday night, the Leafs coach must have had a flashback to the days he coached jumbo Joe Thornton in San Jose.
Okay, perhaps just a mild one.
The Leafs prospect may be a year or more in the minors away from being an impact centre in the NHL, but just seeing a big body up the middle has to make Wilson yearn for more of the same.
For all of the improvement at the end of the season and all of the third- and fourth-line stability that has emerged, the Leafs arenít going to go anywhere meaningful until they get bigger, better and tougher up front.
In fact, if there is one glaring deviation from general manager Brian Burkeís typical blueprint, it is that the Leafs lack the size and toughness he covets in a forward group.
The mere hint of something good down the road in Colborne, a 6-foot-5 centre who can skate but at age 21 still needs to develop physically, points out how suspect the Leafs are down the middle.
Tyler Bozak wasnít worthy of being a No. 1 centre starting the season, certainly isnít now and quite possibly will never be suited to that role. If it werenít for the fact that Bozak was the teamís most effective faceoff man he may not have lasted in that role. In fact, with a blue-chip pivot in front of him, Bozakís game may actually improve.
Mikhail Grabovski took a nice leap forward in a breakthrough 29-goal season and certainly fits the bill of top six forward, which is a legitimate sign of progress. Tim Brent will be a valuable centre on the bottom two lines if re-signed, but thatís not where the teamís need is most pressing.
Overall, the Leafs have too many players that donít do enough damage in front of the opposition net. Whether itís size or unwillingness to go there, it has compromised them on too many nights over the past three seasons.
Itís a mindset that both Burke and Wilson covet in a forward but for whatever reason, the GM has yet to acquire the personnel to make it happen here.
In part, it could be that it took so long to complete the housecleaning of veterans who were not deemed part of the future.
In part, it could be that the free agency and trade markets havenít offered enough real opportunities to acquire a big-time veteran centre who can single-handedly grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make a difference.
Whatever the reason, the absence is glaring.
Itís not all size, either. While hardly a behemoth, look at the Leafsí record when feisty Colby Armstrong is not hurt and in the lineup. And Mike Brown is pound-for-pound one of the tougher players in the league.
The lack of size and attitude is felt in virtually every aspect of the Leafsí ďattackĒ and probably no more so than on the woefully ineffective power play where it is all too rare that a Toronto player creates enough traffic in front.
Other than Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin, the Leafs are lightweights up front. With a general manager that years to compete in the NHLís heavyweight division, you can expect it to be at the top of Burkeís lengthy off-season to-do list.