Leafs' woes start up the middle

Phil Kessel is a great player, but he needs a great centre to play with if the Leafs are to become...

Phil Kessel is a great player, but he needs a great centre to play with if the Leafs are to become a contender. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency file photo)

JASON YORK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:05 AM ET

OTTAWA - When I heard that the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Ron Wilson on Friday night, my first reaction was disbelief.

I was surprised GM Brian Burke would make a coaching change so late in the season. It’s too late for new bench boss Randy Carlyle to correct the Leafs’ problems in time to make a real run at the playoffs this spring.

Then I started thinking about the major issues in Leafland right now.

In fact, the biggest problem isn’t coaching at all.

Plain and simple, the Leafs roster is not built to have success in today’s NHL. And that has far more to do with Burke than it does with Wilson, who failed to make the playoffs in three-plus seasons at the helm.

If you look at the top contenders in the NHL this season and the teams that have most recently won the Stanley Cup, they all share one common trait — an area where the Leafs happen to be their weakest.

Good teams are all strong down the middle — and Toronto is not.

I will never understand why some teams try to build around wingers — that approach simply does not work.

The centre is the most important man on the ice besides the goalie. His job is to make the players around him better and, in essence, the entire team better. Centres must play well in all zones of the rink and be adept in all areas of the game.

If a team’s best player is not a centreman, its chances of winning are a lot less than a team with depth down the middle.

A closer look at Toronto’s forwards will show what I mean.

Phil Kessel is a tremendous talent, a former teammate of mine and a great player. Unfortunately for Toronto, he is a winger and cannot impact the game the same way an elite centre can.

Toronto’s next-best player is Joffrey Lupul, also a winger. As long as the Leafs’ top two forwards are both wingers, they will never be a playoff team — I guarantee it.

The Boston Bruins were the best team in the NHL last season and the biggest reason was their depth at centre. When you can roll Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Tyler Seguin — not to mention the pesky Gregory Campbell and the underrated Chris Kelly — you’re going to be pretty tough to beat.

The Vancouver Canucks were the second-best team in hockey last season and are challenging for No. 1 overall again this season thanks to the likes of centre Henrik Sedin, a former Hart Trophy winner, as well as arguably the top two-way centre in the game, Ryan Kesler.

The Detroit Red Wings have been a Stanley Cup contender for what seems like forever, and — guess what? — they’ve always built their teams around the men in the middle, from Yzerman, Fedorov, Larionov and Draper in their glory days to today’s roster led by their best player, Pavel Datsyuk.

The Rangers are the top team in the East and everyone is talking about their outstanding goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. He’s obviously a huge part of their success, but New York also signed a legitimate No. 1 centre last summer in former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards.

If and when Sidney Crosby returns to the lineup, Pittsburgh will be the team to beat in the East. But Pittsburgh is a threat not just because of No. 87, but because the Penguins send out Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal behind him shift and shift after shift.

Here in Ottawa, the Senators are playing at a much higher level than many expected before this season. It’s no coincidence centre Jason Spezza’s level of play is at an all-time high.

It amazes me when I look around the league and see teams that continue to sputter along — clubs that share the common trait of having a winger as their best player. Check the standings to see where the Columbus Blue Jackets and Rick Nash, the Calgary Flames and Jarome Iginla and the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin are sitting.

In the battle for the playoffs, they are far from front and centre.

YORKIE'S 5 BEST ROOKIE CENTRES

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

If not for a shoulder injury that caused him to miss much of the season, the Oilers star would be a shoo-in for the Calder.

2. Adam Henrique

The first-year Devil plays more than 18 minutes a game and leads the league in short-handed goals with four.

3. Craig Smith

The Predator is among the NHL’s most highly skilled young players.

4. Cody Hodgson

Buffalo just traded for a star in the making.

5. Ryan Johansen

The big Blue Jackets centre looks like he’s 12 off the ice, but will be a force for years.


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