Leafs desperate at center? Time to trade Jake Gardiner

Matt Larkin
Gardiner

In one night, the Toronto Maple Leafs went from “Who’s next?” to “What now?”

And after that one night, if I’m GM Dave Nonis, I’m deciding to trade a defenseman for a center.

The angst in Leafs Nation is less over the Saturday’s performance against the Canucks – easily Toronto’s worst of the season – and more about its sudden dearth of guys with any experience at center ice.

David Bolland required surgery to repair a severe leg laceration sustained on this collision with Zack Kassian:

The Leafs suddenly have a Grand Canyon-like hole at center. They were already minus their “No. 1” guy in Tyler Bozak, who was their most reliable faceoff man. Some felt Bozak’s injury was a blessing in disguise, as it bumped Nazem Kadri up to form a potent scoring unit with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, but Kadri’s defensive game and especially his faceoff skills need a lot of work.

With Bolland out, the Leafs are missing two of their top three pivots. The situation is dire enough that coach Randy Carlyle plans to try van Riemsdyk, who has taken 63 draws in 257 NHL games, at center between Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

In a small sample size, JVR has won a respectable 49.2 percent of his draws, but he’s obviously not a true center. Toronto is in serious trouble as a team that (a) has been utterly dominated in puck possession despite its 10-5-0 record and (b) already ranks 27th in the NHL in faceoff proficiency at 45.0 percent. And this is where Bolland’s absence stings most. His six goals and two game-winners are nice, but his two-way ability will be sorely missed. He’s no faceoff virtuoso, having won less than half his draws in his career, but he didn’t embarrass himself in the dot and he’s been handy as a disruptive penalty killer.

Toronto’s bizarre six-day layoff gives Bolland a head start on recovering, but GM Dave Nonis would be wise to explore the trade market. Remember, as freakish as the injury was, being nicked up is not new for Bolland. He’s missed 84 games in his past five seasons, so chances are his latest visit to the infirmary won’t be his last.

An option to consider: trading Jake Gardiner to Edmonton for Sam Gagner. The center, recovered from a broken jaw, grew up into Toronto and could plug a hole at the No. 2 slot, letting JVR return to the wing. Gagner’s career faceoff percentage of .447 is close enough to Bolland’s .462, and Gagner also kills penalties.

Gagner’s no-trade clause doesn’t kick in until next season. The Leafs also have a much-talked about surplus at defense and Gardiner’s name has popped up as the youngster struggles to rediscover the promise he showed in the playoffs last spring. The man who helped build Gardiner’s confidence is now coaching the Oilers: Dallas Eakins. And Gardiner’s friend and old defense partner at the University of Wisconsin, Justin Schultz, just happens to call Edmonton his home team, too. Gagner isn’t cheap at $4.8 million per season, but Gardiner will command a raise as a restricted free agent this summer anyway. Since Toronto would be surrendering the younger, higher-ceiling player, perhaps Edmonton could eat some of Gagner’s salary, a gesture increasingly en vogue in trades these days.

The Leafs fashion themselves a playoff team and the record certainly indicates they are, but their hole up the middle could drag them down in a hurry unless they fill it. The time to act is now.

* This story originally reported incorrectly that Bolland was not wearing cut-resistant socks.