In light of the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs will start the regular season without John Tavares, who is out at least three weeks with an oblique strain, two thoughts immediately come to mind:
Can William Nylander play centre? Can Mitch Marner?
The answer to both is probably. However, neither option is ideal or likely to happen.
Well, at least not right away. But with Tavares having recently turned 32 and appearing to get slower with each passing year, it’s only a matter of when — and not if — the centre will have to be converted to a winger.
So the Leafs might want to start experimenting.
And while moving Marner off Auston Matthews’ line or asking defensively liable Nylander to take on more defensive responsibilities may not seem ideal, it’s not like any of the other alternatives are any better.
There’s Alex Kerfoot, a versatile forward who took the fifth-most face-offs on the team last year and is coming off a career-best 51 points. There’s Calle Jarnkrok, who played both centre and on the wing in Seattle and Calgary, where he had 30 points. And there’s David Kampf, a shutdown specialist who had 26 points last season in a mostly third-line role.
After that, you’ll have to wait and see if recent draft prospects, such as 2020 second-round pick Roni Hirvonen or 2022 second-round pick Fraser Minten, can graduate to the NHL level. Either way, chances are neither one is going to be a replacement for Tavares, who even at his declining age is still close to a point-per-game player.
It’s yet another reminder of just how thin the Leafs have become at one of the most important positions. Which is funny, considering that it was only four years ago that Toronto was stacked down the middle, with Matthews as the No. 1 centre, Tavares as the No. 2, and Nazem Kadri as the No. 3. It was an embarrassment of riches that was the envy of the NHL.
That is clearly no longer the case.
Even when Tavares comes back, how much longer can he continue to play one of the most demanding positions? After all, both Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (32) and Ottawa’s Claude Giroux (34) have moved from centre to wing in recent years — something that the Leafs may soon have to contemplate with Tavares, who has three more years on his contract.
With Tavares sidelined, here are five options who could temporarily (or permanently) replace him at centre:
1. Alex Kerfoot
As the Swiss Army Knife on the Leafs’ roster, Kerfoot’s limited offensive ability will never cause anyone to forget about Nazem Kadri, whom he was traded for in 2019 and who broke out with 28 goals and 87 points last year. But unlike Kadri, the versatile Kerfoot can play just about anywhere on the ice and practically do it all. As such, he’s the most obvious option to shift over from the wing to the centre position, where he’s played plenty of times before on a line with Nylander.
2. Calle Jarnkrok
Acquired in free agency after splitting last season with Seattle and Calgary, Jarnkrok is a natural centre who has limited offensive abilities. He’s never scored 20 goals or more than 35 points. But he’s also never really played on a team’s top-6, so maybe he’s just in need of an opportunity, something the 32-year-old showed by scoring twice in an exhibition game against Ottawa on the weekend, where he was lined up next to Matthews and Michael Bunting.
3. David Kampf
If you want to give the second line a more defensively responsible look, then having Kampf move up in the lineup might make sense. It would allow Nylander to focus solely on offence, where he’s coming off an 80-point season but also had a minus-9 rating. The only problem is whether Kampf has enough in his toolbox to produce in a top-6 role. Based on his career stats — he’s never had more than 11 goals or 26 points, but it doesn’t appear to be the case.
4. William Nylander
Coming off a career-high season where he scored 34 goals and 80 points, it is going to be essential for Nylander to once again carry more of the offensive load on the second line this season — even more so if the 32-year-old Tavares starts to slow down. Nylander was drafted as a centre, having taken 1,731 face-offs since coming into the league (5th-most on the Leafs). The only concern is whether he is defensively responsible enough to play at both ends of the ice.
5. Mitch Marner
This is an option that we probably won’t see, mostly because you wouldn’t want to split Marner up from Matthews, where they combined for 95 goals and 203 points last season. That being said, Marner’s playmaking ability makes him a natural option at centre, something he’s played before in the past, albeit in a limited role. He’s also an elite defender, having ranked amongst the top-10 in takeaways last season. He even won 55.6% of the 18 face-offs he took last season.
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