NEWARK – With some uncertainty at the position, Dave Nonis took steps to address the Leafs strength down the middle, both now and in the future.
Nonis sprung to acquire Game 6 hero Dave Bolland from Chicago on draft day, also selecting 6-foot-5 Rimouski pivot Frederik Gauthier with the 21st overall pick.
The moves work to address a position of instability within the organization, most immediately with the acquisition of Bolland, a 27-year-old Toronto native who won his second Cup with the Hawks earlier this week. “It doesn't mean that we're not [stilll] looking to try to shore up that area because from our standpoint, it still is an area of, I wouldn't say weakness, but we're not incredibly deep down the middle and that's why it was important to get him,” said Nonis, minutes after the deal for Bolland was announced.
Centre-ice had been, and still remains to some degree, a position of uncertainty. Tyler Bozak, the Leafs number one middleman in 2013, is on the verge of unrestricted free agency with the very real possibility looming that he moves elsewhere for more money than Toronto is willing to offer. With that in mind and some additional uncertainty in the contributions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri next season, Nonis looked for assurance in Bolland, who has one year remaining at a cap hit of $3.3 milion.
“It wouldn't rule out signing Tyler at all,” Nonis said of Bozak, who is searching for a significant raise this summer. “If we can find a way of getting him signed then we will. Nothing has changed in that regard from our standpoint.”
The injection of Bolland, the former London Knight, into a complement that already includes Grabovski, Kadri (restricted free agent) and Jay McClement, means the Leafs could theoretically be set down the middle for the fall; that is if Bozak departs and Nonis cannot land additional help through the trade or free agent markets. “Yeah, no question that was part of it,” Nonis concurred. “To make sure that we had some depth and we would be able to compete with the group that we had. We feel that if we get everybody signed and in, and now with David, we'd be in a perfectly good position to start the season.”
With Grabovski and Kadri (potentially) slotting in as the first and second line centres – in lieu of any other moves, which remain a real possibility – Bolland could line up in the all-important three-hole for Randy Carlyle, removing some pressure on Grabovski in defensive situations while injecting the potential for more offence than McClement may provide. Additionally, if Nonis and the Leafs opt to upgrade further down the middle, Bolland's acquisition allows further flexibility to perhaps move someone else out or otherwise enjoy long-starved depth at the position.
“He played behind some pretty good people [in Chicago] and I think Randy, he won't pigeon-hole him as a third-line centre,” Nonis said of Bolland, who dropped to the fourth line spot for the Hawks in the playoffs, behind the likes of Jonathan Toews, Michal Handzus and Marcus Kruger. “I think he'll probably be put in maybe a more prominent role with us than he was in Chicago.”
Formerly the head man in Anaheim, Carlyle had plenty of first-hand experience in the Western Conference with Bolland, who fits the gritty mold the Leafs coach seems prefers in his players.
“I can tell you that Randy is very happy that we brought Dave Bolland in,” Nonis noted. “He's the type of player that thrives under the way he coaches. And Randy moves people around the lineup and I think that's something that Dave Bolland has done throughout his career very effectively.”
A force during the Hawks run to the Cup in 2010 – 16 points – Bolland was hobbled by injuries throughout the 2013 season – he sat out 13 games – even missing the first five games of the playoffs with a groin issue. Plugged further down the lineup than he had been in the past, Bolland totaled just a single point in series wins against Detroit and Los Angeles before breaking out with three goals and five points against the Bruins, including the Cup-clinching goal in Game 6.
“I think it's going to be great,” Bolland said of returning home to Toronto. “I think this is one team like the Blackhawks team that's coming up and is going to do great things – hopefully like we did [in Chicago].”
Nonis said discussions with Chicago general manager Stan Bowman had been ongoing for quite some time, the Leafs general manager initiating the deal, which sent the 51st and 117th picks to the Hawks this year as well as a fourth rounder in 2014, shortly after the Cup had been awarded.
Toronto now has 12 players under contract for the 2013-2014 campaign, still working on contracts for a restricted free agent class that includes Kadri, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, and newly acquired Jonathan Bernier. With upwards of $19 million available following the likely compliance buyout of Mike Komisarek, Nonis still has plenty of work ahead.
“We think there's more things that we hope to do,” he stated, “whether we can accomplish those between now and September remains to be seen. But we're going to try to remain active and see if there's more changes we can make.”
In addition to Bolland, Nonis and his scouting staff looked to address the centre position long-term, settling on Gauthier with their first round pick, a big, defense-first centre from the Quebec league. Gauthier projects as a stable, low-risk option down the middle, a player who might line up in a shutdown role for the Leafs one day, though not anytime soon.
“We're pretty comfortable that he should round out to a second-line centre top-end, but at least a third line guy that can be very responsible,” Nonis said of Gauthier, who remains a work in progress offensively, nonetheless totaling 22 goals in his first season with the Oceanic. “He's the type of player that you need to eat up minutes, a big-minute crunching centreman that right now we were lacking.”
Of those “indicators” which suggest NHL potential, Dave Morrison, the Leafs head scout, pointed to Gauthier's size, defensive savvy, and ability to process the game.
“We just think there's some upside,” Morrison told TSN.ca, also emphasizing Gauthier's competitiveness and skill on the draw, “how much offensively remains to be seen. But we're hopeful. He's still a young guy, a big body that's still growing, still growing into that body.”
Nonis said he and his management team looked seriously at the prospect of moving up in Sunday's draft, the price-point just too high to justify a move.
“The assets to move up didn't make any sense,” he said. “The temptation to try to do something is always there. I think as you get closer to the draft the temptation actually even increases. You have to make sure you check yourself because it's pretty easy to do some pretty significant damage by moving pieces out that you think are going to be long-term pieces of the puzzle.
“Were there options? There was a couple of options, but they weren't going to help the Toronto Maple Leafs, they were going to probably set us back.”
The Leafs went on to select Carter Verhaeghe, an Ontario native and centre from the Niagara IceDogs, in the third round, adding Swiss forward Fabrice Herzog in the fifth, P.E.I. Rockets goalie Antoine Bideau in the sixth, and smallish Swedish defenceman Andreas Johnson in the seventh and final round.