The Maple Leafs need both Bozak and Kadri to plug the middle right now, but once the kids really start to emerge, there will only be room for one of the centers.
Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri have waged something of a tug of war for the role of the No. 1 center on the Toronto Maple Leafs the past few seasons.
Neither has really taken the bull by the horns causing many Maple Leafs fans to lament the fact the team has not had a bona fide top center since Mats Sundin departed for the Vancouver Canucks in 2008.
So now, assuming Auston Matthews and William Nylander eventually emerge as the team’s top two centers, what is to become of Bozak and Kadri? Are they now in a battle to see which will emerge as the team’s eventual No. 3 center?
If that is indeed the case, then Kadri may have a leg up on the competition considering he was Toronto’s first round pick (seventh overall) in 2009, not to mention at 25 he is five years younger than Bozak.
The question then becomes, will Kadri stand for being supplanted by a couple of kids and relegated to No. 3 on the depth chart after a few years of seemingly being groomed for the role of No. 1? In that regard, Bozak — who was undrafted and joined the Maple Leafs as a free agent in 2009 — might be more comfortable with the role. As a stronger defensive player, Bozak might also be more suited to the role, too.
The funny thing is, given Toronto’s current state of rebuild and the fact Matthews and Nylander are likely not yet ready to carry the weight of being the organization’s top two pivots, Kadri and Bozak may wind up competing once again for the No. 1 center for the 2016-17 season. The kids, meanwhile, can get their feet wet.
Because he stands 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds coupled with the fact he was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, Matthews has the inside track on eventually emerging as the team’s top center. The highly-touted young American has been identified as a special player with star potential. In 36 games with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland last season the 18-year-old scored 24 goals and 46 points playing against men.
Nylander, meanwhile, is also a highly-skilled prospect who demonstrated in a short audition with the Maple Leafs last season that he has great upside. The son of former NHLer Michael Nylander had a solid year in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies and managed six goals and 13 points in 22 NHL games with the Maple Leafs.
It will be Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s responsability to both groom Matthews and Nylander while continuing in his effort to make his team a playoff contender. No easy chore, that. It could mean one or both of the kids could spend time playing the wing while the more experienced Bozak and Kadri plug up the middle. Ultimately, though, Matthews and Nylander will emerge as the team’s top two centers and Bozak and Kadri will fight for third-line minutes.
It is hard to imagine both Bozak and Kadri being on the roster when the team ultimately turns the corner. That being the case, both would easily find employment elsewhere as capable performers. Kadri, who is 6-feet and 188 pounds, has the better offensive upside and could be a solid No. 2 center on most teams. Bozak, who is 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, is a better two-way player who probably slots into the No. 3 role on most good teams. In 435 NHL games, Bozak has 107 goals and 267 points while in 326 games Kadri has 81 goals and 197 points. To Kadri’s credit, he has become a more responsible player on and off the ice.
Babcock may pull a fast one and slot Matthews in at center on the top line right from the get-go, even if putting a teenager in such a huge role has not been the coach’s history. In that case Kadri would probably play on the second line and Bozak on the third line.
Regardless, as the season unfolds and the Maple Leafs attempt to make the playoffs for just the second time in 11 seasons, it remains to be seen if the city of Toronto is big enough for both Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri. If not, may the best man win.