Strength in Numbers for Leafs’ Bottom Six Centers

With today’s signing of Darryl Boyce, the Leafs added yet another gritty, defensively minded forward that proved last season he could fill in a 4th line role admirably. With Tim Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski seemingly locked into roles on the top two lines, there’s more than a few players that will be competing for work in the bottom six. A number of these players were either UFAs or RFAs coming into the offseason, and I haven’t yet discussed most of them, so I’ll take a moment to run down the list of additions (or re-signings) that Burke has made for his 3rd and 4th line roles.

Matthew Lombardi: Once thought to be a candidate for a  top six role in Nashville after a strong season (19 goals, 53 points) on an offensively challenged Phoenix Coyotes team, Lombardi was limited to just 2 games last year. His concussion issues are well documented, but while playing in Calgary and Phoenix, he proved his worth in a number of situations, especially on the kill, where he totaled 11 shorthanded markers in the roughly four-and-a-half seasons he played for the Flames. I personally don’t expect anything from Lombardi – Nashville wouldn’t have packaged his contract with Cody Franson in exchange for Brett Lebda if they expected him to be playing next season. However, should he be able to contribute, he and Tyler Bozak would have to be the top choices for 3rd and 4th line centers.

Tyler Bozak: Speaking of Bozak, he’s a Leaf I expect big things of in the upcoming season. I think he’s been forced into a role he’s just not suited for over the past two seasons, and will have a chance to flourish as the most likely candidate for the 3rd line center role. He’s already demonstrated an uncanny chemistry with Colby Armstrong on the PK, and with those two anchoring the 3rd line, I think the potential for a defensively solid line with some decent offensive pop is definitely there. His new contract gives him two more years to prove he’s got what it takes to be a legit NHLer, and I’m hoping he takes full advantage of it.

Darryl Boyce: A relative unknown that’s spent most of his career in the AHL, Boyce took full advantage of his opportunity to pull a regular NHL shift last season, posting 13 points and a +8 rating through 46 games. I honestly figured Burke would bring back Tim Brent over Boyce, but Boyce is a valuable asset to have. Any player that knows the next game they play in the NHL could be their last is one that will work hard every shift, every time.

Philippe Dupuis: The newest Leaf played just 12 NHL games before breaking in full-time with Colorado last season. Dupuis had a 108-point season in his final year in the QMJHL, but hasn’t really shown any real offensive prowess at higher levels. He tallied just 6 goals and 17 points in 74 games with the Avs, but he’s got decent speed and seems to generate an unusual amount of shots and offensive pressure – at least for a 4th liner.

Mike Zigomanis: Another guy I thought would end up getting a shot somewhere else, since I can’t believe he couldn’t pull a regular NHL shift last season – as did most other Leaf fans. The guy is a wizard in the faceoff dot, is actually one of the older players on this young team, and is a solid penalty killer. Once again, though, I think Ziggy will be hard-pressed to crack the lineup with bigger, younger guys ahead of him.

All-told, the Leafs have a number of solid options to man the middle of their defensive lines, while Boyce and probably Dupuis could see some time on the wing if necessary. With Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Jay Rosehill, Armstrong and probably Nazem Kadri or Joffrey Lupul rounding out the regular complement of forwards competing for jobs in the bottom six, to say nothing of NCAA arrivals Tyler Brenner and Matt Frattin, there will be plenty of options for Ron Wilson and company. How the coaching staff chooses to use all these players will be interesting, to say the least, but the leash for any of these players won’t be very long, especially with so many others chomping at the bit to get in the lineup.

Topics: Brian Burke, Darryl Boyce, Matt Frattin, Matthew Lombardi, Mike Zigomanis, Philippe Dupuis, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak, Tyler Brenner

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