The Toronto Maple Leafs are 13-9 and currently sit sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Given that this organization has not made the playoffs in seven seasons, trading their number one center might not sound like a great idea, but is it the right thing to do?
Tyler Bozak is set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this upcoming off-season and will likely earn a significant raise over his current $1.5 million salary. Given that Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils just signed an eight year contract extension ahead of his UFA year with a cap hit of $5.75 million, it would not be unreasonable to expect Bozak to get something in the $3-$4 million range on the open market. With the salary cap coming down to just over $64 million next season, that kind of money for a player like Bozak does not make sense for the Maple Leafs going forward.
For the first time in a long time the Maple Leafs have developed some good depth at the forward position. Their only glaring whole up front resides on the top line in the position currently held by Bozak. This is not Bozak’s fault, he is just better suited to be in a second or third line role. However, with Mikhail Grabovski as the second line center and with the play of Nazem Kadri on the third line, the group as a whole is not bad at all. But if this team wants to compete for a championship going forward they will need an upgrade over Bozak in that position.
Scanning the UFA market for centers in 2013 there is a big time number one pivot available, and that is Ryan Getzlaf. There is no guarantee that Getzlaf will still be available once July 1st roles around, but if he is, there will be 29 other teams along with the Maple Leafs vying for his services. Taking this into consideration it is highly unlikely that he will be in the blue and white next season. There are a few other interesting centers available, not first line players, but surely an upgrade over Tyler Bozak that they could target. Stephen Weiss and Mike Ribeiro come to mind.
If the Maple Leafs come to the decision that they are not going to re-sign Bozak, as I have done already, they surely have to explore trading him before the April 3rd trade deadline. Their position in the standings at that time will have to be taken into consideration, but I would argue that even if they are in a playoff spot they should still consider making the move given that Joffrey Lupul will be back from injury by then.
So what should the Maple Leafs look for in return? Well that depends on where they are in the playoff race. If they are still in the hunt I would be looking for either a first round pick, a prospect that will be ready to play in the league next season or a defenseman that can jump into the lineup right away. You may think I am crazy with the first round pick, but if the Buffalo Sabres can get one for Paul Gaustad, then that is what the Maple Leafs should aim for. If they are truly in the playoff race, there is no point trading away a top nine forward for anything less than that given the expectation of draft picks after the first round.
If the Maple Leafs are no longer challenging for a playoff position then they just need to get the best return they can. I always prefer prospects over late round picks as you have a much better idea of what those players will be going forward.
The Maple Leafs have another key unrestricted free agent this off-season, Clarke MacArthur. Given where he fits into this roster and where I would expect his salary to be ($3-$4 million) I believe the Maple Leafs should aim to get him re-signed. However, if they are well out of the playoff race by time the trade deadline comes around, he would be another player I would look to move.
Dave Nonis and his management group are going to have some very tough decisions as we approach the trade deadline (less than a month away) and it will be very interesting to see what transpires.
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