Even if the return in the trade made a lot of sense, dealing Nazem Kadri – a cost-controlled top-six calibre centre who the Leafs were able to roll out on their third line – certainly wasn’t an easy thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office to do.
Obviously, the Leafs needed to shore up the right side of their defence – which newcomer Tyson Barrie will do for at least next season – and with Kadri coming off two consecutive seasons in which he received a suspension in the first round of the playoffs, along with the fact he had a very reasonable contract (4.5M AAV for the next three seasons), it appeared as if there was no better time for Toronto to move on from him.
The thing is, though, quality at the centre position comes at a premium. In today’s day-and-age, you’ll seldom see an NHL team possess the magnitude of depth down the middle that the Leafs had with Kadri installed in a third-line role behind the likes of Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
The last time the NHL saw a three-headed monster comparable to that trio of Leafs centreman was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ tandem of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, who each helped the Pens hoist a Stanley Cup in 2009 and created havoc amongst the league for a six-year span (2006-2012). While the circumstances were entirely different than those of Kadri’s, Staal was shipped off to the Carolina Hurricanes in the early stages of the 2012 offseason after allegedly turning down a 10-year contract extension from the Penguins.
“I didn’t want to trade him,” Ray Shero, the Penguins’ general manager from 2006-2014, told NHL.com that summer.
“My goal was to try to get him to sign a contract extension with the Penguins and [see] how far we could go with this three-centre model.”
The Penguins would go on to rely on Brandon Sutter – who was acquired in the Staal trade – as their third-line centre for the next three seasons before the Penguins went on to trade away draft picks and prospects for centres – Nick Bonino, Derrick Brassard, Riley Shehan and Nick Bjugstad – who have yet to carve out the same kind of niche that Staal did during his Penguins stint.
While the Leafs are left in somewhat of the same pickle as Pittsburgh was when Staal left, they don’t need to look externally to upgrade down the middle.
Perhaps even the newly acquired Alex Kerfoot – who fans seem to be pencilling in as the Leafs’ third-line centre for next year – is able to become a full-time centreman. But Kerfoot’s ability to play centre is no slam-dunk, and as Ian Tulloch of The Athletic summarized in a recent article, Kerfoot only suited up for 20 games down the middle, despite taking a ton of face-offs.
He’s fared well in a small sample size, but who knows? Perhaps the Leafs soon discover that they like him better on the wing.
To the naked eye, the Leafs’ centre depth gets quite murky after Kerfoot. As of now, the pivots remaining on the Leafs’ main roster – Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Frederik Gauthier – are stop-gap options and unlikely to provide much value beyond this season.
But the Leafs have plenty of viable prospects that could see their games come to fruition at the next level.
In reality, the Leafs have a lot more centre depth than you may think.
A year after the Marlies had him deployed in a bottom-six role for their Calder Cup Championship run, the 23-year-old forward took his game, and his NHL stock, to new heights during the 2019 playoffs.
He evolved into a game-changer.
“I just kept throwing him out the door because he was so good,” said Sheldon Keefe after a hat-trick from Brooks helped the Marlies cap off their first-round upset over the Rochester Americans and advance to the second round.
“The goals were one thing but he just competed, he was on the right side of the puck the whole game, those were some tough matchups there, so for him to have this type of game against that type of team with what’s at stake to finish it off, full marks to Brooksy for how far he’s come.’”
It’s crazy to think how far Brooks has come since he joined the Leafs’ system.
Brooks struggled to find his footing in the WHL during his 16-year-old and 17-year-old seasons, but it was his elite hockey IQ that had those around him confident he’d eventually find a way.
“When he first came to Regina, he wasn’t playing a whole lot but you could tell there was something there,” Belleville Senators forward Morgan Klimchuk, a junior teammate of Brooks’, told The Leafs Nation.
“He was definitely one of those guys that paid his dues and played in the lower-end of the lineup with minimal time on special teams early on. But as that opportunity came throughout his junior career, he just took off.”
After not being selected in the 2015 entry draft, Brooks exploded with a 120 point campaign the next season, prompting Toronto to select Brooks in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. After posting 130 points in his overage WHL season (2016-2017), Brooks began his pro career with the Marlies in the fall of 2017. He struggled to produce during the first half of the 2017-2018 season, in part due to a stacked crop of forwards ahead of him, along with the fact that he was still adjusting to the pro game.
For some junior players, it’s hard to digest the fact that they’re not the guy anymore. They’re used to the puck being on their stick and the idea of taking on a lesser role, at least at the start, can be a foreign one. But not to Brooks. He understood that the path to the NHL was less of a sprint and more of a marathon.
“Being [with the Marlies], you’re trying to get to the next level, you’re not going to jump in and be a point producer at that level right away,” Brooks said last spring.
“I’m just trying to focus on my defensive game, my face-offs—that’s been a big thing—it’s a work in progress.”
Upon establishing some chemistry alongside Trevor Moore and Mason Marchment in his rookie season, Brooks found his niche with the Marlies, playing a simple, cycle-oriented game that was built on keeping the puck in the offensive zone.
And then year two rolled around. More opportunity became available to him and then bam; Brooks started to look like a legitimate prospect. He followed up a 21-goal, 40-point campaign with an impressive playoff showing (eight points in 13 games) that saw Brooks be deployed heavily at even-strength and on both the power play and penalty kill. Ahead of the Marlies’ Eastern Conference finals series against the Charlotte Checkers, Keefe said Brooks lead all forwards in ice-time through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Brooks isn’t the flashiest of players. His skating needs some work before he can be considered an NHL-regular, but he’s a student of the game. And that will take you far in pro hockey.
“Coaches value hockey sense more than anything else,” one league executive said in a conversation with The Leafs Nation.
“They like players that they can trust and that can make plays. You can’t make plays without skill, but unless you can really put it together and process the game, you’re not going to be an effective player at no matter what level you’re playing at.”
His wise-beyond-his-years hockey sense stood out to some of the Marlies veterans this past season.
“He’s really cerebral and he’s an honest, responsible player,” Sam Gagner, briefly a teammate of Brooks’ with the Marlies this past season, told The Leafs Nation via phone call.
“I think with Brooksy, it’s just a matter of confidence. When he gets an offensive opportunity, it helps with confidence and it makes him a way better player.”
For a team like Toronto, with a plethora of skilled wingers in their top-nine, Brooks may just be able to be the perfect complimentary piece – albeit if things continue to go well with his development.
Now let’s make this clear right off the bat: Engvall, especially as a centreman, is a project. But the former seventh-round pick’s upside warrants a long and hard look down the middle.
With a rare combination of size (6’5) and speed – he’s one of the fastest skaters in the Leafs’ system – along with a blistering shot and terrific puck carrying abilities, Engvall is a rare breed. And as of mid-last season, the versatile forward shifted from the wing to centre quite seamlessly.
“Any time you can get guys that are strong, can skate, score, hold on to the puck, and all those types of things—it’s a great thing. Usually, those types of players go very high in the draft,” Keefe explained.
“He’s got a lot to offer for sure. Especially now that he’s added playing centre to his resume, it opens up a whole new world of opportunity for him.”
When evaluating someone like Engvall, it would be irresponsible to merely stare at his statistics (19 goals, 32 points in the regular season; seven points in 13 games in the playoffs) not just because the AHL doesn’t release much data to the public, but because of the things he can do that the stat sheet does not do justice.
Engvall embodies everything that the Leafs want down the middle – players that can carry the puck into the zone, play with pace, be responsible defensively, a presence in front of the net, kill penalties and of course, win face-offs. He’s a modern-day power forward with blazing speed. And to have that kind of player in your bottom-six? Boy, is that ever a luxury.
“When I came in the league, your third and fourth lines were perhaps a little more competitive and grittier. And perhaps that has changed,” said Colin Greening, a Marlies veteran for the past three seasons.
“I believe that within the Leafs organization, if you look at the team they had this year, they wanted to be four lines deep. They wanted all four lines to be able to skate. That’s a big part of this particular system. I can’t speak for any other team, I know this organization places a huge emphasis on being able to kind of control the play and be able to play. And that’s something that Pierre can do.”
Of the fourth line centres Toronto has cycled through over the last few seasons – Dominic Moore, Eric Fehr, Frederik Gauthier – none have the upside of Engvall.
Sure, he may have just started playing centre towards the second half of last season and he’ll need some seasoning. But if he can pan out, Toronto could have one of the most versatile fourth line centres in the league.
You’ve probably read a lot about Nic Petan: The junior star who hasn’t been able to do much at the NHL-level but has a tremendous skill set to go with some superb AHL statistics that makes one wonder why he hasn’t been able to produce consistently at the NHL level.
Considering the fact the Leafs inked the 24-year-old forward to a two-year ($775,000) contract extension shortly after acquiring him last spring, it appears as if management believes they can unlock Petan’s hidden potential. The thing is, players of Petan’s stature – 0.21 points per game over a 113 NHL game span – don’t usually get two-year, one-way, contract extensions. But Petan did. And with the Leafs extending such a commitment to Petan, it gives them flexibility in terms of what they can do with him.
“Nobody’s going to claim a player like [Petan] off waivers, given the fact that he has a two-year contract,” speculated one member of a Western Conference NHL teams’ front office to The Leafs Nation.
If what that executive pointed out is true, then the Leafs could provide some AHL seasoning to a player who could really use some.
Ever since Petan turned pro at the start of the 2015-2016 season, he’s been yo-yoed between the Winnipeg Jets and their minor league affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. Petan showed lots of promise when he was with the Moose – 0.82 points per game in 108 AHL games played – but he was never really given much of an opportunity at the NHL level.
While his defensive game may make some question his ability to be a full-time centre at hockey’s highest level, perhaps some time spent with the organization’s development staff could iron out a few kinks in his game. And if Petan can overcome his shortcomings, the Leafs really could hit a jackpot.
If the playmaking centre can earn an opportunity with the Leafs, he’ll be placed alongside a plethora of highly skilled forwards that he could set-up and create offence with.
Everything is in place for Petan to thrive with the Leafs, he just has to prove his worth. And if he can do that, he’ll have the best opportunity in his pro career thus far to flourish at the NHL-level.