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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Dave Bolland (63) carries the puck against the Calgary Flames during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. (USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Dave Bolland (63) carries the puck against the Calgary Flames during the third period at the Air Canada Centre.

(USA TODAY Sports)

Leafs have a difficult hole to fill down the middle Add to ...

Here’s the reality for Dave Nonis as he prepares for the NHL draft.

He needs a centre. A centre is hard to find.

And, come July 1 next week, the Toronto Maple Leafs GM very well may not have one in place.

This is an odd year down the middle around the league as there are a lot of quality names out there. All of the trade talk in the lead up to the first round on Friday here in Philadelphia has been centred (excuse the pun) on Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, but the Leafs aren’t in on either player.

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Kesler has a no-movement clause and is willing to waive it for only two or three contending teams.

Spezza is an Ottawa Senator and Sens GM Bryan Murray has no intention of allowing one of his top assets end up with a heated rival.

Nonis didn’t spell it out quite like that when he met the media; he merely said the Leafs weren’t in the mix for their services.

“They’re both very good players,” Nonis said. “I think those players will probably be moved to different teams. We’re not really in on those players for various reasons.

“I don’t know what the price tag is. I would expect the price is pretty high. They’re both quality centres that are very difficult to find.”

There are other centres out there. Paul Stastny has at least half the league interested as a free agent, although he’d like to end up back in Colorado.

Vinny Lecavalier is shopping for a trade out of Philadelphia. Mikhail Grabovski, who can’t return to Toronto for obvious reasons, is getting a lot of calls, too.

But you get beyond the big names and there are less desirable options – David Legwand, Brad Richards, Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Brian Boyle etc. – and a lot of teams bidding for them.

Which brings us to Dave Bolland.

The Leafs love Dave Bolland. Brendan Shanahan does. Nonis does. Coach Randy Carlyle does. But what they don’t love is his asking price, which as of last discussions was long, long term and approaching $5-million a season.

Toronto did a deal like that last year with a free agent, and it went to David Clarkson. And that didn’t work out so well.

Bolland is getting interest from other teams during the interview period, and whatever number he comes up with from Florida or Vancouver or someone else will likely be brought back to Nonis to potentially match.

At that point, he’ll have to decide whether he pays big for what he knows (Bolland) or goes into the great unknown in free agency with no guarantee players will want to come to Toronto.

The Leafs have some cap space to make something happen at centre. But they may not be able to.

Asked about his Plan B should Bolland not work out, Nonis gave an interesting answer in the lead up to the draft.

“Your only Plan B is going to be the players you have under contract because you don’t know who else you can sign,” Nonis said, relating this situation to the one last year where Tyler Bozak held out until after free agency opened before re-signing on a five-year deal at a little more than $4-million.

“The free agent market doesn’t start until the first. Whether or not there’s other centres beside David that we would get – there are other people that we would talk to – but it’s not something where you just go from one to the other because those players would sign elsewhere as well. The only certainty that we have are players that are our own.

“There’s a number and term that we believe is fair and David and [his agent] have a different number and different term. We still have time to get something done. Last year, we were in a similar situation with Tyler Bozak and he ended up signing. Whether we get to that or not remains to be seen.”

The tough thing with that is if you plug Bolland into the Leafs cap situation at $4.5-million (as a ballpark figure) and re-sign their restricted free agents, there’s not a whole lot more Nonis will be able to do.

Here’s a mock-up of their potential cap situation presuming the cap comes in around $70-million (an announcement that should be made sometime Friday).

That essentially leaves the Leafs with $9-million to spend on three forwards to replace Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement, a defenceman to replace Paul Ranger, and a backup goaltender to replace James Reimer, should he not return.

Significantly improving over what they’ll lose won’t be easy at that number.

Other than an improved fourth line (and how could they not get better there), Toronto could have a very similar looking group to the one that finished eighth last in the NHL last season, which makes one wonder how exactly they intend to leapfrog some teams ahead of them in the standings.

A few young players like Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri still have room to grow, but beyond that, most Leafs are already in their primes and coming off solid years.

The reconfiguration of the coaching staff may help, too, but the reality is this remains a team that will be thin down the middle and on the blueline.

And there aren’t a lot of easy answers at either position.

So the Leafs lineup will be different, as a result of those handful of free agents leaving. The real question is how does it get better, aside from wishing and hoping that what’s there is more than it is.

“We’re looking at change,” Nonis said. “We’re looking to do things a little differently. We’re also looking for some of the players that were with us last year to improve. That’ll be the biggest thing we’re going to point to as we get closer to camp.

“But there is going to be change just as a function of some players moving on and probably a deal or two along the way. It’s not that we feel that we have to do something. You really can set yourself back.”

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