NASHVILLE – There were a group of them there from the Knights family at the local sports bar in London, Ontario watching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final this past June. They observed with no surprise whatsoever their former teammate scoring what proved to be the Cup-clinching goal with 59 seconds left on the clock at TD Garden.
"The more pressure, the higher he rises," former Knights teammate Dylan Hunter told the Leaf Report.
Boasting a pair of Stanley Cups to his name, Dave Bolland, a native of Mimico, Ontario, has made a striking impression in the initial days of his tenure with the Leafs. Known to possess a knack for winning, he has proved a versatile addition to the Toronto lineup and a particular favourite of head coach Randy Carlyle.
"He always took his role," said Hunter, "and took it to the maximum that it could [go]."
Linemates in London years ago, Hunter and Bolland were joined by Robbie Schremp on one of the most dangerous combinations junior hockey has seen in recent memory. Now an assistant coach with the Knights and still a close friend of the 27-year-old Leafs centre, Hunter recalls a player who owned a lot of the same traits which have found him success at the NHL level.
"He'd piss a lot of people off just by the way he played," Hunter remembered, noting the grittier aspects of Bolland's game. "But at the same time he was an offensive juggernaut I guess you could say in the OHL."
Shortly after he swung the summer trade with the Blackhawks, Leafs general manager Dave Nonis hinted that Bolland might be capable of more offence in Toronto than he had provided in Chicago, his junior history lending credence to the theory.
In his final season with the Knights, Bolland finished second in the OHL scoring race, totaling a sizeable 57 goals and 130 points. Crowding the charts, Schremp finished first, Hunter just a shade back in the fourth spot.
"He was well-rounded when it came to his offensive skills," Hunter said of Bolland, who has scored 15 goals or more three times in six NHL seasons.
"He's got good skill with the puck, he's smart with it, he protects it well with his body and he's got a good set of hands so he can be very effective in making plays," Cody Franson explained to the Leaf Report, with the 26-year-old former Predator squaring off with Bolland in the first round of the playoffs in 2010, and the Blackhawks capturing their first Cup in 49 years later that spring.
Though he was acquired with a well-rounded game in mind, hints of offence from the former Knight could prove consequential, especially with the loss of Mikhail Grabovski to a buyout this past summer and likely regression from Nazem Kadri, who raced to 44 points in 48 games last season.
Now the boss in Toronto, Carlyle got his first hints of what Bolland could offer while he was still leading the bench in Anaheim. He took note of how his counterpart in Chicago, Joel Quenneville, employed the 2004 second-round selection, using him as a defensive matchup opposite the Ducks best weapons, Ryan Getzlaf and former Knights teammate, Corey Perry.
"The little light goes on," Carlyle said recently. "You remember those things."
It's that versatility which has made him an attractive asset to the Leafs head coach. He can employ Bolland in an array of situations – penalty kill, power-play, end of game defensive spots, top-6, bottom-6 – almost a plus-version of Jay McClement, the former bringing more offence to the table.
"He was always that guy," Hunter recalled, "whatever the coach needed or the team needed he was always ready to fill that role no matter what."
The Leafs got their first look at that "dynamic" ability in training camp. They took note of how strong Marlie-bound winger Spencer Abbott looked alongside Bolland and Raymond, quickly gleaning that Bolland was the instigator of such success.
That look extended into the early stages of the regular season.
Needing a more suitable match-up for Vincent Lecavalier and the Flyers second line early in the second game of the season in Philadelphia, Carlyle slid Bolland up onto a line with Joffrey Lupul and Nik Kulemin, replacing Kadri. His efforts would be rewarded. Bolland scored twice, including the eventual game-winner.
Bolland has shown a knack for winning throughout his career, even stretching back to his junior days in London.
The Knights were a fearsome juggernaut in 2005, led by the likes of Bolland, Perry, Hunter and Schremp, in addition to future NHL talents such as Brandon Prust, Marc Methot, and Dan Girardi. Not to be trifled with, London would march to a staggering 59-7-2 record in the regular season, outscoring foes by an incredible 310-125 margin. They would coast through the OHL playoffs with a 16-2 mark, capping a perfect hometown Memorial Cup with a 4-0 stomping of Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic in the final.
Five years down the road, Bolland would muster up eight goals and 16 points when the Blackhawks won their first Cup in the modern era, teaming with former Leaf Kris Versteeg and future Jets captain Andrew Ladd on a sturdy third line. Sliding down the depth chart in 2013, he would nevertheless string together three goals and five points in the Cup Final against Boston, his history-catching moment ending the Bruins season in Game 6.
"He's one of those guys that lives in the big situations," Franson said of Bolland. "He's a guy that you can count on to be calm and confident in those last dying seconds in the defensive zone. He's a guy that you can put out there to get the puck to the net when you need a goal. He's just a guy that you can count on in a bunch of different circumstances.
"Having went through what we through with Boston at the end of last year that experience would've been huge for us," he continued, referencing the stinging Game 7 loss to the Bruins. "Having that experience back there is just something that you can't teach."
It's part of the equation that made him attractive to the Leafs this past summer. A more suitable fit for Carlyle than the soon-to-be departed Grabovski, Bolland finally became available after the Blackhawks victory, since Chicago needed to pay playoff star Bryan Bickell. The deal would cost the Leafs three draft picks, including a second-round selection in 2013.
Sharing a house in downtown London with Bolland as a teenager, Hunter described Bolland then as "hyper" and someone who "was always up for anything", also chuckling at his buddy's interest in furniture and interior decoration.
"We're all still pretty tight," Hunter said of the group that captured the Memorial Cup that one dominant year last decade. "They always say, you win a championship with a team it's something that bonds you and it did with us. We're still going strong, 10 years later."
Like a lot of the old Knights, Bolland even bought a house in London. He and Hunter remain close, golfing and barbequing in the summer, his former teammate paying a visit to Toronto last week.
Asked if he was surprised by the level of success Bolland had attained at the NHL level thus far, Hunter didn't blink.
"No," he said. "He's one of those guys that for as many points as he put up he was always a team-first guy. Anybody that watches him play knows that."