TORONTO – Their best chance to survive the lingering and uncertain absence of two of their most trusted centres won't rest on any one player. Instead, coming off their worst outing of the season, the Leafs will have to rise as a collective unit to withstand this latest bout of adversity.
"It puts a strain on everybody else and it puts a strain on the other guys to make up some of the minutes that those two play and it gives another opportunity for other people to play higher in your lineup," said head coach Randy Carlyle, a day after the team returned from a week-long western Canadian road trip, shut out by the Canucks on Saturday night.
Carlyle couldn't say for certain when either of his top two centres would be available to return from injury.
Dave Bolland had successful surgery in Vancouver over the weekend and was due to fly back to Toronto on Monday. The 27-year-old suffered a lacerated tendon against the Canucks on Saturday, his left ankle sliced in scary fashion by the left skate of Zack Kassian.
"It's too early to say," said Carlyle of a timeframe for Bolland, who had six goals and 10 points in his first 15 games as a Leaf. "They can say that it's five months and then we hope it's two. We don't really know until the healing process starts and they do an assessment and then we'll get more tightened in on the timeframe for you."
Neither could he say with any certainty when Tyler Bozak would return.
Leading Toronto forwards in ice-time this season (21 minutes per game), the 27-year-old has been out the past four games with a hamstring injury. The earliest he can return from long-term IR is Nov. 21.
"He's still a ways away," said Carlyle, adding that Bozak had not been working out nor riding the bike.
The injured duo can't be replaced. Outside of Jay McClement, no two forwards are relied on by Carlyle in more situations than Bolland and Bozak (power play, penalty kill, opposing top lines). But in their absence, the Leafs must plug holes and move forward collectively. And they can start with 24-year-old James van Riemsdyk.
For the first time since college, van Riemsdyk may just line up at centre (Leaf management is surely scouring for additional options), slotting in at Monday's practice alongside Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
"He's played there before so it doesn't take rocket science to go in that direction," Carlyle said.
A winger growing up and right on through the ranks of the U.S. National Development Program, van Riemsdyk last played centre for two seasons at the University of New Hampshire in 2009. He made that move oddly enough because Trevor Smith – having just completed his second season with the Wildcats and now a teammate in Toronto – decided to leave college hockey and take a shot at the pros.
Already averaging upwards of 20 minutes nightly – a regular contributor on both special teams units – van Riemsdyk will be asked to continue his already impressive production at a position he's unfamiliar with in the NHL; he moved back to his natural wing position upon landing with the Flyers.
"It's completely different – well not completely different, but there is a lot of differences," said van Riemsdyk of the adjustment, noting the need for additional work on the draw.
"It's more a timing thing. You've got to be used to the feel of it – it's just a different feel. Whereas a wing, you play more in straight lines, you get to certain areas and you're going to be fine. Centre, it's a lot more reading and reacting to different situations on the ice; reacting to how they're forechecking and different things like that so you have to know how to read the different plays a little bit more."
The Leafs briefly considered moving van Riemsdyk to centre prior to last season – he watched some video – but were never pressed into a situation where they had to try it.
Increased contributions and opportunity also lie elsewhere.
Lining up in the two-hole behind van Riemsdyk in all likelihood, the Leafs will also count on getting more from Nazem Kadri, who slid onto a line with David Clarkson and Mason Raymond at Monday's practice. The 23-year-old does have 13 points already this year, but is likely to see more challenging matchups on a consistent basis (he matched up with Evgeni Malkin successfully last week) with Bolland and Bozak both out.
McClement is already logging huge minutes (nearly 17 per game, second highest of his NHL career), but he too, will be asked to do more in the absence of Bolland and Bozak, specifically in the face-off circle.
The injured centres have combined to take 65 per cent of team face-offs this season.
McClement has already seen his duties rise in this regard with Bozak out since Oct. 26; the 30-year-old took 28 face-offs against Vancouver, 28 against Calgary and 21 against Edmonton.
An opportunity additionally lies in wait for Clarkson, who returned from a 10-game suspension on Oct. 25, totaling just a single assist in his first five games. All but absent from the power play so far – he didn't see a second in games against the Oilers and Flames – the 29-year-old should see increased opportunity on the man advantage, a position he held comfortably with the Devils (14 power play goals the past two seasons).
A second line contributor for much of the past two seasons, Lupul too, should see his ice-time rise, riding on the top unit for the first time since 2011-2012, when he totaled 25 goals and 67 points in 66 games.
Predictably, Carlyle expects more from the group as a whole.
Despite boasting a sturdy 10-5-0 record (tied for first in the division), the Leafs have yet to appear at their best consistently this season; yielding nearly 37 shots against per night – second worst in the league – while totaling the most minor penalties to date.
Only the superb play of their two goaltenders – James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier both rank amongst the league leaders in save percentage – terrific special teams and incredibly accurate shooting has kept the group afloat and swimming with some success (adversity tested previously due to the Clarkson suspension and other injuries to a slew of players).
As Carlyle noted, "Injuries are a part of the life of an NHL hockey club. We're living our fair share of them and it's just the next one along the way." No excuses can and will be made, especially in light of what the plucky Ottawa Senators accomplished last season.
Led by head coach Paul MacLean, the eventual Jack Adams winner, Ottawa survived the absence of its top defender (Erik Karlsson), top centre (Jason Spezza) and top goaltender (Craig Anderson) and still managed to make the playoffs.
And so, when asked how his team could help van Riemsdyk adjust to the centre ice position, Carlyle pointed not to an individual, but to the team at large and the coaching staff additionally.
"That's what really we're trying to focus on is, we're really not giving ourselves the best chance [to win]," he said. "Some of the things that we have been doing have crept into our game and they've become more the norm than abnormal. And that's our job as a coaching staff to eliminate those things."
"Whatever we need me to do to help the team win games, I'm fine with," van Riemsdyk said.