TORONTO – James van Riemsdyk wouldn't quite go so far as to admit relief at returning to his natural left wing position on Saturday, but it was evident in his actions.
The 24-year-old's four-game experiment at centre came to an end with the early morning trade for Peter Holland. Back on the wing alongside Holland and Phil Kessel, van Riemsdyk scored twice in the opening 14 minutes of an eventual 4-2 Leafs win.
“I'm probably a little more comfortable playing there,” said van Riemsdyk of returning to the wing, his team hanging on to beat the Sabres at the Air Canada Centre, losing just a night earlier in Buffalo. “Maybe allows me to do some different things as far as being in front of the net a little more often. That's a big part of my game obviously.”
The two goals he scored – his eighth and ninth this season – were almost carbon copies.
Instinctively traveling to the front of the net off a pair of faceoff wins – one at even-strength and one on the power-play – van Riemsdyk redirected a pair of Cody Franson point shots behind Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth.
He had been pointless in the previous five games, four of those during an unlikely return to centre.
Dinged badly by injuries to Tyler Bozak (hamstring) and Dave Bolland (ankle) in the past couple weeks – and then without a suspended Nazem Kadri – the Leafs had little choice but to try the former New Hampshire Wildcat down the middle.
Though he accepted the role under dire circumstances – he hadn't played there in the NHL – it was evident that he rarely felt comfortable in the position, especially in the offensive end. Following a 3-1 loss in Buffalo on Friday evening, van Riemsdyk was asked if his struggles to produce offence had anything to do with the shift to centre.
“That's not for me to decide,” he said sharply.
Questioned himself, Randy Carlyle said he had no other choice but to position van Riemsdyk down the middle with his top three centres all out.
“I don't have anybody else,” said Carlyle with some frustration.
Early on Saturday morning another option arrived. A Toronto native – Caledon more specifically – Holland joined the Leafs from Anaheim, flipped alongside Brad Staubitz in exchange for Jesse Blacker and a pair of draft picks.
Acquired in the summer of 2012 from Philadelphia, van Riemsdyk had 18 goals in his first season with the Leafs, emerging as a dynamic partner for Kessel. Off to another fine start this winter, he posted seven goals and 13 points in his first 12 games.
Thrust into the middle when Bolland went down with injury in Vancouver, van Riemsdyk failed to muster a point in the next four games.
“I wasn't exactly disappointed in how I played at centre,” he said, noting proficiency in the defensive end. “I thought I definitely gave it my all there.”
And, though he refused to rule his brief stopover at centre a failure, it was quite clear on Saturday that he was right back where he belonged.
1. Holland trade
Looking to stem the void at centre and add depth additionally to their organizational ranks, the Leafs acquired the 22-year-old Holland from Anaheim on Saturday morning.
He raced to join the club in time for an evening affair against the Sabres.
Holland had been in Providence, Rhode Island on Friday evening, where he scored a goal and had two assists for Norfolk in a 4-3 win. On to Manchester, New Hampshire, he received word of the trade from Ducks general manager Bob Murray the next morning at around 10 a.m.
A phone call followed from his new boss Dave Nonis shortly thereafter; Nonis offered a welcome and all the pertinent flight information for the trip home. Holland then drove from Manchester to Boston, landing in Toronto at 3 p.m. He then checked into a local hotel and arrived at the ACC shortly after 4 p.m.
Suffice to say it was a hectic day.
“That's one word that could describe it,” he said, “but at the same time it's also really exciting. Coming back to my hometown I was fortunate enough to get a lot of my friends and family to the game tonight, my first one ever in Toronto.”
Returning home, Holland predictably received an avalanche of text messages.
“My phone was on the two-hour battery life,” he said. “I had to plug it in as soon as I got to the Boston airport. It was exploding pretty much all day.”
A first round pick of the Ducks in 2009, Holland had 29 games of NHL experience before joining the Leafs, totaling five goals and seven points. Skilled offensively, he had yet to establish himself as a consistent force in Anaheim, playing for their AHL affiliate at the time of the trade.
2. Holland's debut
Placed in a prominent position alongside van Riemsdyk and Kessel, Holland played just under 12 minutes against the Sabres, winning 7 of 11 faceoffs.
“I thought he did okay,” said Carlyle, slightly familiar with Holland from the Ducks organization. “It's hard when a young guy comes in. And it's not like we hid him in the lineup. We put him in a position to play with Kessel and van Riemsdyk. That's what we believe in. We believe that if you acquire players or have young players it wouldn't be right to put them in a non-offensive situation.”
“I was impressed with him,” van Riemsdyk said. “I think he's definitely a very heady player, thinks the game well, really responsible player.”
Holland will get at least one more prominent opportunity. Nazem Kadri's three-game suspension will conclude when the Islanders come to town on Tuesday. Bozak meanwhile, is expected to join his teammates at practice early next week and could be in line to return early the following week. The 27-year-old has been out since Oct. 25.
3. The mysterious case of Kulemin's disappearing offence
Over the course of his first three seasons in the NHL, a stretch of 233 games, Nik Kulemin scored 61 goals – a formidable rate of one goal every 3.82 games. Since that point, the offence has slowed considerably for the now 27-year-old winger.
Though he remains an effective defensive player – employed mostly in a defensive role – and reliable penalty killer for the Leafs, his gradual disappearance as an offensive threat is rather mysterious.
“It's hard to say,” Kulemin told the Leaf Report. “Sometimes it happens, sometimes that the puck didn't go in. Some years, you get so many opportunities that you just didn't score. Sometimes you just don't have a chance to shoot or [get] scoring chances.”
Kulemin finally scored his first goal of the season against the Sabres on Saturday, what proved to be the game-winner. He has totaled a mild 15 goals over the past two-plus seasons (126 games) – slowing to a rate of one goal every 8.4 games or more than double his earlier pace.
Goals Per Game
Shots Per Game
Never a high volume shooter – his 30 goals in 2010-2011 came on 173 shots – Kulemin is hardly shooting the puck at all these days. His lone shot of the game Saturday, one that beat Enroth on a feed from Mason Raymond, was just third all season.
“It's not enough for me,” said Kulemin, who played 18 minutes. “I [need to] keep looking for more shot opportunities and more shots on goal every game.”
4. Hanging on for victory
On the ropes until the very end, the Leafs were outshot 17-5 in the final 20 minutes. Buffalo scored twice in the opening six minutes of the third frame to cut a 3-0 Toronto lead down to one.
“It's tough to keep any team stifled for the whole game,” van Riemsdyk said. “They made some plays and then, that being said, I think we also got away from the way we want to play too.”
A source of success in the opening period, the Leafs aggressive forecheck diminished as Saturday's action wore on. The Sabres forcefully asserted their presence in the second – they outshot the Leafs 12-7 – and right on into the third.
Only a power-play marker from Mason Raymond that increased the lead back to two seemed to stem their momentum. “This one wasn't high on artistic value, but it's two points and we'll move on,” Carlyle said.
Having dropped four of the previous five games with an increasingly stagnant offence, a victory was certainly needed.
5. Fraser injury
Yet to dress a full lineup this season, the Leafs lost Mark Fraser to a lower-body injury against the Sabres. The 27-year-old, who had recently returned from a lengthy stint on injured reserve, was forced to remove himself after just five shifts in the opening period.
“We thought that it would be something that would go away, subside through the course of the second period,” said Carlyle. “Just didn't feel right.”
Carlyle didn't think the injury was serious.
“I hope not,” he said. “When you take yourself out of a game it's serious enough. I don't think it's something that's going to be weeks. I hope it's day-to-day right now.”
Fraser missed 13 games earlier this season with an MCL tear in his left knee.
3 – Shots on goal for Nik Kulemin this season.
10 – Games without a goal for David Clarkson this season.
11:43 – Ice-time for Peter Holland in his Leafs debut.
2 – Multi-goal games for James van Riemsdyk this season.
1 – Point in the last seven games for Phil Kessel. Kessel played a season-low 15 minutes against the Sabres.
26:14 – Ice-time for Carl Gunnarsson on Saturday, a season-high.
60 per cent – Leafs success rate on the draw against the Sabres.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“This one wasn't high on artistic value, but it's two points and we'll move on.”
-Randy Carlyle on the victory over Buffalo on Saturday.
The Leafs play host to the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.