The Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to buy time by playing James van Riemsdyk at center as they attempt to survive the injury bug.
With injuries to Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, the Leafs are desperate to fill a suddenly significant void down the middle. When Bozak went down, it was expected Bolland would be leaned on to help fill Bozak’s minutes at center. Now with both the defensive checkers out of action, it appears that left-winger James van Riemsdyk will be looked at as the team’s new top-line center.
The 6-foot-3 power forward hasn’t played center since he was in college, converting into a winger at the pro-level. The thought process is that with his big body combined with his exceptional skating ability, van Riemsdyk will be strong and quick enough to survive at center. Being one of the team’s better penalty-killers, it’s believed that van Reimsdyk will be able to properly defend the position as well.
He’ll need to have his head on a swivel given the differences between playing left-wing and center. Previously, van Riemsdyk would just have to keep his back to the boards and watch the play develop in front of him. Now he’ll have to keep his head constantly rotating, as he’ll always be in the middle of the action.
If he can handle how much quicker and how much more of a defensive priority playing center is, the Leafs could solve their center dilemma without having to go outside the organization. If van Riemsdyk struggles at center, then they can simply put him back on the wing. All this move is meant to do is buy Toronto time so injuries can heal. With Bozak out at least two more weeks, the Leafs are trying to fill a void with players already on the roster so they don’t have to move assets to acquire a center.
It’s well known that the Leafs still need a legitimate first-line center, therefore they are trying to save assets needed to acquire such a player and not use them on a bandage fix to the roster. Toronto is limited in assets as it is, which is why it makes little sense to panic and trade for a center without testing out options already on the roster. If van Riemsdyk doesn’t work out, they could try Phil Kessel. If Kessel doesn’t work out they try an AHL call-up. If the call-up doesn’t work then hopefully it has bought the team enough time that injuries have healed and Bozak is able to return to the line-up.
Van Riemsdyk doesn’t have to play perfectly at center; all he has to do is not completely suck. If the Leafs can somehow avoid a major losing streak in their next eight games or so, then the experiment of playing wingers at center would be considered a success. If Toronto does go on a multiple game losing streak, then they’ll know they have no choice but to use assets to acquire help down the middle.
The Leafs are in a tough spot thanks to the injury bug and they’ve resorted to gambling by playing van Riemsdyk at center. However, if the gamble pays off, then Toronto management will have avoided making any unplanned trades as a result of the injuries.
Unfortunately, if the gamble doesn’t pay off and the Leafs can’t overcome the injuries down the middle, then Toronto can kiss its strong start to the season goodbye.