If Toronto is the center of the hockey universe, then there might be trouble at its heart.
Since the departure of former captain and Nordic hockey god Mats Sundin, the Leafs have found themselves without a marque centerman. This isn’t to say they haven’t sought a (suitable) replacement.
Matt Stajan showed almost enough grit to fill the role, but he carried too many question marks in the skills department to ever become a serious candidate (I’m sure Calgary Flames fans will agree with this assessment). The mantle then fell immediately upon Tyler Bozak, who joined the big team straight from university. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to say he’s botched this early exam.
The Leafs’ luck in free agency hasn’t proved any better.
Last season the team failed to land the top free agent available at the position, Brad Richards, and they completely dropped the ball on Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who were both made available by a Philadelphia team desperate to overpay Ilya Bryzgalov.
In place of Richards, the Leafs signed Tim Connolly – a potentially good second line center, but not one who can carry the task of pivoting the first line in all of hockey. (If anything, he’d likely suffer a shoulder injury from the weight and/or a concussion from the mental pressure.)
As expected, Connolly’s meteoric rise from the lowlight in Buffalo (because, let’s be honest, Buffalo is best seen in the dark) to the spotlight in Toronto quickly reversed itself. A series of early injuries pushed Connolly back in the depth chart, and towards the end of the season, he found himself battling David Steckel for ice time. The situation would have been even dire had the Leafs shown more patience with Pascal Dupuis.
In any event, the Leafs’ search continued into the present off-season where they failed to land Jordan Staal or Olli Jokinen, who were arguably the best available centers. (Having said this, I doubt any team other than Carolina could have nabbed Staal. There must be a close connection or two.)
This time, however, the Leafs had a backup plan: they would trade one of their young, but struggling defenceman, namely local whipping boy Luke Schenn, to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for one of their young, but struggling wingers.
Enter James van Riemsdyk.
Huge expectations were immediately placed on the likeable American. Not only would he be removing the black, orange and white of the Philadelphia Flyers for the Blue & White (& Red) of everyone’s favourite team, but it was soon revealed that he would be given the chance to fill Sundin’s skates.
Forget the fact van Riemsdyk – or “JVR” as the kids say – has spent the majority of his (young) NHL career at left wing. The Leafs needs a big, talented center and JVR meets one of these requirements.
At 6’3″ tall and 200 pounds, there’s no doubt he’s big, but what about the other two criteria? Is the situation in Toronto so desperate that they are willing to redeploy a potentially good second line winger at center on the first line?
Despite my earlier comments, I don’t think the Leafs are that desperate. What the team – which includes management, players and fans alike – lacks is patience, not talent.
For one thing, if the team was honest with itself, Mikhail Grabovski would already be plugging the hole. He has managed two consecutive seasons of 50+ points playing between Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. These are players whose production dropped 29 and 19 points respectively over the last two seasons while Grabovski’s production dropped only seven points during the same period.
In my opinion, this should say enough. Nonetheless, it can be added that playing van Riemsdyk at left wing on the second line – his “natural” position – in place of the inconsistent Kulemin would go some way towards stabilizing the line.
There’s also the issue of chemistry. We know that Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel like to play together – and we sure like to see them together – but Bozak looks comfortable playing with them as well. In evaluating Bozak’s performance to date, it’s important to remember that he came straight from university to play on Toronto’s top line, and that he has gradually increased his points totals every year since joining the big team.
Bozak is no Sundin so we shouldn’t expect 33 goals and 41 assists in his fourth season with the club, but we can expect some further progress.
The true center of the controversy may ultimately rest with the narrowness of the media lens that is put on the Leafs. It tends to focus on the handful of problems currently plaguing the team, not the many positives surrounding them.
After all, this is an incredibly young group of players, and where Sundin always stood out for his age – at first, he was too young, but later he became too old – the core of the team finally has a chance to mature together.
If it worked in Los Angeles, it can work here. (That would make Connolly our Dustin Penner, no?)
We deserve it more, too.
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