After losing Tyler Bozak it seemed like the Leafs could work through their lack of centre depth, but now that Dave Bolland is out long term, the Leafs will have to get creative if they want to rebound from this latest setback. What was once a balanced and effective centre corps is now in shambles. The Leafs have a few options to fix their ailing depth chart. Moving James van Riemsdyk to the middle is the first option the Leafs have looked at, but should JVR not be able to make the transition, the Leafs will have to look at the trade market and the Marlies for a solution down the middle.
JVR’s past as a centre was subject to quite a bit of talk upon his arrival in Toronto, some people thinking he could be the elusive, big number-one centre missing since the departure of Mats Sundin. JVR was drafted as a centre, and during his two years at the University of New Hampshire he played as a pivot. When he turned pro, the Flyers had an abundance of depth at centre and converted him to the wing, where he has played his entire professional career. With JVR moving to centre, Joffrey Lupul will jump up to the first line left-wing spot, which, if van Riemsdyk pans out, could give Toronto one of the highest producing lines in the league.
JVR has the tools required of a top-line pivot with his mix of size, speed and skill all making him a force to be reckoned. He’s also shown talent on the penalty kill, which will come in handy as neither Phil Kessel or Lupul are known for their defensive play. On this note, I personally think that bringing Nikolai Kulemin up to the first line would be a better idea than Lupul. There are bound to be growing pains for the top line and Kulemin would provide a lot of defensive stability that Lupul does not bring.
But moving JVR to centre isn’t all peaches and cream, as he’s never taken faceoffs on a regular basis since being drafted. Also, given how hapless the Leafs are at taking draws I don’t see him improving much as the season goes on as I don’t have much confidence in the coaching staff in this regard. Another concern is JVR might not adjust to the new workload as well, as changing positions means he’ll have to learn the team’s systems and plays a second time, but in a completely different position. It’s probably fair to expect he’ll make a few mental mistakes while adjusting his game.
One final concern is JVR’s streakiness and inconsistency. While he has put forth a reliable effort so far this season, he has in the past turned invisible for games on end. This isn’t something JVR can allow himself to do with all the extra pressure on his shoulders.
Should the JVR experiment prove to be a failure, the Leafs still have a few options. Greg McKegg and Spencer Abbott are both centremen whose styles fit into the top-six mold, and either of them could be used as a stop-gap on the second line while Nazem Kadri takes first-line duties with Bozak on the shelf.
There’s also the trade market to look at. The Leafs could look to upgrade at centre by trading for a middle-six centre who can play on the second line for the time being, and slide down to the third line when Bozak makes his return. Players like Rich Peverley, Martin Hanzal and Steve Ott could fit the bill. I don’t think this is the right path to take, as the Leafs would have to give up some sort of asset to get one of those players, and it doesn’t seem wise to lose assets to solve a temporary problem.
Overall, I think the JVR experiment could pay off huge dividends, or more likely at least keep the top-six afloat. I never thought I’d be hoping for the return of Bozak to the first line so much.