Ever since the day Mats Sundin ceased to be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the organization has lacked a quality first line centre. Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski (now with the Washington Capitals), and Nazem Kadri have all played well, but none have been a top-level go-to-guy up the middle.
To make matters worse, some fairly signifiant injuries to Bozak and Dave Bolland have left the Leafs desperately thin between the wings. Rather than force a trade or panic, the first reaction by GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle has been to try winger James van Riemsdyk as number one centre. It’s a move that could pay huge dividends.
JVR has limited-to-zero experience at centre in the NHL. Assuming he’ll jump right in and shine at the position is far-fetched and unreasonable. If he can, however, naturally take to centre-ice, the Leafs may be laughing moving forward.
It’s obvious. The great centres in the league aren’t for sale. Why would they be? Look around at all the top centre ice men on other teams – they were basically all drafted by the organization they’re currently with. The list is long: Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Steven Stamkos in Tampa, Toews in Chicago, John Tavares with the New York Islanders, and so on.
Finding a top centre via trade is not realistic. Therefore, the potential emergence of JVR up the middle could be enormous for the franchise over the next few seasons.
Here is why JVR might be able to succeed at centre: He’s a great skater, a trait he shares with top centres around the league. For a man who stands 6’3″ according to hockeydb.com, JVR skates smoothly and quickly for his size. Already great at driving the net, he won’t need to remove that element of his game by playing centre. Some of the top centres in the game score a bunch of their goals by driving the net. Jonathan Toews, Stamkos, Tavares, Evgeni Malkin and Eric Staal are some of the best at finishing plays in close.
It might take time for van Riemsdyk to become a strong face-off man, but the Leafs don’t exactly have a good one to begin with. Aside from Jay McClement, who is an impressive 54% on draws this season, the rest of the Blue & White have struggled.
Injured centres Bozak and Bolland are 46.2% and 41.3%, respectively. Meanwhile, the team’s other natural centre Kadri is 43.7%. If winning draws is an issue for JVR, he is not alone in that distinction amongst Leafs middle men. Face-off percentage stats courtesy of NHL.com.
The thought of a big skill guy like JVR performing solidly at centre must be an exciting one for Carlyle and Nonis. In the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Bruins, Leafs centres were often overwhelmed by the size and savvy of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Perhaps a seasoned JVR is better suited for that role than Bozak or Bolland, who are good players, but neither is an impact weapon like van Riemsdyk can be.
This new found responsibility is an incredible opportunity for van Riemsdyk. If he’s great at centre, he solves a lot of problems for the Leafs and becomes a key player on this team, much more so than he could ever be as a winger.
Bozak can’t play until November 21st the earliest because of his status on Long-Term IR. Bolland’s return date is undetermined, but the chances of him rejoining the club within the next four weeks are virtually impossible due to the nature of his injury (torn tendons in his foot). The truth is, he could be out for months.
Over the next three to six weeks the door is wide open for James van Riemsdyk to establish himself as a top centre on the Leafs. The former 2nd overall pick has all the physical tools to be great at the position. If he also possesses the head for it, he may do very well as Leafs top centre, and solve a long lingering problem for the Buds.