There’s no question that what happened to Dave Bolland’s season was a tragedy.
A hometown hero, in his first season with the team he grew up cheering for, has a great first 14 games and then suffers a devastating injury in the 15th, enough to ruin any chance of making much of an impact on the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.
You can see why management wants to read into that and right a wrong. They believed Bolland – airlifted in after winning two Stanley Cups in the last four years with Chicago – would be an integral piece to their team climbing the standings and playing a tougher brand of hockey. They still believe, 10 months later, that’s the case.
But the Bolland they’re trying to bring back isn’t the same Bolland they acquired last summer.
Bolland has played eight games since returning from a cut ankle tendon back in November, a remarkable feat given the extent of the injury, and it has been a tough go. He looks tentative, has been on the ice for a lot of key goals against and coach Randy Carlyle, Bolland’s biggest booster, is reluctant to play him.
After Saturday’s loss, the coach noted Bolland’s having so much trouble with the ankle that it is “rolling” on him and causing him to fall to the ice during games.
Bolland denied there is an issue, saying it was the coach’s decision how many minutes he played.
It’s a tough thing to hold an injury like this against the player. It was a freak accident, and he did nothing wrong on the play. He went hard into the corner on the puck against a bigger man, just as the Leafs wanted him to.
Carlyle can empathize with the unfairness of it all.
Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, who also had long NHL careers, can too.
But the reality they now need to factor in is this could hamper his skating for the rest of his career, much as ankle injuries have derailed other players like defenceman Ryan Whitney, who’s now in the AHL after years as a top four defenceman. (The good news is others, like Mike Modano, eventually made a full comeback.)
As much as they’d like to be, the Leafs aren’t in the business of rehabilitation here, and the decision they need to make is a business one, not a personal one.
And the injury is far from the only red flag.
From the beginning, it’s felt like the Leafs saw more in Bolland than what he was, which was a solid, hard-working, complementary player playing a depth role on a very good Chicago team. While his long list of injuries was a significant problem and limited his contributions with the Blackhawks, there were others as well, namely his lack of production even when playing with stars like Patrick Kane.
Chicago liked the player and tried to get every ounce that they could from Bolland, playing him on just about every line and with every type of linemate as their depth down the middle was tested. In the end, he had limited minutes in the latest Cup run, and Stan Bowman settled on younger, cheaper players he felt could fill a similar role around his already established, elite core.
This happens in pro sports all the time.
Even if his ankle makes a full recovery and he gives Toronto all of what he was in Chicago, one of the other key problems with Bolland is his asking price. Paid appropriately for his role this past season at a little more than $3.3-million, his camp is now asking for a long-term deal at money that would make him the Leafs highest paid centre next season.
And understandably so given how integral Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis have intimated he is to their plans.
Ultimately, what you have is a decision that involves a depreciating asset, one that comes with considerable risk, an overstated reputation and a higher cap hit.
No matter how much you love the player and his style of game, these are all strikes against him.
The biggest mistake Leafs management could make coming out of this lost season would be to look back and play the “what if” game with setbacks like ones Bolland and Jonathan Bernier had, especially considering how fortunate they were with injuries. (None of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri or anyone on the blueline (!) missed any real time, which could easily not be the case a year from now.)
This team’s flaws go well beyond who the checking centre was for 50-odd games in midseason. Bolland can’t fix the breakout, or the blueline, or how the other three lines play without the puck.
The truth is management’s overall game plan needs a rethink, not a doubling down on what they did a year ago, especially considering, in a capped league, they can scarcely afford another long-term mistake.
With a bad ankle, another year on his battered body and the expected asking price, that’s what Dave Bolland looks like right now.