It’s become a well-worn cliché that you build a hockey team focusing on the middle of the ice.
Get a good goalie. Add a few strong blueliners. And, perhaps most importantly, find a workhorse or two at centre and you’ll be set with the foundations of a pretty good NHL team.
That’s the theory, anyway.
“The centre icemen, you can talk to all of the masterminds that build hockey clubs, and they’re going to say they’re going to build down the middle,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said after skating his troops into the ice at Monday’s practice. “It starts from the goaltender, to defence, to centres. That’s how important they are.
“If you look at successful teams, there’s two that come to mind. You go to Pittsburgh, they’ve got [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin. You go to Boston, they’ve got [David] Krejci and [Patrice] Bergeron. Those are two big centres.
“If you look at the big hockey clubs, the teams that have had a fair amount of success, you can always point to their centre-ice position as being a solid position for them.”
Then, there are the Maple Leafs, who find themselves short there at the moment.
After David Bolland went down in Saturday’s lopsided loss in Vancouver with a severed tendon in his ankle, Carlyle is missing two of his top three centres and scrambling to fill the void until Tyler Bozak returns in about three weeks’ time.
Even with Bolland and Bozak healthy, the Leafs are not a team built on its strength at centre, but they have found ways to win 10 of their first 15 games with a recipe that included terrific goaltending and lethal offence from the wing.
Without them, Carlyle is hoping some of that strength on the wing can be converted to fill the hole.
“Whatever we need me to do to help the team win games, I’m fine with,” said James van Riemsdyk, who skated in Bozak’s spot Monday between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. “I don’t think there needs to be a discussion.”
Van Riemsdyk does have a history at centre, but it’s not a substantial one. He played there both years in college at the University of New Hampshire, a converted winger who was thrown in there when current Leafs fourth-liner Trevor Smith left school early to turn pro.
Van Riemsdyk had 74 points in 67 UNH games, but more than four years later, he is hesitant to declare himself proficient.
“I’m playing against a little bit better players now than then, so we’ll see,” he said.
His teammates are more bullish on the idea.
“We’ll find out, I guess,” Lupul said. “No, he’ll be alright. There’s a learning curve like anything. He’s going to be expected to do some different things, but he’s a good hockey player.”
Those different things? More defensive-zone responsibilities, more play with the puck, more awareness of where he is on the ice and better communication with both his defence and wingers.
And, of course, more faceoffs.
“Probably need to work on that,” van Riemsdyk said.
What’s happened at centre ice with the Leafs over the last four months has been rather remarkable. GM Dave Nonis traded for Bolland, bought out Mikhail Grabovski for $14-million, re-signed Bozak on a five-year deal and then shipped youngster Joe Colborne to Calgary for a fourth-round pick after training camp.
(In the meantime, he sunk even more money into the wing, giving free agent David Clarkson a seven-year deal at $5.25-million a season that ensured four of the Leafs five highest cap hit players would be playing there. Barring injury anyway.)
Whether they improved at centre substantially remains a matter of debate.
While Bolland has been a revelation as one of Toronto’s best players this season, as a group, the Leafs centres have often struggled to manage the puck in their own end, something directly linked to how heavily they have been outshot (nearly 11 per game).
Now with Bolland gone for what will likely be a few months and Bozak out for most of November, the Leafs will have to find a way to coax more from less in order to keep winning games.
The good news is their schedule isn’t particularly difficult, with three of their next 11 games against the last-place Buffalo Sabres and only two powerhouse teams (the Bruins and Penguins) to worry about in there.
The bad news is that a position that was already a relative weakness has been decimated, leaving van Riemdsyk the difficult challenge of learning on the fly.
But the games won’t stop coming, even if Toronto’s injury ward continues to fill up.
“That’s what life in the NHL is,” Carlyle said. “You play three games or four games a week. So there’s no real good time when players are out long term.”
“We don’t have any Sidney Crosbys or anyone that’s going to dominate the game from the middle of the ice really,” Lupul added, “but there’s plenty of teams that don’t have centres in that mode. You’ve got to work well as a five-man unit and that’s what we plan to do.”
Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle