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Mirtle: Bolland could be more than just checker for Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) and center Dave Bolland (63) celebrate win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The comparison was a tough one.

And it was, in some ways, a little unfair.

But so they come sometimes with the spotlight that shines on the Toronto Maple Leafs and so it was on the first Saturday night of the NHL season, when Don Cherry drew a straight line between a Hockey Hall of Famer and Leafs newcomer Dave Bolland.

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"Does Bolland not remind you of Dougie Gilmour? … Does he not look like him?" Cherry said excitedly to Ron MacLean to open his segment. "Banging and smashing? Look at that pass there. Beautiful pass just like Dougie."

Bolland, who grew up watching Gilmour, Cherry and the Leafs in nearby Mimico, Ont., could only chuckle quietly when asked about such heady praise on Monday.

"That's a little bit of a… a little out there," Bolland said. "Being in that kind of category. I think Dougie was a great player when he played and when I was younger I sort of modelled myself the way he was and the way he presented himself on the ice.

"Any way I can play the game like him, it could be a nice career."

In fairness to the dean of Hockey Night in Canada, he seemed to make the connection more based on appearance than anything.

Similar to Gilmour, Bolland is a scrappy, undersized centre, and his No. 63 is also an obvious homage to Gilmour's famed No. 93, one that can look mighty similar in the heat of play with his jersey creased on his back.

But where Gilmour was a superstar in his time in Toronto – including two seasons with more than 110 points and a memorable run to the conference finals – Bolland has always been more of a role player in his time in the NHL, someone tasked more with shutting down the Gilmour-types around the league than scoring goals.

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After a 130-point season in junior with the London Knights at 19, he settled in with the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks mainly as an effective checker, drawing 17-plus minutes a night against other teams' top lines.

And yet, while Bolland's 168 points in 332 career games in Chicago hardly measure up to a Gilmour comparison, the Leafs saw the potential for more in his game when they acquired him at the draft for three draft picks this past summer.

That night in Newark, general manager Dave Nonis noted that Bolland could surprise some with his versatility, potentially becoming more than the oft-injured 15-goal, 35-point player he appeared to be in Chicago.

"I think he can play up and down the lineup," Nonis said, pointing out his OHL success. "He's got enough skill that he can play with real good players; he's got enough grit that he can play against really good players. I think he's going to be given a very significant role with us."

Through three games in Toronto, that's proven rather prescient. It's a small sample size, but with several players out of the lineup and despite limited power play time, Bolland has two goals and an assist and has probably been his team's best player en route to helping them to a 3-0-0 start.

If it's a sign of things to come, and not just an early blip, it could be a huge boost for a team that's been searching for depth down the middle for years.

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After falling out of favour in Chicago – he played just 13 minutes a night during last year's Stanley Cup run, down from almost 19 a game as part of their 2010 championship – Bolland is also now more motivated than ever by playing at home, in front of family and friends.

Like new linemate Mason Raymond, he is coming off a tough season and is in a contract year, two variables that may pay off for a Leafs team in need of strong defensive forwards.

"He sees the ice so well," Raymond said. "He's a great two-way player, very reliable in his own end, and he's got great offensive instincts. It's been enjoyable to play with him."

"When you're around him and watch how professional he is and how hard he works and how committed he is, it's one of those things I think our younger players should be able to grasp onto," Carlyle added.

Just how productive Bolland can be offensively is an interesting question to ponder, too, especially considering he should get a prolonged chance to share the ice with players like Raymond.

While the Blackhawks gave him plenty of ice time with Patrick Kane last season in a bit of a departure from the norm, Bolland had only 14 points in 35 games, struggling with injuries and inconsistency to the point that he lost his spot in the lineup by the time the playoffs came around.

Even so, if you examine his last three years of production, there are reasons to believe he can contribute higher in the Leafs lineup than he did in Chicago.

Bolland, for example, has had 0.51 points per game and 0.33 even strength points per game over that span compared to 0.53 and 0.36 for Toronto's top centre, Tyler Bozak, who has benefited from substantially more ice time and playing with Phil Kessel.

Bolland's contributions are even more impressive given the fact he has been handed tough minutes by Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. Not only has Bolland started more than twice as many of his shifts in the defensive zone compared to the offensive one, the Leafs have had 61 per cent of the shots on goal at even strength with him on the ice, the best such ratio on the team.

Bolland's presence has also even begun to cut into youngster Nazem Kadri's ice time, giving Carlyle more late-game options at centre as long as he continues to produce.

"I think we had a great team in Chicago there," Bolland said of assuming a bigger role in Toronto. "A lot of guys who did their jobs and did the right things to win and that's what we did. Here it could be a different thing for myself.

"It's going to be bringing everything forward – if it's scoring, it's scoring; if it's playing against their top lines and shutting them down then that's it. For myself, whatever happens any given night, I'm going to help the team win."

The fact he is a local, meanwhile, is just another side benefit for a franchise that is still working toward "earning the respect back," in the words of its old-school coach.

"We want good players. I don't care if they come from Timbuktu," Carlyle said. "But it is a nice little added touch when you have local guys coming into your market and playing well. They're expected to be part of the leadership core."

"I want to play here and I want to do big things here in Toronto," Bolland said. "It's a great place to play.


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