It was just an idea. A notion even.
Back in the summer of 2012, Randy Carlyle was wrapping up an 18-game stint as the Leafs coach when he wondered out loud about the possibility of moving James van Riemsdyk from left wing to centre.
“I made that comment over the summer months and it was big news,” Carlyle was saying.
“This was my first test on maybe I should shut my mouth.”
What Carlyle didn’t recognize was that since March 8, 2008, Mats Sundin’s final game for the Leafs, fans has pined for a linchpin player, a big, gifted centreman.
When he mentioned van Riemsdyk, who is six-foot-three, an excellent skater and a player with emerging offensive abilities, Carlyle tapped into that fervent wish. Poor devil.
It’s not that van Riemsdyk is a classic centre waiting to happen. It’s just that people are tired of waiting for that prototype player to glide down into the lineup like a paper airplane lofted from the upper deck.
You have to admit, if James van Riemsdyk is going to be recast as a centreman, this would be an awfully good time to start.
There is no timetable for the return of Tyler Bozak from a severe hamstring injury and no one is even guessing about a possible return for Dave Bolland whose left ankle was surgically repaired Sunday after being sliced open by a skate blade in Vancouver.
Carlyle, engagingly blunt as always, said that with only Nazem Kadri, Jay McClement and Trevor Smith on hand to man the middle, the obvious choice to play centre is van Riemsdyk, for two years a centreman during carefree days at the University of New Hampshire.
“He’s played there before,” Carlyle said. “It’s not rocket science to go in that direction when a player has previously played that, not at the pro level but at the college level.”
Modern NHL coaches put more stock in twosomes than trios. The first link in mining chemistry, the thinking goes, is to first hit upon a pairing that works. Everything after that is gravy.
The Leafs’ dominant pair is Phil Kessel and van Riemsdyk. Kessel leads the team with 18 points in 15 games. Kadri and van Riemsdyk are responsible for 13 points each.
Carlyle had van Riemsdyk between Joffrey Lupul and Kessel at practice on Monday and that combination should be the focus of plenty of fine tuning. The Leafs don’t play until Friday when they host the New Jersey Devils. Nazem Kadri figures to anchor the second unit with Mason Raymond and David Clarkson in that game.
Van Riemsdyk has always considered himself a natural left winger and why not? The centreman’s life is mostly toil: jousting in the face-off circle, mucking out the defensive zone. Nikolai Kulemin once hit upon the salient argument against switching to the middle. “No way,” he said. “Too much work.”
For his part, van Riemsdyk said he is up to it.
“I guess the centre you’re lower and supporting the puck more, you’re not leading the charge up the ice,” he said. “You have to adjust your game accordingly but I still have to try to get to the net no matter where I’m playing.”
Carlyle becomes rhapsodic when mentioning the clubs powered by big, powerful centremen.
“You go to Pittsburgh and you have (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin. Boston has (David) Krejci and (Patrice) Bergeron. The Staal brothers (Eric and Jordan) in Carolina. You look at the big programs, the big hockey clubs, teams who have had a lot of success, you can always point to their centre-ice position.”
For his part, Lupul thinks van Riemsdyk has the goods.
“There’s a learning curve like anything,” Lupul said. “He’ll be expected to do some different things but he’s a good hockey player. He understands the game offensively and defensively. I’m sure the coaches are going to talk to him a lot. We’re going to talk to him a lot on the ice. He’ll figure it out.”