BUFFALO, N.Y. – The James van Riemsdyk at centre experiment is ongoing, mostly because the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have much of a choice.
Van Riemsdyk was held without a point for the fifth straight game Friday in a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, his fourth since moving to the middle in the absence of Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland.
But coach Randy Carlyle didn’t take too kindly to a question about moving van Riemsdyk out of the No. 1 centre role to try to squeeze some more offence out of the Leafs, who have scored four goals in five games.
“I don’t have anybody else, and you’re a smart enough guy, you can figure that out,” Carlyle said. “What else do you want me to do? Put a defenceman at forward? Is that what you’d suggest I do?”
The Leafs are short on options, especially with two games left on Nazem Kadri’s suspension for elbowing Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom in the head. Already they are relying on 34-year-old free-agent signee Jerred Smithson to take the lion’s share of faceoffs and had to call up Trevor Smith from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Phil Kessel has played centre before, but that feels like a lifetime ago, before he developed into an elite NHL scorer. When the Leafs were short on right-wingers just before the start of the regular season, Mason Raymond said he had played all three forward spots with the Vancouver Canucks.
But van Riemsdyk made the most sense because he was a centre for his two seasons at the University of New Hampshire. The Philadelphia Flyers drafted him second overall in 2007 in part because he had an impressive blend of size and playmaking ability and could patrol the middle of the ice for a decade.
Instead, he has played almost exclusively on left wing on the NHL until a couple of ill-timed injuries forced Carlyle’s hand. Van Riemsdyk began practising at centre Nov. 4 and has been between Joffrey Lupul and Kessel or Raymond and Kessel in the four games since.
The Leafs have just two even-strength goals in that time. Asked if his playing centre had anything to do with that offensive drought, van Riemsdyk said only, “That’s not for me to decide.”
Barring something unforeseen, van Riemsdyk will be the Leafs’ top centre Saturday night against the Sabres and again Tuesday against the New York Islanders. Kadri is eligible to return from his suspension Thursday against the Nashville Predators, at which time Carlyle might be able to get creative.
Or maybe van Riemsdyk sticks in the middle until Bozak—who has been considered out indefinitely—comes off injured reserve and rejoins the lineup. The 24-year-old had five shots in Friday’s loss in Buffalo, which followed four shots Wednesday at Minnesota, and the improvement is visible.
“I definitely feel a little bit more comfortable,” van Riemsdyk said. “Obviously it’s still a work in progress. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as good as I can be as a centreman, but that’ll come. I think I’m working at it. I think I’ve been good in my own end.
“If I keep doing those things, the offence and will continue to come.”