Only in Toronto would an innocent comment made on July 5th cause such an uproar throughout the fanbase. Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun today tweeted that Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle plans to try new acquisition James van Riemsdyk at centre to begin training camp, and instantly people began losing their shit. Of course trying things out during training camp is par for the course, but this information from Koshan was an apparent confirmation to many hysterical fans that Brian Burke will not acquire a legitimate top line pivot. While hysteria and anger is expected following seven straight seasons without post season hockey, fans must be patient and realize that the lineup today will most certainly be different come October. Burke confirmed as much on Tuesday night while speaking on The Fan 590 in Toronto. In case you haven’t heard the interview, Burke said that there was only a remote possibility that the current version of the blue and white will be the one starting camp. Based on that I really wouldn’t jump to conclusions from one small comment about where a player will start in training camp. Heavy lifting needs to be done this summer and by all accounts Burke and his team of geniuses are pounding the pavement in an attempt to accomplish that.
What’s the Big Deal?
As for the decision to try out JVR down the middle, why the hell not? Training camp means absolutely nothing. The main thing is that the players get in proper shape, and skating down the middle or on the wing makes no difference in that regard. While Burke has stated that van Riemsdyk has played centre in the past, I’ve always heard about him as a winger. Even heading into the 2007 entry draft JVR was classified as a winger. As far as I know – and I will admit I am prone to being wrong – the former Flyer never played centre in college either. Therefore I don’t know how far back the Leafs brass is going when thinking of this move, but their intel is definitely better than mine, so they get the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand JVR is 6′ 3″ and 200 lbs, meaning that he obviously fills the Leafs’ desperate need for size down the middle. The general fear is that van Riemsdyk will have problems adjusting to the defensive side of the game as a centre, and of course his lack of experience in the faceoff dot. As a member of the Philadelphia Flyers last season van Riemsdyk squared off only five times (he won two) all season. Having a top line centre lacking such a valuable skill is something that should end this experiment very quickly. Not to mention the fact that under Carlyle the days of Leafs forwards looking lost in their own zone will be eliminated. Something tells me this is all just idle chatter in early July.
I personally prefer the Leafs to allow van Riemsdyk to play his natural position so that he adjusts easily into his new team. While I do think that many of us are making a mountain out of a mole hill with this issue, should this experiment last longer than I expect it to there could be some significant ramifications. JVR will be playing on a Leafs team that is under fire for their lack of success of late. As a new member he will be looked upon to be a major player in righting the ship. Considering the fact that JVR drew the ire of many of the Flyers faithful throughout his career, it is crucial that he get off to a good start with the blue and white. Should he be miscast and struggle early he may never rebound (see Kris Versteeg).
Ideally Carlyle puts van Riemsdky on an established line alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur to begin the season. This would allow the new Leaf to get his bearings in this hockey mad city on a productive and insulated line. The need for JVR to get off to a good start in Toronto is imperative, fans have a hard time coming around to someone if their initial impression is bad. While it seems fickle it is a big reason why many players fail in Toronto and then blossom elsewhere.
Realistically I can see where Carlyle is coming from when he makes this comment. As @b1rky from pension plan puppets pointed out this afternoon, putting JVR in between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul allows the Grabovski, MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin line to remain intact. It also puts your top six forwards all together on the top two lines, but unfortunately the square van Riemsdyk doesn’t fit into the round hole that Tyler Bozak is currently slotted in. Whether Burke acquires a #1 centre to replace Bozak (Paul Stastny, Travis Zajac or Joe Thornton) or not, come fall I can guarantee you #21 in blue and white will not be lining up down the middle. So calm down Leafs fans, it’s July. There’s a long time between now and training camp, many things can happen.