BY: Jeff Schneberk @Game7overtime
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ problem these days revolves around centre. Everything centres around the centre position. Until not long ago, the second-line centre began the season on the fourth line, while the third-line centre was unemployed a week ago. And the fourth line doesn’t even have a centre.
How does that grab you?
The top three centres are either hurt or suspended and now, if you can take a faceoff with skates on and a stick in your hand, and you live in the Toronto area, the top Canadian club in the National Hockey League is probably interested in you, whoever you are.
In all seriousness, this team is in trouble, even Mason Raymond backed off saying “That’s not really my position.” He played some centre with the Vancouver Canucks.
Randy Carlyle probably doesn’t like using injuries as an excuse, but at this point, he doesn’t have a choice anymore.
The Leafs are in Buffalo tonight to take on the Sabres. This is one of more highly-anticipated games of the season, based solely on the pre-season game in Toronto back on Sept. 22.
Season series: This is the first of five games between these Atlantic Division teams, with another Saturday. The Buffalo Sabres were 2-1-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012-13.
Big story: Interim coach Ted Nolan makes his return to the Buffalo bench after compiling a 73-72-19 record from 1995-97. Nolan was hired Wednesday, along with Pat LaFontaine as director of hockey operations, when Sabres owner Terry Pegula fired general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston. The new leadership takes over the last-place team in the NHL, although the Sabres did manage their first home win of the season Tuesday, a 3-2 shootout decision against the Los Angeles Kings.
“We know that there will be a different face behind the bench and there’ll be motivation for players from the Buffalo side to make a first impression,” Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told the team website Thursday. “… It is a shock to the organization and the people involved, at the ice level specifically.”
The other big story (that just keeps getting even bigger) is the situation Leafs are facing at the centre position. As reported nationwide since Thursday morning, Leafs have a huge gap at centre. David Bolland is likely out until February probably, Tyler Bozak is out until the end of this month, and now they need to do without the services of Nazem Kadri for both games with Buffalo this weekend as well as Tuesday’s game with Thomas Vanek and his NY Islanders.
Head Coach Randy Carlyle is now toying with the idea of using Jay McClement on the team’s second line.
Leafs are also in the process of bringing up Trevor Smith from the AHL Marlies. And a report out of the Times-Journal (newspaper in St. Thomas, Ont.) suggests that another call-up will come in the form of C Greg McKegg. (https://twitter.com/timesjournal)
“There’s always the option of bringing a guy up from the American Hockey League,” Carlyle said prior to learning Kadri was suspended. “We’ve explored different avenues, multiple. So it’s not like you have to have Plan A, B, C, D and E in the drawer here.
“That’s what the life of a hockey coach and management team is, and when you go through situations like this you try to make the best decision that’s going to give you the best possible chance to have success with the people that you have here.”
The Maple Leafs had won four of five games before dropping two straight on this three-game road trip.
“You can’t sugarcoat it, [the missing centers] are obviously a big part of our team and a big part of our success,” center Jay said. “But I think we have enough depth … that we can hold the fort here and continue to plug away and hopefully win some games until we get some guys back.”
Sabres: According to Chris Ryndak of buffalosabres.com, Nolan had his assistant coaches run practice Wednesday but Thursday he demanded a fast-paced, physical session with some players practicing at different positions, including rookie Zemgus Girgensons at center for the first time, with Steve Ott and Tyler Ennis flanking him.
Though the practice reportedly was intense, Girgensons said he was satisfied with the new coaching style.
“[Nolan] wants simple hockey but you have to play hard. He wants all the guys going 100 percent,” Girgensons told the website. “If you’re not going to do that, most likely you’re not even going to be out there. He wants the guys to compete, and I think that’s what we need in this team right now.”
Forward John Scott is eligible to return to the lineup after completing his seven-game suspension for a hit on Boston Bruins forward Loui Eriksson on Oct. 23.
Who’s hot: It hadn’t been confirmed Thursday who would start in goal for Toronto. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have combined for a 1.54 goals-against average over the past seven games. … Sabres forward Matt Moulson has two goals and six assists in seven games since coming from the New York Islanders in a late-October trade.
Injury report: Bolland (ankle) and Bozak (lower body) are on injured reserve. … Sabres defenseman Mike Weber (thumb) is on IR
Wagers: It is anybody’s guess how long it may take Scott to start getting nasty with Leaf players tonight. In the last meeting (pre-season) he challenged a much smaller Phil Kessel, then all hell broke loose. Of all things that probably will change in Leafs’ lineup, the number of tough guys probably should not. Lines at practices this week have seen the six-foot tall guys all skate together, Frazer McLaren, Colton Orr and new centre Jerred Smithson. Whatever happens, this game (and tomorrow night’s) is sure to have its moments.