After years of miscasting unsuitable forwards for the role of No. 1 center, the Toronto Maple Leafs might just have stumbled on one by accident.
Coach Randy Carlyle is going to give newcomer James van Riemsdyk a chance to play the middle on the top line between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, even though the winger has not appeared there in his three-year NHL career.
The experiment reflects the difficulty that general manager Brian Burke has had trying to replace Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, who departed before Burke arrived and took a steady record of point-a-game seasons with him. Van Riemsdyk, who last played center at the University of New Hampshire, warmed to the challenge.
"It is something that will be a good opportunity for me," he said July 11 in his first public meet-and-greet at the Leafs' training facility. "Any time you can be a little more versatile as a player is a good thing."
Van Riemsdyk was acquired in a draft-day trade for defenseman Luke Schenn, ostensibly to be the second-line left winger behind Lupul and likely to be centered by Mikhail Grabovski. But the Leafs came up empty in free agent shopping.
"It's always nice to have a (6-foot-3) center in your top six," Carlyle said July 5. "We feel there is an opportunity to explore him at center. I have talked to him, and he has asked for some video work."
Since Sundin decided not to come back to the Leafs in 2008 (surfacing briefly with Vancouver), the club has been unable to find anyone big enough or skilled enough to take his place. The past few years, Tyler Bozak had the job and had some chemistry with the top-scoring Kessel, beating back a challenge by 2011 free agent Tim Connolly. Van Riemsdyk, if he sticks, would be a direct threat to Bozak holding a job, as Grabovski, Connolly, David Steckel and Jay McClement will all be battling at that position.