Two centres are out indefinitely: Tyler Bozak with a hamstring injury and Dave Bolland after undergoing surgery to repair a severed tendon in his ankle. That has meant making adjustments, most notably regular left-winger James van Riemsdyk's move to centre, and increased pressure on Nazem Kadri and Jay McClement.
"Obviously there's going to be more responsibility," Kadri said. "That's pretty much the reason why Reemer (van Riemsdyk) is moving to the middle is because we're kind of running out in that position. But I think everyone's pretty prepared and the coaching staff's done a good job preparing us."
Having plenty of time to prepare is the biggest positive right now for the Leafs. With six days between the end of their Western Conference road trip and Friday's game against the New Jersey Devils, coach Randy Carlyle has ample opportunity to help his players adjust to the new reality caused by injuries.
"We believe that repetition is going to re-enforce some of the staples which we believe we have to play to and how we have to play," Carlyle said Wednesday. "We look at our team to play a tighter brand of hockey and to continue to show some growth. We think our growth has stalled with our team, and we don't think that we've played to the template that we've created and some of the things that we're struggling with are things that we have to overcome."
Picking up the level of play is something Carlyle has stressed for a while, even when the Leafs (10-5-0, 20 points) were in first place in the Atlantic Division. But it's something else to have to overcome losing two centres this early in the season.
Bozak has been out since injuring his hamstring Oct. 25 at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Losing him put more onus on Kadri, but then Bolland suffering a severed tendon Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks put Toronto in quite the quagmire.
Naturally, buzz about the Leafs making calls around the NHL about forwards picked up.
"We are going to look at and explore all of the options that are available to us, but there's nobody in the league looking to give you a handout, I guarantee you," Carlyle said.
The option the Leafs went for was signing veteran centre Jerred Smithson to a one-year contract. Smithson, 34, spent last season with the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers and was on a tryout with their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
Smithson is expected to fill in on the fourth line, while van Riemsdyk is being counted on to centre the first line.
Van Riemsdyk has played centre before, though that was during his two seasons at the University of New Hampshire from 2007 to 2009. Van Riemsdyk said Monday moving to the middle doesn't change his approach too much, but it is an adjustment.
"When you're used to playing a certain position, you kind of just naturally know where to go and maybe you have to think about it a little bit more," he said. "It's a lot about timing, centre, just being in the right spot at the right time so you're not losing your speed and all that stuff. I think it's a timing thing and you get that through repetition and some experience there."
And repetition is what he's getting. On Monday van Riemsdyk didn't sound quite sure whether he'd actually be making the move to centre or was just practising there, but Wednesday he was back between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel.
It was one of many chances the 24-year-old will have to get used to centre before games against the Devils and Boston Bruins.
"Obviously you want a guy to get some practice time in," Carlyle said. "We try to work on things that he's going to be faced with in the game against Jersey. Down low is one of the coverages it's going to have to be something that's ingrained in his mind here over the next three or four days. There's no time like practice."
Wednesday's practice was over an hour long. Even if that's not the norm the rest of the week, van Riemsdyk will get some help from teammates off the ice about his adjustment.
"All the centremen all the time we get together and kind of review what has to happen, whether it's in the D-zone or neutral zone or whatever it may be," Kadri said. "Also faceoffs is another big thing with that. Usually the centreman's responsible for calling out the plays off the draw. Really it's just being prepared and getting prepared to execute a game plan."
Van Riemsdyk said he feels "OK" about his faceoff game, but after taking just 10 draws so far this season it'll become a bigger area of concern. To take some pressure off van Riemsdyk, Carlyle could lean even more heavily on McClement and Kadri in the faceoff circle.
This kind of hole requires more than just one player to step up, and Carlyle is asking his players to consider the situation from a team aspect.
"We're all going to help each other out," Kadri said. "We got four other guys, five other guys to help us out. Really we've just got to stick together as a team and fight through some adversity."
Notes — In conjunction with singing Smithson, the Leafs assigned centre Trevor Smith to the Marlies. ... Defenceman Mark Fraser (knee) took part in a full practice Wednesday and is expected to be available to the Leafs for Friday's game against New Jersey. It's uncertain if Fraser will play, as Carlyle said decisions must be made with eight options on the blue-line.Suggest a correction