VANCOUVER – Dave Nonis stood in the same Rogers Arena hallway where David Bolland had just been wheeled out on a stretcher and briefly considered his options.
Asked how the Toronto Maple Leafs might fill a gaping hole at centre with two of their top players now out due to injury, the general manager flashed a weary smile: "I might start stretching."
Sometimes a joke is needed to try and lighten the mood. But make no mistake, there was a storm cloud hovering over the team with news that Bolland was heading into surgery on Saturday night to repair a torn tendon in his left ankle.
It happened on a play not unlike the one that saw Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson sidelined for 10 weeks last season. While it was not immediately known if Bolland’s injury was as severe as that one, the look on his face as he left the arena and headed to hospital suggested that it was serious enough.
"I talked to him and he’s a little bummed out," teammate Nazem Kadri said after a 4-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. "Obviously, that sucks."
And so a team that hasn’t been able to buy a break on the injury front all season is now facing its biggest challenge yet. There simply isn’t much depth to adequately cover the losses of Bolland and Tyler Bozak, who will be out until at least Nov. 19 after being placed on long-term injured reserve with an undisclosed lower-body ailment.
Nonis certainly didn’t have any answers in the immediate aftermath of a strange game in Vancouver – either about what he might do to find another centre or why his 10-5-0 team has been so badly bitten by the injury bug.
"Hopefully it’s just we’re getting it out of the way early," Nonis said. "You’d like to think that we’ve prepared well. Guys were in good shape coming in. They’ve all been kind of freak injuries and now we have to deal with them."
Perhaps the most intriguing option available to coach Randy Carlyle is trying to move six-foot-three winger James van Riemsdyk into the middle. There has been talk of doing that in the past, although the 24-year-old hadn’t so much as taken a shift at centre since his days at the University of New Hampshire until doing so on Saturday night.
He went 3-2 in the faceoff dot after Bolland left the game early in the second period and isn’t entirely sure how difficult it might be to make the move on a more permanent basis while his teammate recovers. At the very least, he is open to finding out.
"Whatever they need me to do I’m more than willing to try," van Riemsdyk said.
There are few options available in the American Hockey League outside of journeyman Jerred Smithson, who has played almost 600 NHL games but is on an AHL-only deal with the Marlies.
The Bolland injury seemed to stun the Leafs on an emotional night at Rogers Arena. Zack Kassian scored mere moments after injuring the Toronto player to put Vancouver up 2-0 and everything went sharply downhill from there.
Toronto wound up being outshot 47-21 overall and the score would have been much more lopsided if not for a number of spectacular saves by James Reimer. That brought the total number of shots against to 133 during the team’s three-game swing through Western Canada and it left Carlyle fuming.
"Terrible game for us, probably the worst game that we’ve played this year," he said. "I’m very frustrated with our group right now and the way we’ve played."
You can bet he’ll get that message across to the players during a series of tough practices before the Leafs play again on Friday night against New Jersey. It is their first extended layoff of the season.
The break in the schedule comes at a good time for Nonis as he assesses his lineup. He’s currently looking at a group with three healthy centres – Kadri, Jay McClement and Trevor Smith – and all of them will likely be called on to play a larger role while Bozak and Bolland recover.
One thing you didn’t hear from the Toronto dressing room on this night was any complaints about the hit that sent Bolland to hospital. Kassian, who was suspended five games earlier this season for breaking Sam Gagner’s jaw, had his skate come off the ice while finishing a check on the Toronto player.
"It would be hard for me to imagine how that was on purpose," Nonis said. "I don’t care what player is hitting him or anything like that. I guess it’s possible, but I don’t believe it.
"I don’t think a player would try to do that, so I think it’s an accident."
As good as Bolland had been through 14-plus games, it was a costly accident for the Leafs.