TORONTO – It is on a night like this one where you see some of the method behind a decision many followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs believed was motivated by madness.
There is simply no way that Saturday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins would have ended up as a 4-1 victory for the home team if not for David Bolland. It wasn’t so much the two goals he scored for Toronto, one of them into an empty net, but the way the veteran centre was able to square off against Sidney Crosby and help keep him at bay.
Bolland has quickly established himself as a reliable performer for his new team. In fact, he’s probably given the Leafs a little more than even general manager Dave Nonis expected when he pried him loose from the Chicago Blackhawks shortly after their Stanley Cup victory.
That move went hand in hand with the subsequent decision to use a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski, who was ill-fitted for the checking role coach Randy Carlyle tried to carve out for him a year ago.
While Grabovski remains a useful player, it’s clear that Bolland is a much better fit in Carlyle’s system. Even more important than the six goals he’s already racked up through 12 games – just one off his total from last season – the 27-year-old has quickly shown that he can handle the defensive responsibilities that are magnified in a game like this one.
"He’s been everything that we’ve asked," Carlyle gushed when asked about Bolland. "He’s a model for our younger players."
This had the potential to be a rough night for the Leafs. The team was just 24 hours removed from a flat performance in Columbus, where it lost Tyler Bozak to an undisclosed lower-body injury that will keep him off the upcoming road trip through Western Canada.
And in Pittsburgh, they were facing an opponent that featured the two most dynamic centres of any team in the Eastern Conference – if not the entire league. That came with a little extra responsibility for Bolland and Nazem Kadri, who assumed Bozak’s spot between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and went head-to-head with Evgeni Malkin’s line.
Toronto came out on top of both matchups.
Bolland tied the game 1-1 by hammering a short-handed slapshot past Marc-Andre Fleury while Kadri picked up the eventual winner at 1:26 of the third period when he finished off a tic-tac-toe passing play and deked the Penguins goaltender.
"Not many guys can go in and make that play that he made to score the goal," said Carlyle.
Most importantly, neither man was a defensive liability. Even though the Leafs still gave up more shots than they would like – James Reimer was solid in making 37 saves – there was a feeling that this was a much better effort than most they’ve managed recently.
For Kadri, this represents the best opportunity he’s been given to make an impact this season. He saw nearly 20 minutes of ice time against the Penguins and should continue receiving an increased workload as long as Bozak remains sidelined.
He seemed engaged on Saturday with four bodychecks and some good work in the faceoff dot early in the game. That should push overall expectations for him a little bit higher and Kadri knows that a little more consistency will be needed for him to win over Carlyle.
"I’ve been working hard and trying to earn his trust," he said. "I want to be one of those guys that Randy can count on and this team can count on. That’s not just scoring goals."
Kadri could do worse than look to the example set by Bolland, who has been particularly useful during the tumultuous 12-game stretch to open Toronto’s season because of his ability to play any role asked of him. That has given Carlyle more lineup options while balancing a number of injuries early in the year.
The 22:39 he logged against Pittsburgh on Saturday was his highest total in a regular-season game since Oct. 21, 2009 – a sign that his services are much more in demand with his hometown team than they were with some extremely deep Blackhawks squads in recent years.
It’s clear that Bolland has already completely won over his new coach, who is usually careful with how much praise he hands out but couldn’t help himself on this night.
"(There’s) not a mistake through laziness ever," Carlyle said of Bolland. "He might read a situation wrong but it’s never through laziness."
While the centre position has long been considered an organizational weakness for the Leafs, it has been much less of an issue for the 8-4-0 team so far this season.
Bolland deserves a healthy bit of the credit for that. Oh, there was much hand-wringing in these parts when he was brought in at the expense of Grabovski last summer but you’re starting to see some of the logic in that decision now.