Will take Bolland some time after long absence

Set for free agency, Dave Bolland says he wants to remain a Toronto Maple Leaf. (Derek Leung/Getty)

TORONTO – After 56 games and 140 days, the excitement about David Bolland’s return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup is understandable.

However, it’s important that the expectations are reasonable.

Randy Carlyle certainly understood that as he discussed the likely return of the veteran centre for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. Even though the coach doesn’t have plans to limit Bolland’s minutes, he emphasized that it would likely take the player some time to get back up to speed after such a long absence.

“I don’t want to put too much emphasis on him specifically because when a player hasn’t played in 60 games it’s a lot to ask of him – to come back in and be where he would have been coming out of training camp,” Carlyle said after the morning skate at Air Canada Centre.

It has been an agonizing season for Bolland, who was off to a fine start with his hometown team when Zack Kassian inadvertently sliced a tendon on the outside of his left ankle during a game in Vancouver on Nov. 2.

Surgery was needed to repair the peroneal tendon and it was accompanied by a long rehabilitation process, which saw the 27-year-old travel to Montreal to have a new skate boot custom-fitted in addition to trips to Raleigh, N.C., to consult a specialist.

He also skated regularly with teammates for more than a month, but had trouble getting comfortable on the ice. Crossing over and rotating his foot proved to be particularly difficult. Naturally, the prospect of returning in the middle of a heated playoff race comes with a little bit of apprehension.

“That first shift will be a little tough,” Bolland said Friday. “I think you can do enough bag skating and work on the ice, but it’s a little different when you go on the ice with guys you don’t like and guys who want to hurt you when you go in the corner.

“I’m really sick of skating after practice with the assistant coaches.”

To make room under the salary cap for his return, Carter Ashton was returned to the American Hockey League.

One benefit Carlyle envisioned with having Bolland back was the ability to rotate four lines. He was penciled in to centre the third line between David Clarkson and Mason Raymond.

“Everybody talks about a four-line game … but we haven’t really went to that mode and we’d like to be able to do that on a more regular basis,” said Carlyle. “With the addition of a Bolland, it gives you a little bit more depth throughout your lineup.”

James Reimer was expected to start in goal against Montreal’s Carey Price. The Leafs continue to await the return of No. 1 goalie Jonathan Bernier, who continues to feel the effects of a groin strain.

The Leafs and Habs have split four meetings this season and are locked in a tight race in the Atlantic Division. Montreal entered the night with a three-point lead in the standings and was looking to rebound from a 3-2 loss to Columbus on Thursday.

“It’s so tight,” said Habs coach Michel Therrien. “It’s really demanding playing hockey at this time of year, we all understand that. And tonight won’t be any different.”

Defenceman Jarred Tinordi, who committed a turnover late in the Columbus game, will watch from the press box on Saturday night with Douglas Murray taking his place. Rene Bourque was expected to replace Ryan White.

However, the most notable lineup change will be seeing No. 63 for the Leafs back in action. With so much riding on the game, it promises to be a tough situation for Bolland to return to.

“You can do all the practicing you want – the pushing and shoving – but the pace of the game I’m sure will be as high as it’s been all year,” said Carlyle. “Montreal’s a skating hockey club and we have to skate to be effective.”

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