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Versatile Leafs Roster Shifts Pieces As Opponents, Injuries Dictate

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

Every NHL team goes into each regular season expecting the injury bug will bite. It's really just a question of how deeply the bug sinks its teeth into a roster, and for how long it feeds on the squad, that's in question. Last season, the Maple Leafs were one of the league's most fortunate franchises on the injury front, and the same has held true through Toronto's first nine games of the 2017-18 campaign: only blueliner Connor Carrick has missed time, with the remainder of the lineup fully healthy for the first 10 percent of the year.

There's no question that will change at some point - and perhaps as soon as the Buds' next game, against Carolina at Air Canada Centre Thursday - but the good news for Leafs Nation is that GM Lou Lamoriello and team brass have built a collection of talent that's versatile and deep, with numerous players capable of stepping in and stepping up to fill a void when it comes. That void doesn't seem on the immediate horizon, although winger James van Riemsdyk did not participate in Wednesday's practice; head coach Mike Babcock told media after the team's workout was over that van Riemsdyk was expected to play against the Hurricanes, but no determination will be made until Thursday.

Still, it's comforting to know that, if van Riemsdyk can't participate, winger Josh Leivo is ready and able to be inserted in his game roster spot and do his damndest to remain in the lineup for the long term. And that depth is something Leafs players are impressed by and grateful for as they continue the tough grind of a full season's push to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"The good thing about our team is we've got a lot of guys that can play anywhere in the lineup and we've got a lot of depth," veteran centre Tyler Bozak told Leafs Nation Network Wednesday. "It's inevitable that there's going to be injuries throughout an 82-game schedule where guys are going to get banged-up and guys have to step in and fill different roles. So I think we've got a pretty good group of forwards and defensemen that are able to step in in those situations."

Should van Riemsdyk not play, it's possible Babcock will shuffle what have become familiar lines for Leafs fans. But line changes are possible at any time, and Toronto's management has worked to acquire and develop players who can adapt to a myriad of teammates. So the possibility of skating alongside a player with whom they're not especially experienced doesn't trouble any Buds player.

"I think anyone on this roster if you play with, you can have chemistry with them and you're going to still be the same player with them," winger Mitch Marner said. "I think that's the important thing. It doesn't matter who you play with on this roster. We all want to play with each other, we all just want to win hockey games."

Marner had one of his best outings of the year in Monday's 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, posting a pair of assists and being named the game's first star. The sophomore has moved from a line with Bozak and van Riemsdyk to one including winger Matt Martin and centres Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr, but he's shown resilience in getting back to doing the things that made his first NHL campaign such a success.

"Just the way he was moving, the way he was skating, obviously he always has a ton of skill, but I think he's his best when he's getting the puck with a lot of speed and making plays," Bozak said when asked about Marner's performance against the Kings. "(I) saw him winning a lot of battles in the corner, spinning off defenders, and making great plays to guys for good opportunities. So I thought he had a really good game."

As one of the most experienced hands on the squad, Bozak has been through his share of ups and downs, and the character traits that helped him emerge from the downs are the same traits he's seeing in Marner right now. Those traits will help him, not just against Carolina, but through the weeks and years ahead.

"He didn't get too down or upset," Bozak said of Marner, who has one goal and six points in nine games this year. "He just started working a little bit harder. And I think that's the main thing: when things don't go your way, if you sit around and mope, it's not going to get any better. You've just got to work a little harder, and that's what he did."

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