It’d be wrong to characterize James van Riemsdyk as a sleeper hit for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since his time playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, we’ve been bombarded with talk of his potential. The big left winger even hinted at this potential during the shortened 2012-2013 season, amassing 32 points (18 goals, 14 assists) in 48 games. That stands as his best career scoring pace to date in the NHL, but it’d be hard for most players to sustain that pace over a full season.
That’s why van Riemsdyk’s performance last season was so important to the Leafs and impressive to the fans. Van Riemsdyk picked up right were he left off the season before, quickly adjusting to life on Toronto’s top line.
The Middletown, New Jersey native’s average ice time per game (21:03) saw almost a minute boost over the previous season (19:12), but his biggest impact was felt on the power play where he led the team in goals (9).
When the season was finally over, the man affectionately known as “JVR” put together quite the season. He recorded 61 points (30 goals, 31 assists) in 80 games. That’s easily a new career high for him – his previous best season came in 2010-2011 when he recorded 40 points (21 goals, 19 assists) in 75 games for the Flyers – and it also demonstrates a very healthy balance between goals and assists. In other words, the guy can score, but he can set up his teammates as well.
There’s no doubting van Riemsdyk has been asked to play a larger role on the Leafs, but he’s lived up the challenge. Some critics might attribute his recent success to playing alongside all-star sniper Phil Kessel in the same way they dismiss Tyler Bozak‘s contributions to the team. However, this misses the fact JVR has a skilled set of hands himself and that he’s gradually matured into a top line player for the Leafs.
I can’t say how van Riemsdyk would perform in the absence of Kessel – the Leafs have been incredibly fortunate with Kessel’s good health – but I don’t think it would mark the end of his production. I’m sure JVR would quickly gel with some of the team’s other talented forwards, including Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul.
As well, van Riemsdyk’s greatest assets are his size, speed and hand-eye coordination – all areas where Kessel can’t help him.
Here’s the regrettable thing about JVR’s situation: in an article about him, I’m forced to address the Kessel factor. This is ridiculous – I think van Riemsdyk’s proven himself as a highly capable forward – but it’s part of the reality of being a Leafs fan. The critics will say anything to diminish our team with Kessel either serving as the “core” of the team or the “soft” return on a bad trade.
JVR will continue to show them why they’re wrong as he racks up goals and assists against their favourite teams, but I doubt they’ll be honest about the true source of their pain. It’s easier to live in ignorance and dismiss the Leafs as a one-dimensional team.
For the Leafs, however, none of this matters. They’re banking on another productive season from van Riemsdyk and the easy money says he’ll deliver.
It’s gotten to the point where my next team jersey might even have the number 21 proudly worn on the back.