The Untouchables: Toronto Maple Leafs Edition
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Numberless critics have lined up and taken their shots – the targets being Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak and the other usual casualties. No one has been spared by the endless volley of vile comment as no one seems happy with the current lineup of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Blow it all up – start from scratch!” the Greek chorus chants.
This simply begs the question, of course: are the Leafs really that bad? Is there no one on the current roster who warrants a return ticket?
Mar 7, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk (21) during the pre game warm up against the St. Louis Blues at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
From what I can tell, there are two such players on the team – players the Leafs would be foolish to trade: James van Riemsdyk and Morgan Rielly. Everyone else, as I join the deafening chorus, is expendable.
Van Riemsdyk is an easy player to appreciate. He’s big, skilled and quick. He’s also willing to sacrifice himself in front of the net. These are all desirable qualities in any hockey player.
Whereas his linemates from last season – Phil Kessel and Bozak – saw their point totals drop sharply in comparison to the 2013-2014 season, van Riemsdyk’s numbers remained relatively stable. That’s another bonus.
Critics will undoubtedly point to van Riemsdyk’s team-worst Shots Against (-249) and Unblocked Shots Against (-208) numbers and shout, “No way! He sucks!”
Mar 31, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) skates past Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov (86) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
There’s no point in denying these numbers – they’re awful – but it should be noted that the whole team was horrible last season when it came to the defensive side of the game. Considering his linemates and the fragile state of the team in general, I think van Riemsdyk deserves a mulligan in this department. There’s simply too much talent in the big forward to set the firing squad upon him this soon.
Where there’s some room to doubt van Riemsdyk, there’s really no room to doubt Rielly. He was arguably the best defenceman on the team down the stretch last season, enjoying extra time on the power play and the penalty kill as a result.
While Gardiner had better Shots Against and Unblocked Shots Against numbers last season, there’s a certain gracefulness that he lacks in comparison to Rielly. Where Gardiner seems to panic under pressure, Rielly seems to dance his way through trouble with ease and comfort.
Editor In Leaf
If the Leafs give him the right amount of time and space to fully develop his craft, then there’s little reason to doubt that Rielly will one day rank among the best defencemen in the league. He’s that good.
Having said all this, management will never admit that van Riemsdyk and Rielly are both untouchable players. However, the team would be hard-pressed replace them at equal or greater value. They’re both valuable members of the present squad, and their value will only increase in the years ahead.
For this reason, it’s safe to assume that both van Riemsdyk and Rielly will be there when Lord Stanley’s magical cup is finally returned home. They’ll be the ones carrying it after all.
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