Toronto Maple Leafs: James van Riemsdyk Vital to New Transition


The Toronto Maple Leafs will need someone to step up as a leader offensively, while the team ushers in a new era

The Phil Kessel trade has left the Toronto Maple Leafs with an obvious dilemma when it comes to replacing his offensive output. The team will go through many changes under Mike Babcock, but some players will have to show that they are capable of leading the team going forward.

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Players like Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, and Nazem Kadri were in jeopardy of being traded, but management has kept them around. What they do with this second chance will be interesting.

James van Riemsdyk is one of those players that has grown to be a fan favourite, since being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for Luke Schenn. His size and skill was something the Leafs lacked for years.

At times van Riemsdyk has looked like Toronto’s best forward. Under Babcock he, along with Kadri, will be asked to do more, not just on offence, but defence as well.

The biggest drawback to van Riemsdyk’s game has often been the defensive side. He has always been a minus player with the Leafs, which shows there is still a chance to improve different elements of his game.

In 2013-14, he had a career year with 30 goals and 31 assists, for 61 points in 80 games. However, in 2014-15 his production was down a bit with 29 goals and 29 assists for 56 points in 82 games.

Obverall, van Riemsdyk did not have a major drop-off in his offensive stats. However. the defensive side of his game did not get any better, as he went from -eight in 2013-14, to a -33 the following season.

Oct 21, 2014; Uniondale, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, plus/minus is not the most effective way of determining a player’s defensive play, especially with the advancements in advanced stats. Van Riemsdyk actually improved on his corsi percentage and fenwick percentage last season, with a corsi of 51.3% and a fenwick of 50.4%. (In 2013-14, he had a corsi of 48.9% and a fenwick of 47.9%.)

One way to explain this improvement could be his zone starts, as the coaching staff tried to avoid him starting in the defensive zone too much. In 2013-14, he started his shifts in the offensive zone 57% of the time and 43% in the defensive zone, while in 2014-15 he started in the offensive zone 62.2% of the time while starting in defensive situations 37.8% of the time.

So how does van Riemsdyk’s defensive play not improve when he is put into more offensive situations? One explanation could be his PDO, which combines his shooting percentage with the team’s save percentage.

In 2013-14 his PDO was 101.2, which is a good score because it is above 100, but in 2014-14 it was 99.5 as reported by Van Riemsdyk was not as physical last season as he was in years past – he had 118 hits in 2013-14, but only 83 in 2014-15.

The number of hits does not prove whether van Riemsdyk is better or worse defensively. However, it does show how his play without the puck changed, as he was not willing to use his body to separate players from the puck.

With a new coach, it will be vital for van Riemsdyk to step up and lead the team with Kessel gone. While Kessel was not the most vocal player in the room, his impact was made on the ice, where he carried the team offensively.

However if there is a player that could help the Leafs during this transition, it is van Riemsdyk. He lead the team in goals with 27 and was only five points behind Kessel for the team lead, so it should be no surprise if JVR is the leader offensively.

Sure, he will not be playing with a premier winger like Kessel, but the possibility of playing with Kadri and Lupul on the top line could be a fresh change for him. Both Kadri and Lupul have a lot to prove and they are capable offensive players, but chemistry and being accountable defensively will be the key to success.

There are many rookies that will come up over the next couple of years with the Leafs. Having JVR as the leader of that group will be important for Toronto, as they try to build a perennial contender.

Next: Leafs players to watch for during NHL rookie tournament

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