Sports Hockey

JVR: Finally, some truculence

Rob Longley, QMI Agency
James van Riemsdyk celebrates a playoff goal against the Devils after doing what he does best, creating havoc in the opposition goal crease. (QMI Agency)

James van Riemsdyk celebrates a playoff goal against the Devils after doing what he does best, creating havoc in the opposition goal crease. (QMI Agency)


When Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle gets his first glimpse of new forward James van Riemsdyk, he’ll finally receive the better-late-than-never house warming gift he missed out on last March.

After little more than a month on the job as Ron Wilson’s replacement and having to watch undersized forwards being pushed around or treating the opposing net as a no-fly zone, Carlyle will look up and see the 6-foot-2, 211-pound big body that has been so lacking in the Leafs lineup.

And that, at least, is a start at building the type of team he and his boss favour.

Beyond the four missed playoff seasons, punctuated by the stunning collapse in the most recent edition, one of the most shocking shortcomings in general manager Brian Burke’s tenure here has been his inability to bring in the signature forwards that so define his hockey philosophy.

Until he proves he isn’t damaged goods, James van Riemsdyk is not yet a potential saviour for a team that needs so much. But at last, Burke finally has his big man up front.

The cost was reasonable, too: A once highly regarded defenceman in Luke Schenn who seemed to have lost his way in Toronto, particularly under Carlyle, for a forward with considerable untapped potential. With top-six minutes and a decent centre (maybe some day ...) it certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to see van Riemsdyk as a 30-goal scorer.

Which is the true upside of the deal. Because in Burke’s words, he didn’t just get a “banger,” but a player who uses his size to the utmost effectiveness.

Like just about any forward who pulls on the orange and black jersey in Philly, van Riemsdyk learned early in his life as a Flyer that when you go to the net, you cause havoc. When you go into the corner, you make someone pay. When the going gets tough, you get tougher.

He wasn’t always an expert in all of those areas, in fact learning how to use his physical assets was one of the biggest challenges early in van Riemsdyk’s career. But over time, coach Peter Laviolette implored him to use his body leading to the belief, with Burke especially but Flyers GM Paul Holmgren as well, that he has plenty of upside.

“This is a guy who uses his size when he should, to create offensive opportunities,” Burke said Saturday night in a conference call with reporters. “This is not a guy who is going to put players through the glass. This is a skill player who uses his size effectively.”

It was Holmgren, you may remember, who said he felt he could trade Mike Richards and Jeff Carter a year ago because he felt Claude Giroux and van Riemsdyk were on the verge of greatness. He was half right with the former’s big season while the new Leaf and No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft, remains a work in progress.

What better spot to accelerate that development than with a team that will immediately thrust him into a top-sox role and pile on the ice time that goes with it.

“I hope to continue to get better and continue to use my size and speed to impact the game at both ends of the ice,” van Riemsdyk said in his conference call with the Toronto media. “My style is to be a strong, two-way forward.”

You don’t get an immediate impact forward for a defenceman whose minutes had been drastically reduced n one of the worst teams in the league, so acquiring van Riemsdyk required a leap of faith from Burke, albeit one with minimal risk.

From the perspective of Leafs management, a big black “X” needs to be stroked through the 2011-12 season, one in which van Riemsdyk had just 11 goals and 24 points in 43 games.

There is an asterisk though as foot, hip and concussion injuries plus recuperating time never allowed him to move up into a steady position among the top six Flyers forwards. The video Carlyle and Burke will be more interested will be footage from the 2011 playoffs when van Riemsdyk showed his first real signs of potential, driving hard to the net and producing with seven goals in 11 games, most of which he topped 20 minutes a night.

The parallels between Schenn and van Riemsdyk will make this swap worth watching for both sides as their respective, underachieving careers progress to whatever fruition awaits.

Positionally thee are similarities, as well. Often it takes time for a power forward to find his way in the role, much like an NHL defenceman takes time to grow into the position. And if and when van Riemsdyk reaches that stage, he’ll be a big man in more ways than one.