Leafs' plans for ex-Flyer van Riemsdyk are paying off

Leafs' plans for ex-Flyer van Riemsdyk are paying off
February 26, 2013, 9:00 am
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James van Riemsdyk is simply happy he wound up somewhere he was wanted.

The lanky forward the Flyers sent to the Maple Leafs over the summer in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn has blossomed in Toronto, looking more like the player he was supposed to become when he was drafted second-overall in 2007.

The player he never was able to become in Philadelphia.

“It’s nice to go to a place where you feel like you’re really wanted and they have some plans for you,” van Riemsdyk said Monday, his first time dressing in the Wells Fargo Center’s visitors locker room.

“That’s always pretty cool. So far, we’ve been off to a good start as a team, and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Monday’s first game in Philadelphia since the trade, a 4-2 Maple Leafs victory, wasn’t exactly van Riemsdyk’s finest work. He was limited to just one shot on net and served a double-minor that put his team in a difficult spot (see story). But for the most part this season, he has looked like an altogether different player since suiting up for the Leafs.

Van Riemsdyk, 23, had an up-and-down three seasons with the Flyers, none more “down” than 2011-12, in which he battled multiple injuries and played in only 43 games.

But even before last year, van Riemsdyk’s success was mixed. He was compared often to Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, the player chosen immediately before him in the draft who has scored more than 20 goals in each of his five NHL seasons and even knocked home the 2010 Stanley Cup game-winner.

By comparison, van Riemsdyk has one 21-goal season and has never remained healthy enough to play a full 82-game slate. A stellar playoff run in 2011, in which he scored seven goals in 11 games, drove the Flyers to sign him to a six-year, $25.5 million contract that summer. But impatience, it seemed, led them to trade him away less than a year later.

In Toronto, things have turned around for van Riemsdyk, and in a big way. Call it irony, or just fortunate coincidence, but he has flourished in a Canadian city notorious for putting heavy pressure on its athletes. Pressure that seemed to prevent Schenn, the Flyers’ defenseman, from reaching his full potential there.

The reason, van Riemsdyk said, is simple.

“What I’ve said all along: The opportunity that I’ve had here to play,” he said. “It’s no secret how I’ve been used more here in different situations, more opportunity, and I’ve been able to capitalize on that.

“I think I probably showed when I had those opportunities here in Philly, that I was able to perform. I’ve gotten those opportunities a lot more frequently in Toronto so far.”

Van Riemsdyk has played on the power play and penalty kill with the Leafs, upping the average time on ice he spends a night by more than four minutes over last season. He has 11 goals already this season – leading the Leafs and matching his total for all of last year. One of them came against the Flyers, back on Feb. 11 in Toronto.

He actually credits some of the success he’s had as a Leaf to the trials he went through in 2011-12, when it seemed like every time he was poised to get back on track he went down with injury. Compared to a year ago, van Riemsdyk appears at peace with things that happen to him outside of his control – injury, yes, but also how his coaches choose to use him.

“Just dealing with injuries and stuff like that, and dealing with different things that were out of my control, it really tests your mental toughness and what you’re all about,” he said. “I’m lucky to have a good support system around me that helped me through all that. I definitely learned a lot from the experience.

“I’m happy. I have great memories of Philadelphia, nothing but good things to say about the time I had here. That’s pretty much it.”

He did a good job of masking any emotion he felt upon entering the arena and passing by his old locker room, the only other NHL room he’s known. He saw the signs some fans in the crowd held up for him, but didn’t hear the reaction he received when his name was announced as a Leafs starter (primarily cheers, with some boos mixed in).

Van Riemsdyk said he couldn’t help but recall memories about playing in Philadelphia when he first walked into the Center Monday morning, about experiences and relationships with his Flyers teammates. But, he said, while he misses the friendships he made here, he’s growing more and more comfortable in Toronto by the day.

That will only get easier, said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, now that van Riemsdyk has gotten his first return trip to Philadelphia out of the way. A sentiment the young forward agreed with wholeheartedly.

“One hundred percent, yeah,” he said. “It’s definitely good to just get this one out of the way, fully move forward now.”