By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 8) – Let’s exclude goalies from this conversation because only a divine presence knows where the Maple Leafs would be without Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer.
Among those that skate beyond the immediate vicinity of the net stands No. 5 on the pay-scale; No. 21 in your program and No. 1 on the list of most valuable players in blue and white. Should these clues be insufficient, his name is James van Riemsdyk and he’s the result of the best trade pulled off by a Leafs general manager since Cliff Fletcher heisted Mats Sundin from Quebec at the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford.
Some may contend the Phil Kessel acquisition from Boston was also more dynamic and the argument has merit. The Bruins, however, have twice been to the Stanley Cup final since the trade (defeating Vancouver in 2011); they corralled Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton as first-round draft picks yielded by Toronto, only to make a questionable swap with Dallas after last season by giving up Seguin for Loui Eriksson. Still, Boston has fared much better in the Kessel trade than Philadelphia has – to this point – in the exchange of van Riemsdyk for defenseman Luke Schenn. Both deals were made by former Leafs GM Brian Burke.
JAMES van RIEMSDYK BEATS CRAIG ANDERSON IN THE SHOOTOUT ON SATURDAY NIGHT AS MAPLE LEAFS – DESPITE YIELDING ANOTHER 50 SHOTS – EDGED OTTAWA SENATORS, 3-2, AT THE CANADIAN TIRE CENTRE. ANDRE RINGUETTE GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Though Leafs are accruing points with smoke and mirrors this season, van Riemsdyk has been the real deal. His presence around the opposition net is unrivaled on the hockey club – Kessel included – and he provides the Leafs a rare commodity while playing with the man advantage. Perhaps the most unappealing role in hockey is parking oneself at the edge of the goal-crease while teammates blast away from all points yonder. Van Riemsdyk routinely sacrifices health and welfare in such a manner and often scores from his perilous perch. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two other NHLers that performed the task on a regular basis: Tomas Holmstrom of Detroit (1996-2012) and Gary Dornhoefer of Philadelphia (1967-1978). It is not for the faint of heart.
On a club that can trend wildly from night to night, van Riemsdyk has been a rock. His energy is consistent; he performs vigorously at both ends of the ice; is alternately stylish and bullheaded around the net. Were teammates more willing to follow his lead (as they were a year ago), puck possession would tilt favorably for the Leafs and the club would easily curtail its penchant for yielding 40-plus shots per game.
Among skaters, JVR is Leafs MVP (so far) this season.
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