The Leafs’ great van Riemsdyk and Bozak trade conundrum

Mike Babcock joins Prime Time Sports to talk about the hockey atmosphere in Toronto, what message his players got from facing the Washington Capitals and how the team will approach the offseason.

TORONTO – Listen close enough and you could hear James van Riemsdyk’s tune change over the course of 2016-17, the most enjoyable Toronto Maple Leafs season—inside and out—in recent memory.

“I’m going to try to be the best player and best Maple Leaf I can be while I’m there. It’s a place I’ve grown to love playing. I’ve grown to love the city of Toronto,” the New Jersey native told us in September.

“As far as years down the road, I don’t want to start speculating too much about that yet.”

Then there was the night of Dec. 3. The Leafs’ victory song had barely stopped playing after a wild night in Vancouver when van Riemsdyk, giddy from scoring his 100th goal as a Leaf, addressed his future unprompted: “I’ve really enjoyed Toronto. Hopefully I can play here for a lot longer.”

Packing up his stuff for the summer Tuesday, the Leafs’ second-highest scorer doubled-down on his desire to remain in Toronto, a growing contender. Technically, he can be re-signed as early as July 1. His current deal carries a $4.25-million cap hit and a 10-team no-trade list.

“I’ve loved playing here ever since I came here. How I’ve been treated is great. It’s a place I want to play for as long as I can,” the winger said. “Where that takes things, we’ll see what happens. I love playing here. I want to be here.”

Along with Tyler Bozak, 31, and Leo Komarov, 30, van Riemsdyk, 27, finds himself in that murky middle of an accelerated rebuild.

This trio was neither signed nor acquired by the current front office, yet they were still valued enough to survive a purge that dismantled the old core and sent Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and others to opposing teams or outposts unknown.

All three forwards are coming off strong seasons statistically. All three saw their ice time spike in the playoffs. They’re good enough to earn long-term deals come summer 2018, and in JVR’s case especially, a significant raise awaits.

“I don’t know what more we could’ve asked of them,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “They bought into what was being asked of them. They bought into a culture, and they embraced it. They embraced the young players and have tremendous respect for their talents and worked with them.

“The veterans are here for a reason. We went through 45-some players last season, and the players who are here belong in that locker room and are part of the future.”

Heavy praise.

Trick is, the Leafs’ goldmine of young forwards—Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen—all come off their bargain entry-level deals within the next three summers.

Lamoriello says he likes his cap situation today, but the ceiling will close in fast.

So. Do you sell high on Bozak and/or van Riemsdyk while they could fetch a nice return and help remedy holes on defence?

Or do you take your shot in 2017-18 with a couple of veterans you trust, knowing that keeping them beyond one more season would be financially unlikely—even if you wanted to?

“There’ll be changes,” said coach Mike Babcock, without getting specific. “We’re not good enough.”

By now, van Riemsdyk and Bozak are accustomed to trade rumours, but the chatter will only louden without an extension. And the team will welcome internal competition from its AHL standouts.

“Hopefully I’ll be here at the start of next year,” said Bozak, smiling. “I’ve been through a lot here, and to see where we’re going now, it’s something I’d like to be a part of. I thought I had a good year and played well. The rest is out of my control.”

Back in December, the trade speculation around JVR and Nylander(?!) was rampant enough that Babcock assured them individually. (“We’re not looking to move those guys,” the coach said then.)

“You try to compartmentalize and take it day by day and just worry about doing your job. Stuff will work out the way it’s supposed to work out,” van Riemsdyk said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s outside your control.”

Working in van Riemsdyk’s favour is that he’s a rare left shot on a roster overflowing with righties.

“He’s that big body that gets to the net and really plays pucks well. He makes it hard on other teams’ defencemen and goalies to see the puck,” said linemate Marner. “Good shooter. He’s been a big part of the team this year.”

The list of sniping left-shot wingers on the 2016 open market is short: 37-year-old Patrick Marleau and (maybe) Lamoriello’s old pal Ilya Kovalchuk, who is aiming for an NHL return. Then it falls off a cliff.

Prospect Brenden Leipsic, 22, has 18 goals and is better than point per game with the Marlies and could battle for a spot on the big club’s left side.

Working in Bozak’s favour is he is the best faceoff man (56.7 per cent) playing for a coach that loves winning draws. With a career-high 37 assists and 55 points, Bozak surpassed the 50-point plateau for the first time—a fact more remarkable when you consider his setting up sniper Phil Kessel all those years.

“He’s unbelievable in the faceoff circle. It’s nice having that kind of trust with your centreman,” Marner said. “They’re both a treat to play with. We had a lot of fun this whole year.”

As for next year?

In the words of JVR: “We’ll see.”


 

Bits from Buds
Here are a bunch of one-timers from the Maple Leafs’ locker cleanout day.

• The Maple Leafs have identified “a few players” at the world championships they’re interested in. Babcock will go to Europe and the MasterCard Memorial Cup to help scout.

• Van Riemsdyk has not yet been asked to join Team USA’s world championship team. “If the opportunity comes, I’ll decide what’s best,” he says.

• Matthews’ off-season goal is to work on his “explosiveness skating-wise and breakaway speed.” He considered joining Team USA but decided against it. “These past 12 months, it’s been nonstop,” he says. “My body needs a break.”

• Babcock on whether it’s important to have a captain in place for 2017-18: “No.”

• Nylander will not be moving to centre.

• Marner has not received an invite from Team Canada. He would consult with his family and team before flying to Paris. He reiterated his plan to push himself to add weight and strength this summer.

• Kapanen, who returned to the Marlies Tuesday, said being a fourth-liner was an amazing role for him: “Looking at the guys in this room, the talent we have, top six, I don’t think I belong there, to be honest.”

• Kapanen has no clue where the pucks from his playoff-game-winning goal or his golden goal at the 2016 world juniors are. Doesn’t seem to care.

• Bozak said the Leafs played through bumps and bruises, then chuckled: “But I don’t think anyone had the torn ACL and MCL like in San Jose, which is incredible.”

• “He’ll wake up sore a couple nights from the cross-checks.” —former Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, on Connor McDavid facing Ryan Kesler for a whole series

• Andersen turned down Team Denmark’s invitation to world championships.

Roman Polak arrived in crutches with a cast on his ankle. Surgery went well on his “lower-body injury,” and the impending UFA says he’ll be ready and healthy for opening night.

• Polak and Brian Boyle (UFA) are both open to re-signing with Toronto.

• Babcock on Maple Leafs doctors not clearing Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev for the worlds: “He’s playoff ready,” but he needs time to get healthy.

• GM Lou Lamoriello’s contract expires at the end of 2017-18: “As far as the future, I’ve got enough problems just getting up in the morning.”