NASHVILLE, Tenn. – James van Riemsdyk swears he didn’t even connect the dots until sometime after his two-point performance was already in the books.
Heading into Thursday’s game at Bridgestone Arena, home to David Poile’s Nashville Predators, the rangy Toronto Maple Leafs winger says that it didn’t even cross his mind that Poile is also the man who has been charged with selecting the U.S. Olympic team later this year.
But van Riemsdyk couldn’t help but acknowledge that he probably boosted his chances a notch during a 4-0 Toronto victory. There won’t be many opportunities like this one to make a direct impression on Poile before the Olympic team is announced at the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 – and wouldn’t that be a fitting place for van Riemsdyk to find out he’s joining Leafs teammate Phil Kessel in Sochi, Russia – so this was the time to make a statement.
You can even place an extra feather in his cap since both of his entries on the scoresheet came with Team Canada stalwart Shea Weber defending Toronto’s top line.
The Predators captain was skating towards van Riemsdyk when he shovelled a lovely backhand pass to Kessel for a goal at 13:41 of the second period and he was lunging in vain to protect an empty goal six minutes later when the Leafs forward scored on a quick wraparound to make it 2-0 just before the intermission.
Earlier in the day, Poile had mentioned to sportsnet.ca that he was looking forward to seeing Toronto’s three American-born player first-hand – defenceman Jake Gardiner is being considered along with Kessel and van Riemsdyk – as part of the nightly evaluations that have him watching even more hockey than usual right now.
That is no secret to all of the American Olympic hopefuls. The expectations were made clear during the summer orientation camp in Washington, D.C., where Poile declared that an influx of depth would make this the toughest national team that USA Hockey has ever had to pick.
While Kessel is considered a lock to represent his country at a second straight Olympic Games in February, van Riemsdyk has some competition to beat out. Wild cards such as T.J. Oshie, Justin Abdelkader and Alex Galchenyuk could nudge him out of a spot depending on their performance over the next two months.
“You’re being judged night in and night out,” said van Riemsdyk. “They want guys that are on successful teams and know how to play winning hockey.”
On that front, the season is off to a good start for the 24-year-old from Middletown, N.J. Thursday’s victory improved the Leafs record to 4-1-0 despite the fact that they continue to play with a depleted lineup that featured two more players, Josh Leivo and David Broll, who were making their NHL debuts.
It wouldn’t have been possible without another standout performance from Jonathan Bernier, who stopped all 36 shots he faced while holding down the fort until the van Riemsdyk/Kessel/Tyler Bozak line eventually kicked into high gear.
Earning one of the three Canadian Olympic jobs isn’t yet on Bernier’s radar – these are still extremely early days, after all – but with the country’s goaltending picture as uncertain as it is you can’t entirely rule it out as a possibility. Bernier has started the season by leading his countryman in wins (three), save percentage (.974) and goals-against average (0.85).
Most importantly to him, he’s also taken the baton from James Reimer early in the season and appears set to make a run of starts for Toronto. That was the only thing that was on his mind once the Leafs acquired him in a trade last June.
“I knew that this was my chance to step up and show what I can do,” said Bernier. “I’ve been waiting for that moment for a while.”
For van Riemsdyk, this also has the makings of a breakout season. The six-foot-three winger should comfortably surpass his previous NHL-best of 21 goals and could even be in line top the 30-goal plateau. That is certainly believed to be among his objectives.
With three goals already, he chalks some of his early success up to the time he spent with Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill in suburban New York over the summer. Those were the first power skating lessons he’s had since he was a kid and even included a tip from veteran Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis, who detected a flaw in van Riemsdyk’s stride that he’s since tried to eliminate.
Now back on the ice against top level competition, the Leafs forward feels like he has an extra gear. You could certainly see it against Nashville, particularly in a first period where he seemed engaged from the get-go and led a couple rushes up the ice.
“I’m trying to get a little bit more explosive as an athlete,” said van Riemsdyk.
He could only hope that Poile took notice. A night like this one is the sort of thing that might end up being in the back of his mind when it comes time for USA Hockey’s brass to select its squad for Sochi.