Leafs’ van Riemsdyk soaking up advice ahead of free agency

Hockey Central at Noon discusses the progress of the Toronto Maple Leafs since last season, noting that the conversation has shifted from 'playoffs' to 'contending,' and how this affects the contract of James van Riemsdyk.

They are the conversations that have helped James van Riemsdyk calm his mind amid a season of uncertainty.

With free agency looming and his future with the Toronto Maple Leafs up in the air, the 28-year-old has been tapping into his well of contacts to see what other players have experienced under similar circumstances.

It is not unlike how he meticulously goes about his craft. The big winger with a surgeon’s touch is famous for searching out new exercise routines and supplements and ways to prepare his body. Anything to gain an edge.

On the road, he’s the only member of the Leafs you’ll see walk off the bus wearing a backpack because he always travels with everything needed for an extensive pre-game routine.

"That’s just naturally the way I am," van Riemsdyk said in an interview this week. "You try to be prepared for important things in your life. … I’m always just – I don’t know if curious is the right word – but I like to get knowledge and hear different perspectives on things."

Hence the phone call he placed to old friend Cam Atkinson soon after the Columbus Blue Jackets winger signed a $41.125-million, seven-year extension in November. He’s also spoken with Paul Stastny, Matt Carle and a few others.

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A lifetime spent in the sport forges a lot of friendships, and van Riemsdyk sees value in gleaning everything he can from peers while facing the most important year of his professional life.

"It’s interesting: You’d think that everyone thinks about it the same exact way, but there’s definitely some different mindsets as far as approach," said van Riemsdyk.

He’s asked other players about where their negotiations started and how they progressed. What deal-making tactics yielded results, and which didn’t. How they knew the moment was right to put pen to paper.

"Strategy for when it comes time to deciding and stuff like that," van Riemsdyk explained. "Without going too much into detail, there’s lots of things to consider. When it gets to that point, I’m confident that I’ll have the information to make the decision that’s best."

While there were some informal discussions between the Leafs and his camp on a possible extension last summer, talks are believed to have fallen quiet during the season.

That isn’t necessarily an indication that van Riemsdyk is heading to the open market on July 1 – general manager Lou Lamoriello is famous for using all the time at his disposal when making decisions – but it has planted a small seed of doubt in the back of the player’s mind.

It’s something Atkinson understands well.

He entered this season as a potential UFA and it ate him up inside, with Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen acknowledging that he hoped to remove a distraction by giving the winger security and signing him to the long extension on Nov. 16.

"I just think uncertainty," Atkinson said last month, when asked what he found most difficult. "It’s one of those things where it’s out of your control. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you at any given moment. You could get traded, you can get hurt. There’s so much unknown."

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On the outside, at least, van Riemsdyk seems to have managed the unknown just fine.

He’s tied with Auston Matthews for the team lead at 19 goals – putting him on pace for a career-best 35 despite playing the fewest minutes he’s seen since his second year in the NHL. His best work has been done on the top power-play unit, where the six-foot-three van Riemsdyk patrols the area around the net and uses his soft touch to redirect shots or roof loose pucks from in tight.

The Leafs don’t have another winger in the system with his size and skill, but need to be mindful of cap considerations when contemplating a long-term extension.

Based on comparables, van Riemsdyk’s market value should be somewhere around $6 million or a little above on a deal of at least six years. He’ll be entering his age 29 season on the new contract and has scored at a 29-goal pace over his last 300-plus games.

That was some of what he and Atkinson talked about in November. They go all the way back to their days playing minor hockey against each other as kids – "I’ve known him forever," said van Riemsdyk – and were comfortable discussing a topic that can be personal for some.

"At the time when I signed, his stats were better than mine, too, you know?" said Atkinson. "Whatever happens with him, he’s going to be fine. He’s a hell of a player."

These next few weeks will likely be among the most difficult for van Riemsdyk. As hard as it is to imagine the Leafs dealing away a productive member of the team before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the possibility is always hanging over the head of every UFA-to-be.

Plus, van Riemsdyk has already lived through one round of rumours when his name was involved in failed Travis Hamonic trade talks with the New York Islanders at the draft. Odds are he’ll soon be faced with more.

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At least there should be a big payoff awaiting him on the other end of the uncertainty – not to mention the possibility of a playoff run in Toronto this spring.

"The way I look at it: I’m excited," said van Riemsdyk. "I’m just focusing on this year. I love the group of guys we have, love being here, love playing here. I’ve made no secret about how I’d love to play here for a long time. That’s obviously first and foremost what I’m worried about.

"So we’ll see how it all shakes out from there."

There’s added comfort in knowing that he’s ready for whatever comes.


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