Maple Leafs’ JVR talks trade rumours, taking pressure off rookies

As we've reached the one-year anniversary of the Dion Phaneuf trade to Ottawa, Mike Babcock and Morgan Rielly discuss where the club's leadership group is currently at.

James van Riemsdyk has been one of the most important members of the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. However, when examining the long-term vision of the franchise, van Riemsdyk’s future with the team is somewhat up in the air.

Despite being just 27 years old, the forward is a senior member of a youthful Maple Leafs squad. The fact he has just one year remaining on his contract before he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent is one reason why his name has been mentioned in trade rumours and speculation this season.

His currently salary cap hit is $4.25 million and it’s safe to assume he’ll receive a pay bump when his deal expires following the 2017-18 campaign. If the Maple Leafs don’t think they’ll be able to (or they’re unwilling to) pay him a hefty salary–they’ll eventually have to dole out lucrative deals to the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander among others–he’s the type of player who’s too talented for the Maple Leafs to lose and get nothing in return.

“There are so many factors that are out of your control you can drive yourself crazy worrying about stuff like that,” van Riemsdyk told Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Friday. “Anything can happen…it’s a business and there are different things that come into play but I can’t express enough how much I’ve enjoyed to play in Toronto and how much it has meant to me to play for a team where people care as much as they do here.”

van Riemsdyk has 19 goals and 24 assists this season which puts him on pace to set a new career high in points. The Middletown, N.J., native has been a top-line winger for the Maple Leafs ever since being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Luke Schenn in 2012.

“When I first came here it was a big opportunity in my career to get a little bit more of an opportunity to show what I could do,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’ll always be grateful for that and I hope to play here for a long time because I really love playing here.

“I try not to worry too far ahead in the future but that’s where I stand right now.”

 
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His team finds itself in a playoff spot in mid-February, something few would’ve expected heading into the season. With 29 games remaining in the regular season there’s still plenty of work to do before Maple Leafs fans can line up (or sit down at a computer feverishly hitting refresh) for post-season tickets.

van Riemsdyk, who was recently designated as the Maple Leafs’ ambassador for the NHL’s month-long “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative, has been a consistent contributor but it’s the team’s rookies that have carried the load offensively. On the other hand, van Riemsdyk has carried the load in terms of media obligations.

“[The rookies] have a lot on their plate as far as breaking into a new situation, new city, new team, new league,” he explained. “Just being able to focus more on the hockey stuff at first is a great thing for them.”

When van Riemsdyk, the second-overall pick from the 2007 draft, was a rookie with the Flyers he had teammates like Chris Pronger, Daniel Briere and Ian Laperriere to bear the burden of addressing the media on a nightly basis, which took some pressure off and helped him ease into the NHL lifestyle.

Back in January, the team’s GM Lou Lamoriello told Prime Time Sports he doesn’t think rookies should be treated exactly the same as veteran players when it comes to media obligations.

“They should be allowed to grow,” Lamoriello said. “It’s our responsibility to bring them along, to make sure we can take away as many distractions as we can and yet never lose sight of what their responsibility is as a player and what their responsibility is to the media. It’s no difference the ice time, it’s no difference how they grow as a player, and then as you go on more and more [media] is done.”

Players like van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly aid in this effort and for the most part it seems to have helped the current crop of Leafs rookies, who have combined for 81 goals, 125 assists through 53 games this season.

“Coming into the year there was just so many unknowns about our team,” van Riemsdyk added. “You could see the potential of everything but you never know how quickly it’ll take for the chemistry and things of that nature to all line up and come together. The coaching staff and management has done a good job of getting us on the same page pretty early on in the season and from there I think a lot of the skills and abilities of guys were able to take over and go from there.”

The Maple Leafs are coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues – a game JVR said had a playoff-like feel to it. They continue their homestand against the Buffalo Sabres Saturday and the New York Islanders Tuesday.

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