TORONTO – It’s not a no-brainer. Mike Babcock made that clear.
Given the growing expectations around here, you’d think the organization’s plan of attack would be straightforward. An 11-2-0 run has been fuelled by an offensive explosion for the Leafs and keeping JVR in the fold increases the likelihood that it continues into the spring. No?
“I don’t think anything is an easy decision,” Babcock said after Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Florida Panthers, a game where van Riemsdyk scored the only goal.
“We’ve talked about this a bunch,” Babcock continued. “You always have this plan, but your plan can always change. It depends on what people want. There’s lots of times you’re going through and not planning on doing anything and you end up doing something. We don’t really know, in the end, what’s available and what we could pursue either.
“The way I look at it is, instead of worrying about that stuff, you just keep playing good and give ourselves the best opportunity. Then, whatever is best for our team, [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] will do.”
You can understand why van Riemsdyk might be worrying. Just a little.
He’s rarely even been mentioned in a trade rumour during his previous five seasons in Toronto and now finds himself playing out the final year of a team-friendly deal with Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline looming.
That quote from Babcock certainly didn’t provide any reassurance, and then there’s the not insignificant fact that the Leafs have made no serious attempt to extend the 28-year-old despite having conversations with his camp stretching back months. Barring a change of heart, this doesn’t look like a relationship that will continue into next season. The only pertinent question is whether it’s down to its final days now.
What van Riemsdyk does best has value – to the Leafs and everyone else. The big winger possesses terrific hand-eye co-ordination and soft hands, and the word passed along to other teams as of two weeks ago was that Toronto was inclined to keep him for the stretch run.
But, as Babcock himself said, plans can change.
JVR is holding up his end of the bargain by scoring at a career-best 33-goal pace despite seeing his lowest ice time since his sophomore year with Philadelphia.
After getting No. 25 in Tuesday’s victory, he sat 11th overall in goals per 60 minutes played – trailing bonafide stars like teammate Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Brock Boeser and Nathan MacKinnon, among others.
And yet, it’s hard not to look at his diminished role and wonder if the Leafs feel they can soldier on without him. Turn him into assets and push on. The coach tends not to trust van Riemsdyk on the defensive side of the puck in tight-checking games and he gave him just 12:17 of ice time against the Panthers.
“I thought today was one of his better games, for sure,” said Babcock. “James has an ability to score. … I thought in our last game he backchecked. He competed. He won some loose puck battles. We always encourage him to do more. I think he can do more. He’s got a big body, he’s got a skill set, and just get to the net.
“Today, I mean, that’s a good goal. One [Roberto Luongo] would like to have back – Lu made tons of good saves – he would have liked to have that one back. That’s what James seems to do. He just gets it in. Other guys, as you see, don’t.”
Babcock also mentioned that he’s tried to mould the Leafs into a four-line team, but may elect to abandon that approach in “crunch time.”
Right now, van Riemsdyk is part of the third unit with Tyler Bozak and Connor Brown – a trio that has made some contributions behind the Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri lines. He’s also a productive net-front presence on the top power-play unit.
Common sense suggests that the Leafs’ immediate fortunes are better with him than without him, although it can’t be said for certain without knowing what a potential trade return would look like.
For his part, van Riemsdyk is trying only to focus on the process. He’s making the best of his ice time, and reduced role, and uncertain future.
“I’m just trying to be a productive player,” said van Riemsdyk. “Obviously, I’m happy to be on a team like this where we’re able to have some team success. That’s what we’re all focused on at the end of the day. We have a special group, in my opinion, in here.”
Whether or not he remains a part of it is out of his hands.
The ball is in Lou’s court.