On Thursday, March 1, James van Riemsdyk was back. Back to the level of play that excited Philadelphia during the 2011 NHL Playoffs. Back to the level of play that many expected of a No. 2 overall pick. And back to the type of play that earned him a six-year, $25.5 million contract extension.
And then he blocked a shot, resulting in a broken bone in his foot. The budding power forward was injured again.
The broken foot came after van Riemsdyk spent 15 games on the mend with a concussion and missed another five games with a pulled muscle in his abdominal region. Add a lingering hip injury to the list, and the 2011-12 season was not going as planned.
It was supposed to be his breakout season. The Flyers had traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the team's two leading scorers, opening the door for van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux to take the reigns in Philadelphia. The 23-year-old winger from New Jersey was supposed to carry the torch.
But injuries held him back, and trade rumors began to surface. He eventually made it back for the second round of the postseason against the New Jersey Devils. Though the Flyers were largely outclassed, van Riemsdyk's play was a bright spot. Again, he was showing the physical play, offensive aggressiveness and tools to live up to the hype that had surrounded him his entire career. His best hockey is surely ahead of him.
But it won't be played in Philadelphia. Saturday — exactly one year to the day after Paul Holmgren traded away Richards and Carter, making van Riemsdyk a cornerstone of his new roster — the Flyers general manager traded the former New Hampshire Wildcat to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for the similarly slow-to-develop Luke Schenn to bolster the blue line.
After all the patience the Flyers organization showed with their 2007 first round draft choice, they are going to have to sit and watch as he plays the best years of his career in Maple Leaf blue.
The injuries and slow development may have been frustrating for the Flyers' brass, but van Riemsdyk was steadily improving and will continue to do so. He is blessed with ideal size and has a lethal shot to go with sneaky speed. His 24 points in 43 games this season didn't do much to back up his talent, but he was also playing with lesser linemates against tougher defensive pairings than he saw during the 2010-11 season. Next year, in theory, van Riemsdyk could be playing between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, if the rumored switch to center becomes a reality. Playing alongside a pair of All-Stars would be a huge boost for van Riemsdyk.
Defensively, he could be better. And he will have to be if he does indeed play center in Toronto, but power forwards take time to develop. He is 23 years old and still developing as a player, both physically and mentally. Given a bit more time, van Riemsdyk could mold into a first line player. If his development slows, he has still proven to be a reliable top-six forward, which is nothing to scoff at.
Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is taking a gamble with this trade, but top-six talent was needed up front in Toronto. As long as van Riemsdyk's progression continues, though, Burke should get the best years of the power forward's career.
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