Can Babcock make van Riemsdyk the guy in Toronto?

A story that’s been at the front of the Leafs’ offseason since the Babcock hiring is how the team can go forward with “rehabilitating” Dion Phaneuf’s game in the coming year(s). Phaneuf has recently seen his value dip to perhaps its lowest point, so for the purposes of getting some return on their $7-million investment or facilitating a trade to get out from under it, management obviously wants to see some improvement. 

However, beyond Phaneuf there are other interesting potential “turn-around” cases on this team. Another example would be Nazem Kadri, who will be under a close eye this season after the Leafs gave him an “Impress us this year and we’ll make you rich” contract/promise.

But someone who’s maybe been a little bit stuck in the middle and not receiving a ton of discussion in this regard is James van Riemsdyk. 

“JVR” hasn’t been given too much attention this offseason, probably because he’s good enough to be a valuable player but was never as polarizing as Kessel (who was eventually dealt), and he certainly doesn’t fall into that “get these guys out of here quick” group with Bozak and Lupul. 

He just exists, it seems.

The more I think of it, the more I’m intrigued by how van Riemsdyk’s game can be affected by Babcock, perhaps even more than Phaneuf or Kadri or others. 

This isn’t to say he’s a poor player or needs a game rehab, that’s obviously far from the case. But what we could see from van Riemsdyk is a player go from good to great.

Story 1 (3)

JVR has often been raked over the coals for a weak defensive game, and the numbers in the last couple seasons back that up. As you can see from the HERO chart above (via Domenic Galamini at OwnThePuck), his real weakness appears to be preventing attempts against, and that in turn somewhat aligns with goals against and a poor goals-for percentage. 

Basically he’s spending too much of his time with the other team reeling off shot-attempts, and that’s never fun. But that goes for many of the Leafs under the trainwreck that was Randy Carlyle hockey, and now they have a bit of a clean slate. 

What should come out in the wash this upcoming season is how much of that inability to reduce opposing shot-attempts is systems-related and so on. There’s a real possibility that under Babcock – and keep in mind van Riemsdyk just turned 26, with much of his prime still to go – he can become a better defensive player and round out his game. 

Looking the other way, though, the guy is a force in the offensive zone and in his time with the Leafs has basically erased what used to be a knock on him over his inability to establish a net-front game effectively for such a big presence. 

The offence is clearly already there and likely won’t be dwindling any time soon. If things improve on the other side of the puck, van Riemsdyk could be the most important piece up front until Marner and Nylander establish themselves in the next couple years. [Kadri supporters (and I’m one myself) might disagree, and that’s fine. All I’m saying is I don’t think there’s anything to be concluded yet, and there’s so much to prove for both this season.]

Now, the biggest question here is can a player actually turn around an aspect of their game like this within a new system?

Of course they can, anyone with common sense realizes this. And given the situation, with JVR’s relative youth and the magnitude of the coaching change, it’d be foolish to dismiss it.

Sometimes players change teams and, as a result, go into entirely different circumstances with regards to coaching and personnel and everything that comes along with it – linemates, strategy, ice-time, and so on. 


JVR isn’t switching teams, but it feels like so much is changing for the Leafs – particularly the addition of an all-world coach and management’s focus on building a supporting cast that can drive play – that he might as well be. If you look at the visuals posted above, you can see that the possession game for a player [or at least how we interpret it] can change substantially in a new situation, and this situation is as new as it gets without putting on another jersey. 

This isn’t to say the burden is totally off van Riemsdyk’s shoulders, as he’s been grilled a number of times for not engaging much in the defensive zone, so part of this is on him to put in the effort to get better. But with Babcock no doubt pushing heavy work ethic and defensive responsibility, things the Leafs have been sorely lacking in recent years, along with an overall system he’ll bring that better drives play, it isn’t out of the question to predict an improvement in this area for arguably the Leafs’ best weapon going forward.

  • silentbob

    JVR is in his mid-20s, has played for 2 teams, at least 3 coaches…… At this point i think he is the player is (he’ll look amazing at times, and disappear at times) and we should expect or look for any big change because of Babcock.

    That’s not to say change can’t/won’t happen, I just don’t think anyone should expect it, and if he doesn’t it certainly shouldnt be looked at as a negative thing.

    • Agreed.

      I think the reason we don’t hear anything about him is because he is pretty good. It would be great if he became an all-star but we shouldn’t expect it from him.

      A guy who can put up 30 goals and 60 points for less than $5MM is solid in my books.

    • silentbob

      Statistically speaking, he hasn’t yet hit the peak age for hockey players which is 28-29 (google it and you’ll find multiple results) so I will have to disagree.

      • silentbob

        First, The range that forwards are in their primes is 24-32 (Google it), 28 is just right it the middle of that. So JVR should already be playing at his “peak” level,

        Second, players aren’t “what they are” for 1 or 2 years. Most players are 3rd liners or 2nd liners or top liners or franchise players for most of their career. Not many players suddenly become significantly better or consistent when they turn 28. The majority “are what they are” long before that, even if most have their best years at 28 or 29. Toews, for example, is 27 years old, can we not say what kind of player he is yet?

        • silentbob

          Peak age is different from a range. Imagine a mountain. I’m talking about the top when you’re describing the base.

          “What they are”? Subjective opinion. Give me some hard facts man.

    • Gary Empey

      No it is not work harder or compete. It is: there is no room for players who are standing around watching the game as if they bought gold seats.

      The difference between Carlyle’s team and Babcock’s is Carlyle had no one else on his team to put on the ice. Babcock already has a bunch of players in reserve that can and will play a two way game.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Trade him is they can for a potential young #1 or #2 D man. The Islanders gave up Rienhart for Barzal and a second. JVR should be worth that and more with his age, contract and production.
    The Godfather needs to work his magic and use JVR to get Reilly a D partner.

    • Gary Empey

      I agree with you. I imagine management has seriously considered this. There are definitly teams out there that can afford to carry a player of this type.

      Right now most of the GM’s are basking in the sunshine of the media. Enjoying answering easy questions about their draft picks and free agent signing. Not to mention how far they expect to go in the playoffs.

      Season starts on September 20. Some teams always stumble out of the gate. The same media now get out their hammer and nails to construct a new cross for the GM. This is when some teams will sell their farm team for a goal scorer.

      I know the Leafs used to do it often enough.

  • Gary Empey

    From everything I have seen on this rebuild from hiring coaches. free agents, to drafting prospects all point to highly motivated, two way players with speed. I always thought as long as you have a couple of these type of players on your team. it was enough. Watching the semi finals and finals with all five players at both ends in on every play, convinced me of the new direction of successful playoff teams.

    Does JVR have the stamina to play a two way game?

    At age 26 will this be the first time he has been asked to contribute defensively?

    Will Babcock allow some players to play a one way game and then insist others play a two way game?

    If JVR can not improve his defensive game will he be moved?

    PS. Did anyone see Dermott play yesterday? He played a solid defensive game. He came in off the point and popped in one of the goals as well. It was easy to see why Hunter drafted him. This is starting to look like the unexpected home run that Hunter mentioned before the draft.

  • silentbob

    We have really been on Phaneuf’s case, especially since he signed his new deal with the 7mill cap hit, but could we have paid him less? What I mean is since his last cap hit was 6.5mill, is there anything that says that his next contract must have a %raise to it like the ones being RFA’s?