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.
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.
Year-to-year persistence of possession metrics when F/D remain on the same team vs. change teams.. pic.twitter.com/FwEdBoKsDJ
— Domenic Galamini (@MimicoHero) July 31, 2015
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.