As the NHL playoffs start to wind down, attention is going to increasingly turn to the NHL draft and all of the player movement that tends to happen around that time of season. Where the Toronto Maple Leafs are concerned, the name that fans bring up most often as far as trade targets is James van Riemsdyk. The reasons to consider trading JVR are straight-forward.
The most important one is that he’ll be due a big raise from his current $4.25M salary a year from now when his contract expires. At that point the Leafs will have signed William Nylander to a new contract and will be closing in on the expiration of the entry level deals for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Those three players will eat up a large chunk of the Leafs cap space, which may not leave much to sign a player like JVR to a big money deal, especially as he’ll be turning 29 the year his next contract begins.
Another reason, related to the first, is that JVR is likely a valuable trade chip. Since his salary cap hit this season is only $4.25M, he’s easy to fit under the salary cap for most teams. Coming off a 29 goal, 62 point season, van Riemsdyk’s value should be reasonably high. The Leafs already have a lot of talent at wing, but are in need of an upgrade to their top 4 defencemen. From that standpoint, trying to get a top 4 defenceman in a JVR trade makes sense.
In this post I’m not going to try to assess whether the Leafs should trade van Riemsdyk or what kind of player they might get in return. If you’re interested in reading that kind of article, Adam Laskaris recently laid out a case against trading JVR. I’m more interested in another angle, which is related to fan sentiment about van Riemsdyk. Many Leafs fans will say that it will be easy to replace JVR’s production internally because the Leafs have a glut of good, young wingers and can’t even get players like Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen into the lineup. I think a lot of fans are considerably under-rating just how good JVR has been, and how unlikely it is that the Leafs have a player internally who can replace that value. Let’s take a look at why that is.
Over the past 5 seasons, James van Riemsdyk is 27th among NHL forwards in goals scored. So, on average, each team in the NHL has had just one goal scorer better than JVR in that time span. In terms of goals per game he does even better, coming in at 22nd, tied with Jonathan Toews and slightly ahead of top goal scorers like Phil Kessel and Filip Forsberg.
Goal scoring at that level isn’t something that teams can easily replace. And JVR’s not really declining in terms of goal scoring yet, either. While that list covers the past 5 years, if you look at just the two most recent seasons his goal scoring rate barely falls at all, to 0.35 goals per game. So JVR is still a pretty elite goal scorer.
While goal scoring is JVR’s most obvious skill, he’s no slouch when it comes to setting up his teammates either. Over the past 5 seasons, JVR ranks 91st in primary assists and 71st in primary points (goals plus primary assists) among NHL forwards. So on average each team in the NHL has had two forwards who have scored more than van Riemsdyk has. He’s scored like a good first liner for several years now, and continued to do so last season. That’s not the kind of production level that you can replace just by dropping in a reasonably good young player like Josh Leivo.
Among the players with the best chances to potentially take JVR’s spot if he’s traded, Josh Leivo will be 24 next season, Brendan Leipsic will be 23, and Kasperi Kapanen will be 21. What is the likelihood that players that young can replace JVR’s output? 0.35 goals per game works out to 29 per NHL season, but let’s dial that back a little bit and say we’re looking to replace 25 goals. How many forwards 24 or younger have scored 25 goals in the NHL over the past three seasons? Just 38 players, a little over one per team.
You might say hey, that’s great, the Leafs are only one team and they only need one player to replace JVR, but Toronto already had one player that young do it last year (Auston Matthews), another who came close and will likely do it at some point soon (William Nylander), and a 3rd who scored 19 goals and may very well score a few more next season (Mitch Marner). Those are the kinds of players we’re talking about as far as young guys who can do what JVR’s done. That’s not to say that someone like Kasperi Kapanen couldn’t do it too, but it’s probably a long shot any time soon, especially when you consider that so far Kasperi has put up just 3 points in 23 career NHL games (regular season and playoffs).
One of the arguments in favour of trading James van Riemsdyk is that even if you can’t replace his offence, he’s not very strong defensively, so you can gain a lot of value if the winger who’s replacing him has bigger defensive impacts. But is JVR actually so bad defensively that you could reasonably expect a big boost just by replacing him with a good AHL winger?
One way to evaluate a player’s defensive impact is to look at the shot attempts when he’s on the ice. A good player will typically have a positive shot ratio, while a less useful player’s team will tend to get outshot while he’s on the ice. We can separate offensive results (Corsi For per 60 minutes) from defensive results (Corsi Against per 60 minutes), and doing so can give some insight into where a player is providing the greatest impacts. And if we look at JVR’s shot attempts relative to his teammates, it is clear that on the defensive side of things, his results are not great (for CA/60 Rel, negative numbers are good and positive numbers are bad):
|Year||Team||CF/60 Rel||CA/60 Rel||CF% Rel|
However, while it is true that JVR has generally been on the ice for a high volume of shots against, it’s also true that his team has done better in terms of shot attempts with him on the ice in 7 out of his 8 seasons in the league. So if he’s replaced with a winger who has a better CA/60, but that player can’t generate as much offence as van Riemsdyk, the Leafs aren’t going to see much of a positive impact in terms of results.
It’s also worth noting that JVR’s defensive results relative to his teammates have been significantly better since Mike Babcock took over as head coach of the Leafs. A big reason for that is that the Bozak/JVR line is no longer tasked with playing 20 minutes a night against the top lines of other teams, as they typically were under Randy Carlyle. Babcock’s done a much better job of letting JVR play to his strong suits while reducing his defensive responsibility. But it’s probably pretty unlikely that the Leafs are going to get significantly better defensive performance and a sufficiently high level of scoring to replace all of JVR’s impacts out of someone like Josh Leivo in the next year or two (and I say this as someone who thinks Leivo is pretty good).
None of this is to say that the Leafs shouldn’t consider trading van Riemsdyk. The team has a clear need to add a good top 4 defenceman, and JVR is likely one of their best trade chips to make that kind of thing happen. Toronto may very well find a trade that brings in a defenceman who makes the team better. But as far as whether the Leafs have anyone internally who can replace JVR’s value at forward, I think that’s pretty unlikely. JVR is a solid 1st liner, and those don’t grow on trees.