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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

If the Leafs moved James van Riemsdyk, he’d be harder to replace than expected

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.

SCORING

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.

  Player G/GP
1 Ovechkin 0.6
2 Stamkos 0.54
3 P. Kane 0.47
4 Crosby 0.46
5 Tavares 0.44
6 Pavelski 0.43
7 Pacioretty 0.43
8 Tarasenko 0.43
9 Malkin 0.43
10 Seguin 0.42
11 Benn 0.41
12 Perry 0.4
13 Marchand 0.4
14 Nash 0.4
15 Neal 0.39
16 Carter 0.38
17 Parise 0.38
18 Kucherov 0.38
19 Panarin 0.38
20 Simmonds 0.37
21 Skinner 0.37
22 Toews 0.36
23 JVR 0.36
24 Kessel 0.35
25 Couture 0.35
26 Wheeler 0.34
27 Monahan 0.34
28 Forsberg 0.34
29 Pastrnak 0.34
30 Hossa 0.33

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).

DEFENCE

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
2009-10 PHI 5.74 -1.29 2.98%
2010-11 PHI 4.29 3.74 0.25%
2011-12 PHI 3.9 0.41 1.42%
2012-13 TOR 8.48 4.87 2.12%
2013-14 TOR 7.4 4.65 1.81%
2014-15 TOR 3.58 10.98 -2.67%
2015-16 TOR 12.25 -3.97 6.81%
2016-17 TOR 4.15 0.15 1.62%

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.

  • Stan Smith

    I’m on the fence when it comes to dealing, or keeping JVR. A lot depends on what comes the other way, and what kind of a deal JVR would be looking for to re-sign. Having said that, you are absolutely corrrect in that taking him out of the lineup would leave a big hole at left wing. Yes they have prospects that can fill the position, but I can’t see any of them scoring nearly as many goals, or points as JVR. In fact I don’t know if all three of Leivo, Rychel or Leipsic would score 30 goals total, if they all played a full season. Any way you look at it, dealing JVR would definitely be a step backwards at the present.

    • Gary Empey

      I am on the fence beside you on this one. There is always some risk when trading top players that before we know it we are all clamoring to make a trade to get someone who is a good as the guy we recently traded. Eg: After the Phaneuf trade we have been looking for a top four defenceman. If we do end up trading JVR then I think we should be contemplating who could be a perfect fit to play with Marner. In Mich’s last year in for the Knights his other winger was Matthew Tkachuk, along with Christian Dvorak at center. That combination produced MVP awards for Marner in the OHL and Memorial Cup. The closest player to Tkachuk, in style, I see on our extended roster is Rychel. While were at it, Dvorak scored 15 goals last year for the Arizona Coyotes. I wonder if the Coyotes would consider trading him.

  • Benjamin

    Honestly the time for trading him has almost certainly passed.

    With just 1 year left, he’s now a rental. So he’s likely to only be worth picks/prospects right now, i.e. not what the Leafs need.

    And the guy is a glass cannon, obviously, but he’s a great one. He’s had a lot of success in a sheltered scoring role, and the Leafs already skipped the need to put their big rookies in such a spot (save Marner). So again, if you wanted a rookie in his spot last year to ease them in, that boat’s sailed.

    • Stan Smith

      I don’t know. I still think opportunities to deal him for a decent return are going to be there, and I’m pretty sure if JVR would have been dealt before the start of this season, or at the deadline, and another rookie starting in his place, the Leafs would not have made the playoffs and gotten valuable playoff experience.

      • Benjamin

        But that return wouldn’t be for NHL players, because he’s now a rental. So the Leafs’ situation you describe from this past deadline, not wanting to deal JVR and hurt their playoff chances, keeps them from dealing him for picks/prospects now.

    • Gary Empey

      I hardly think the time to trade JVR has passed. Do you honestly think come trade deadline there is no market for a 28 year old 30 scorer who averages around 60 points every year? Why there seems to be teams willing to pay a 38 year old free agent player who managed 6 goals last year. At an expected salary of $5 million.

      • Benjamin

        Every team in the league would want JVR, that’s not the question.

        The question is: what type of asset could you get for JVR now. And, since he’s a one year rental, the answer is almost certainly futures, not other NHLers. JVR has more value to this team as their own pseudo-rental than he does being turned into a few picks and prospects.

        • Gary Empey

          The expression “rental player” used to mean someone acquired at the trade deadline to either get the team into the playoffs (Boyle) or improve their chances to actually contend for the cup ( Shattenkirk). JVR has a whole year left on his contract at a fairly reasonable salary. On July 1st the Leafs can find out what his asking price is. If Leaf management feel it is a lot more than they are willing to pay then the Leafs can give prospective trading partners an opportunity to speak with JVR’s agent and work out a deal. This would force teams needing to make a deal before the expansion draft to take some risk. I think the only real reason anyone is even talking about the possibility of moving JVR is because we appear to have prospects more than ready to fill his shoes.

          • Benjamin

            Anyone acquired without term (i.e. for only one season or less guaranteed) is a rental in my books. I say that because the nature of the asset fundamentally changes as soon as they lack term. Teams looking to improve by getting such players don’t typically deal useful NHL players to do so. They’re much more motivated to keep their current team intact and deal futures instead. Otherwise the deal is more or less self-defeating. Right?

  • Capt.Jay

    The thing about replacing JVR’s production is that you don’t do it with a rookie. You move someone up the line up and then replace that players production on the line he came from and so on, it’s a trickle up effect.

    Also, if that player puts up 70% of what JVR did you do it 10 times out of 10 as you forget that you replaced JVR for a top 4 decenceman which already made the team better, regardlless of who moves into his spot. The team has forward depth, not top defensive depth, that’s why he’s tradable

    • Gary Empey

      If JVR actually gets moved then one has to factor in Marner’s presence on the line. Whoever was to replace JVR is now going to be receiving glorious unexpected, passes for great scoring chances. If we remember back to the beginning of last season, it took Bozak and JVR quite a few games before they realized Marner has eyes in the back of his head to find a man open. Not only did Mich fool the defenders he surprised his line-mates as well. Once Bozak and JVR caught on though, that line was really dangerous.

  • Drapes55

    First off I’m gonna say I love JVR, he’s been nothing but a good soldier for the Leafs since he got here. But I think being able to bring in a top 4 defenseman for him is more than worth it. I know they can’t replace his goal production with one guy, but with guys like Marner, Nylander, Brown all getting better they’ll help pick up the slack. Also Kapanen only has 3 goals in 23 games but 9 of those were on the 15-16 Leafs team that was really bad at scoring and the rest of those have been playing on the fourth line with Matt Martin and Brian Boyle, so 3 goals is pretty good in my opinion especially since 2 of those have been in big moments of big important games

  • CMpuck

    Take what you can get for him, we don’t need picks and prospects? Why that’s currentcy on the trade market. JVR is great IMO but would you sign him as UFA for 5- 7 years at 5.75+? He eventually regress and be a massive anchor. If the Leafs can get a 1st + a 2nd for him I’ll be satisfied.

    Loved JVR, he’s been a good solider but who ever signs him is going to suffer a hangover, like a Bobby Ryan in Ottawa.

  • Kevin

    It goes without saying that JVR would be hard to replace on the Leafs. There is no one on the UFA market or internally they could replace him with and get a similar offensive result. That being said, if the Leafs can’t lock him up long term (at a reasonable cap hit) they have no choice but trade him. The Leafs are still in a rebuilding phase and the assets JVR could bring in cannot be sacrificed in losing JVR to free agency.