TORONTO – To get himself acclimated with the talents and potential of James van Riemsdyk, Randy Carlyle went to the tape. He looked back at the 2011 playoffs when the then-sophomore winger made the hockey world take notice with seven goals in 11 games for the Flyers, including three in the second round against Boston.
"We saw that again last year in the playoffs for us," said Carlyle of the 24-year-old, who scored twice in a wild 6-5 win against Edmonton on Saturday night. "He made it difficult for himself because now we're going to expect it every game."
van Riemsdyk is showing definite star potential in his second season with the Leafs, now with five goals in the first six games this season. He is quickly raising his game to yet another level after an explosive 2013 which saw him tally 18 goals in 48 games before notching seven points in a first round loss to the Bruins.
Improvements to his craft are noticeable, the first of which lies with a powerful set of wheels.
"Big guys, a lot of times they don't look like they're covering a lot of ground, but if he gets a step on anybody, he's big and strong enough in his body position that not many people catch him," Carlyle observed.
Registered at an imposing 6-foot-3 and a sturdy 200 pounds, van Riemsdyk manages to chug along quite well for a big man. That's due in part to the work he's put in with Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill. Just this past summer, Underhill traveled to Connecticut to work with van Riemsdyk and fellow training partners Colton Orr and Martin St. Louis. Viewing video clips of van Riemsdyk alongside Underhill, it was St. Louis, the 2013 scoring champ, who noticed the hitch, one that both agreed required fixing.
The adjustment "helped me become a little bit more explosive of a skater out there".
In addition to his efforts with Underhill, van Riemsdyk also credited offseason training with Ben Prentiss, with whom he's worked alongside since the summer after his first NHL season with the Flyers.
"He's done a tremendous job with me every year since as far as just getting me more athletic, more explosive and more dynamic out there," said van Riemsdyk.
Such explosiveness was evident when he charged hard around the Oilers net for the fourth Toronto goal, beating Devan Dubnyk with a wrap-around which proved akin to the one he scored two nights previous in Nashville.
Earlier in the evening, it was a striking presence around the net that would yield results. Parked around the blue paint of the Edmonton goal, van Riemsdyk would deftly redirect the point shot of Cody Franson, his second marker on the power-play this season.
"He's very good at tracking pucks," Franson said of van Riemsdyk. "You see a guy like him coming across and you just try and put it in an area where he can get a stick on it. That's one of his major talents is to be able to do that."
"He's good around that tight area of the net," Carlyle added. "For a big man, he's got soft hands."
It was Carlyle who prodded the more consistent use of such skills in the early days of the 2013 calendar, the coach and player just becoming acquainted upon their landing in Toronto.
"Obviously I'm always a guy who likes to be around the net and that's where I have to get to if I'm going to score goals," van Riemsdyk said. "That's a place I like going. I know it's not necessarily the easiest part of the rink to play on, but it's fun getting in there and just digging at pucks and trying to bang them in."
Consistent run on the man advantage, van Riemsdyk added, has proved beneficial not only toward developing chemistry with members of the top unit, but also to the "little nuances about being in front and positioning your body and being in a good spot to be able to get those rebounds".
Running shotgun on a first line that includes Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, van Riemsdyk is getting plenty of opportunity for the Leafs, the kind he envisioned upon his disappointing exit from Philadelphia. van Riemsdyk is averaging nearly 22 minutes per game this season, adding increased responsibility on the penalty kill early on.
The array of tools which made him so attractive to the organization in the summer of 2012, when they first acquired him from Philadelphia in exchange for Luke Schenn, are being realized in rapid order.
van Riemsdyk is evolving into a star.
1. Incomplete victory
The efforts have been neither pretty nor complete and yet the Leafs are 5-1-0 after six games, all this without David Clarkson from the outset (suspension) and regulars Nik Kulemin and Mark Fraser (injuries) more recently.
A game of shinny with the Oilers on Saturday nearly ended in defeat. Instead, as they have throughout the first two weeks of the season, the Leafs managed to grind out a win, albeit it barely on this night.
With just 31 ticks left in regulation and the home side down 5-4, it was Joffrey Lupul playing hero, the 30-year-old scoring his second of the game and fifth this season. Breaking loose for a 3-on-1 rush minutes later, Dave Bolland would bury his second game-winner of the season in overtime.
"My teeth are going to be ground down by the 20-game mark if we continue to play the way we did tonight as far as exchanging chances and mistakes," Carlyle smirked afterward.
As they have been at various points in the early stages this season, the Leafs were sloppy and error-prone against the Oilers, yielding a number of high-quality opportunities in critical areas. Jonathan Bernier rescued some of those miscues with terrific play in his previous four games – .971 save percentage – but he could not erase them once more on Saturday, yielding five goals on 31 shots.
"It was a game of mistakes and each team seemed to capitalize on one another's mistakes," Carlyle said. "The fortunate part for us is we were on the right end of it."
2. Bolland's way
A ready-made favourite of the head coach, Bolland added to his resume with another game-winner on Saturday. "To get the true read on Dave Bolland is when you come to practice," Carlyle preached shortly after the game. "He does every drill at the highest possible speed. He practices like a pro. He's trying to make himself better every day. Some of our younger players could take notice to that."
Carlyle said such a message has been imparted to the Leafs youth.
"We have a motto," he continued, "that if your skill level is at one level and if your will or your ability to work doesn't match that skill level or exceed it, you're not going to get any better. It's guys like Dave Bolland that sell your program and help coaches in leading by example and showing the way."
Saturday proved a difficult night for the Leafs second pair of Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly. The duo was caught on the ice for four of the five Oilers goals. "It was just one of those nights where that's the way it was going," Franson said afterward.
The 26-year-old made good on a rough night in some respect in overtime though, outmuscling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for the puck in the defensive zone before springing the odd-man rush which would ultimately result in Bolland's game-winner.
4. Eakins' return
A seventh round selection in 2007, Carl Gunnarsson first met Dallas Eakins when he was in charge of player development for the Leafs. Eakins had traveled to Sweden to watch Gunnarsson while he was still in the Swedish Elite League, offering tips and advice to the late round pick after games. The now 26-year-old would then play for Eakins when he moved to the bench for the organization as Marlies head coach in 2009.
"He was a fair guy and that's all I've heard from the guys that's been down there too," Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report. "If you've got that reputation I guess it's just a matter of time before you get that job in the big league."
Gunnarsson would play only 12 games for Eakins in the AHL that fall before joining the Leafs and never looking back. Upon his exit, the now Oilers coach had a simple message. "He told me he didn't want to see me again," Gunnarsson recalled. "And Dallas can keep a straight face too. I knew it was a joke, but still he's looking at me, 'Gunnar, get out of here I don't want to see you again'. Just looking back at that, I take it as a good thing."
Eakins spent eight seasons in the Leafs organization before landing the top job in Edmonton. He was an assistant coach at the AHL and NHL levels, the director player of development and finally the head coach with the Marlies. Saturday marked his return to Toronto.
5. Eakins' return Pt. 2
Like countless others who played for him in Toronto, Eakins made an impact in just 16 games on Troy Bodie. The now 28-year-old was a Marlie late in the 2009-2010 season. "He made you want to play for him and want to win for him," Bodie told the Leaf Report. "And if you lost you felt bad; you honestly felt bad that you let him down. He just had that way about him. It's not a coaching style you see very often."
"Whatever the players wanted he gave them rather than some coaches thinking 'I think this is what they need'," Bodie continued. "He was really good at reading his players and seeing what they needed and catering to it."
22 – Goals for the Leafs after six games, good for an average of 3.67, fourth-best in the league after Saturday.
21:59 – Ice-time for Paul Ranger on Saturday, a season-high.
1 – Career point for rookie David Broll, who helped set up Joffrey Lupul's first goal of the game.
8 – Points for Joffrey Lupul, who sits second in NHL scoring behind only Sidney Crosby.
6 – Points for Mason Raymond, including a pair of assists on Saturday.
6 – Points for Nazem Kadri in six games this season, including a goal and an assist on Saturday.
.946 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier after yielding five goals on 31 shots against Edmonton.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"My teeth are going to be ground down by the 20-game mark if we continue to play the way we did tonight as far as exchanging chances and mistakes."
-Randy Carlyle following Saturday's 6-5 victory.
The Leafs host the Wild at the ACC on Tuesday.