In their enormous undertaking to rebuild a club that has failed to be truly competitive for over 10 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have masterfully shed several enormous contracts signed by polarizing players all in the just past calendar year – and they have done it with three different figureheads at the helm.
Almost an exact year ago, Dave Nonis took advantage of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ inability to pay Nathan Horton (inactive but still on the payroll) by sending David Clarkson’s troubling contract to Ohio, essentially clearing out about $5.25 million in cap space for nothing. Then, following Nonis’ firing, team president Brendan Shanahan traded ‘enigma’ Phil Kessel in the off-season, netting top Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Kasperi Kapanen and a first-round pick (among other parts) in exchange.
And yesterday, of course, general manager Lou Lamoriello sent long-time team captain Dion Phaneuf – a figure as polarizing as possible in Toronto – to the Ontario rival Ottawa Senators in a nine-player deal that included highly-touted prospect Tobias Lindberg and a second-round pick in 2017 coming back to the Maple Leafs.
Something that was interesting to note, though, was what Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said of the move: “The problem with us with Dion is that Dion is ready to win, we’re not ready to win. So it was a hard decision. I think it’s a good decision for Dion – not today, but tomorrow. And it’s a good decision for our club moving ahead.”
Anyone who knows the situation with the Maple Leafs knows that Babcock is in Toronto for the long-haul – for the “five-year process” as Lamoriello calls it and beyond, when management expects the team to be a true contender. So the coach has some say in executive matters, and what he said of the Phaneuf situation could be said for several other players – especially for forward James van Riemsdyk.
When compared with Clarkson, Kessel and Phaneuf, van Riemsdyk has just about the most trade friendly contract of the four. He’s been out with a fractured foot since January 9, but before going down, he had scored 29 points (14G, 15A) in 40 games, making him the team leader in points at the time, and also the team leader in point per game percentage even to this day (72.5 percent). Having such success on arguably the worst offensive team of 2015-16 is no easy task, and it just goes to show how the talented forward emerged as the team’s best in the wake of the Kessel trade.
At 26-years-old, van Riemsdyk is just beginning to enter his prime. He was a standout in Philadelphia, especially in the playoffs, and he turned heads lining up with Kessel in Toronto in previous seasons, but he’s at a point where there is nothing left for him with the Maple Leafs. Wasting your prime years on a fledgling team that is in the midst of a rebuild is not only damaging to your game and overall confidence but also to your chances at a significant raise come UFA time, which is coming quickly for van Riemsdyk in the summer of 2018.
Given his career arc, the forward could be the top line winger to complement a contending team’s true No. 1 center – something he has not had in his time as a Maple Leaf, playing alongside Tyler Bozak. He would almost certainly break out on a playoff-bound club, which is nearly impossible to do on his 29th-place team this season.
Echoing Babcock’s statement about how Phaneuf is ready to win and Toronto is not, it makes perfect sense that the Maple Leafs should do whatever they can to facilitate a trade for their top forward. The only problem is that van Riemsdyk is still injured, and his target date for a return could be anywhere from the week of the trade deadline to mid-March. Ideally, the Leafs could get a lot for him at the deadline, especially since playoff-bound teams are looking for upgrades (JvR to Tampa for Drouin?), but if he is not healthy, they will have to hold off until the summer.
Toronto is admittedly a ‘tomorrow’ team, so there will be no harm done in trading him – especially since they just acquired veteran forwards Milan Michalek and Colin Greening, both of which can plug any future holes left by deadline trades.
Right now, the priority for the Maple Leafs is trading away veterans in exchange for top prospects and draft picks. They’re in full rebuild mode, and James van Riemsdyk is just not a part of their long-term plan.