As the 2016 NHL entry draft approaches, many questions surround the Toronto Maple Leafs and what they plan to do in this, one of the most important off seasons in recent memory. Not all summers are created equal for NHL teams and this one will affect the Leafs foundation for years to come. While winning the lottery made at least one of the many decisions facing the club easier, there are still numerous others that will dictate how Shanahan and company go about turning a team that finished 30th in a 30 team league into a franchise that can compete year in and year out for a Stanley Cup.
Which brings me to what I feel is one of the most urgent questions the Leafs front office has to be asking themselves.
What do we do with James van Riemsdyk?
The 27 year old left winger who was taken 2nd overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, was acquired by the blue and white on June 23rd, 2012 for one of the fan bases favourite punching bags, Luke Schenn. His tenure in Toronto has been productive, scoring 89 goals and adding 89 assists for 178 points in 250 games and is a real scoring threat when he gets in around the net. His size (6’3, 217 lbs) and long reach makes him dangerous down low and can be a nightmare for opposing players when pucks get put on net. He’s a legitimate top 6 forward and exactly what teams look for when they want to add size and scoring prowess to their lineup.
And that’s exactly why we should trade him. Now.
Before being traded to Toronto, van Riemsdyk signed a very team friendly 6 year, 25.5 mil contract with an annual cap hit of 4.25 mil per season, of which there are now 2 years left. Most teams can fit this contract into their payroll very easily and with 2 more full seasons left with the player under control, he could be a very valuable and enticing asset that Lou Lamoriello can use to solidify the future of this organization. JVR’s value will only decline from here on out due to the fact that with each passing game in the coming season, the amount of time a club would have control of him before he hits the open market in the summer of 2018 decreases. Clubs put a premium on how long they have control of a player and in this particular situation, van Riemsdyk’s value is at its peak.
Further adding to the urgency of this decision is the fact his contract contains a modified no trade clause that commences July 1st which could complicate attempts to trade him in the future. He is a top six forward that can bolster any teams scoring punch and there is definitely a market for him. Rumours were circling JVR for part of last year and were growing louder and louder until his season was ended prematurely when he suffered a left ankle fracture in a 7-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks. If it weren’t for that injury, he may have been dealt prior to the trade deadline in March.
Couple all of this with the fact expansion is coming. The league will be expanding by a minimum of one team and most likely two with Las Vegas being almost a lock and the real possibility of the Nordiques returning to Quebec in the very near future. This will require an expansion draft and teams will be able to protect only so many players. It is very probable that teams will be able to protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen along with 1 goaltender and will have an NHL games played exemption for young players. If the Leafs do decide to keep van Riemsdyk in the fold, they would need to use one of those protected slots to keep him which could expose the team to losing a player they would much rather keep.
Now you can make a very solid argument for not trading him. The Leafs will have a lot of young players breaking into the league over the next couple of seasons and JVR’s size and experience would be valuable in insulating them from playing the type of minutes more suited to a veteran. You don’t want to rush young prospects and put them in a position where they are forced to take on too much too soon, doing so could endanger their development and hurt the team for years to come. Like I said earlier, he’s on a fantastic, team friendly contract and there’s a lot to like about the player…especially if the team decides to pursue a certain Toronto native who will remain nameless and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
But after signing long term on a contract that he took a haircut on, van Riemsdyk will be looking to cash in on his next one. There will be no hometown discount when his current deal runs out and he will be a 29 year old with solid production looking for a long term deal worth big money. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that he will be looking for a contract that will be in the 7 year, 50 mil range and if he reaches free agency, he will most certainly get it. If you were the Leafs front office, would you commit to a big money, long term contract with a player that would be 36 years old by the time it concludes? I wouldn’t and I don’t believe Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello would be inclined to do so either, especially with the fact that numerous young players in the organization will be due contract extensions during that time span. Signing van Riemsdyk to a deal like that is a recipe for disaster and would in all likelihood put the team in cap hell in the not so distant future, similar to the situation the Tampa Bay Lightning are in currently. That is certainly a headache the organization does not want to be faced with going forward.
You can be sure that all of these points have been discussed at length by the Leafs brass and that a decision has most likely already been made regarding James van Riemsdyk’s future with the club. There is a very strong likelihood that Lou Lamoriello has already begun working the phones, exploring options on a trade that would garner the Leafs a second top ten pick in this year’s draft in exchange for JVR’s services and in my opinion, that is absolutely the right move for this organization.
What the deal would look like and with whom is up for debate but if I were to put money on whether JVR stays or goes, I would put all of it on James van Riemsdyk being dealt before the conclusion of this year’s entry draft.
With prior management teams this scenario would have made me nervous. But with the current group in place?
Not in the slightest.