The Leafs, The Avalanche, and James Van Riemsdyk

The Leafs, The Avalanche, and James Van Riemsdyk
  • Max Solomons

Patrick Marleau as a Leaf still seems weird to me. Long considered one of the faces of the Sharks, a consistently competitive team in the Western Conference, it seemed odd that, after 20 years in San Jose, now would be the time for the former 2nd overall pick to move on. Credit the Leafs front office for getting this deal done, as the appeal of finishing a career in the place where it all began is most definitely an attractive prospect for all players, especially one of Marleau’s importance to the franchise that first picked him in the draft. While he leaves “Jumbo” Joe Thornton and an aging San Jose roster behind, Marleau can now look forward to playing with arguably the most exciting young forward group that hockey has to offer. Lead by the “Big Three” of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Leafs appear poised to be Stanley Cup contenders for the foreseeable future. But in reality, are the Maple Leafs finished?

For all of the praise heaped onto the Maple Leafs this past season, one player that seems to be overlooked when discussing the team’s successes is James Van Riemsdyk. Scoring almost 30 goals, and over 60 points, is no easy feat; yet JVR, utilizing the tremendous size-speed combination that lead to him being drafted second overall, was one of the main contributors to the Leafs unexpected run to the playoffs. Even the advanced stats will attest to the fact that JVR, despite the lack of acclaim when compared to his younger Leaf counterparts, is still absolutely a first line winger on most teams in the NHL. Own The Puck (http://ownthepuck.blogspot.ca), a highly touted advanced statistics website, rates JVR right on par with a first line player when compared to the average winger around the league.  However, one area of weakness for Van Riemsdyk is his defensive game, where his shot suppression rating lags far behind an archetype NHL winger. For a team looking for a power forward who can still score points at a near-elite rate, JVR is an extremely attractive trade candidate, even for teams beginning to rebuild.

After an abysmal season eerily reminiscent of the turbulent Maple Leafs during the past 10 or so years, the Colorado Avalanche must begin the process of completely restocking their team in connection with what could prove to be an exhausting climb back to elite status in the league. Much maligned General Manager Joe Sakic has faced a heap of criticism for failing to deal Matt Duchene. Ultimately, Colorado should be able to trade Duchene as Sakic’s price inevitably declines, with a team like Montreal (whose offensive prospectus is in complete disarray given the team’s failure to resign Alexander Radulov) being an attractive trading partner. However, I feel that if the Avalanche are truly serious about rebuilding their team, they must look to their blue line, starting with Tyson Barrie.

Tyson Barrie is considered one of the better young right shot defenseman in the NHL, and for good reason. His offensive production speaks for itself, and Own The Puck has his advanced stats right in line with a fringe first/second pairing player. Additionally, given his youth at the age of 25, Barrie could stand to actually improve his current level of play, especially on a team where the talent in front of him would far exceed what he has dealt with previously as a member of the Avalanche. Beyond the statistics, the fact that Barrie is a right shot defenseman only serves to enhance his potential trade value, as the market for players with this specific physical skillset is extremely limited, with many potential buyers and few sellers. One look at the Travis Hamonic deal will tell you that this type of player is in high demand, with few teams possessing the necessary assets to pry such a player from his current home…but the Leafs could be one of them.

A trade that centers around James Van Riemsdyk and Tyson Barrie makes sense for all parties involved. From a cap, scheme fit and forward-thinking perspective, both players stand to fit nicely in their new homes should a trade between the Leafs and Avalanche come to fruition. Of course, given Barrie’s tremendous value, JVR is simply a starting point…but let’s begin with these players. Fitting right into the Colorado’s top line, Van Riemsdyk stands to receive a significant amount of playing time on the rebuilding Avalanche. Granted, as addressed previously, JVR is a relative defensive liability. However, it was abundantly clear this past season how desperate the Avalanche are for goal scorers, especially along the wings, and Van Riemsdyk would appear likely to help ease that issue from the outset with his new start in Colorado. Therefore, especially during a rebuild, I feel that it is safe to assume that the Avalanche would be willing to stomach JVR’s defensive struggles given his projected offensive contribution. Given the Avalanche’s salary cap flexibility (projected to have approximately $14 million in cap space by CapFriendly.com), resigning Van Riemsdyk shouldn’t be a problem whatsoever, should that be the direction (and it will be) that Sakic chooses to take with his new winger. Additionally, given his youth (28), Van Riemsdyk would still fit nicely in the Avalanche rebuild, while ensuring that the excitement surrounding the team remains relatively stable for its previously disenchanted fan base.

For the Maple Leafs, Tyson Barrie represents a perfect fit. As a right shot defenseman, Barrie fits in nicely into the Leafs’ defensive top four. Despite his relative struggles defensively, Barrie’s offensive talent would work seamlessly alongside a two-way defenseman like Nikita Zaitsev, allowing Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner to work with one another for the foreseeable future. Barrie is also signed to a reasonable contract with three years remaining, with his deal ending right around the time the Leafs must resign young talents like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. However, given the (guaranteed) inclusion of Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul on the Long Term Injured Reserve (and Lupul coming off the payroll entirely following the end of this season), the Leafs possess the cap flexibility at this time to stomach Barrie’s current $5.5 million AAV (Average Annual Value) moving forward. Aside from Morgan Rielly (and arguably Jake Gardiner), the Leafs lack a truly dynamic offensive defenseman on their back end, but with the inclusion of Barrie, that all changes. Suddenly, a Leafs powerplay quarterbacked by Rielly and Barrie becomes a looming threat in any contest, and then, when one considers the additional wealth of talent the Leafs possess within their forward group…well, look out.

Yes, losing Van Riemsdyk stings from an offensive perspective. After all, 60 point producers do not “grow on trees”. However, if there is any position the Leafs can afford to offload, it is at the wing, as the plethora of young talent in their minor league system should help ease the loss of Van Riemsdyk. Specifically, Kasperi Kapanen and Kerby Rychel are two players who appear ready to make the jump into regular NHL play, and the recently acquired Patrick Marleau should also help mitigate the offensive loss of Van Riemsdyk in the immediate future.  So, the question is, what could a completed trade look like?  Well, given the current Leafs’ inventory of wingers, Jeremy Bracco, despite his diminutive size, had a tremendous season in junior that culminated in a Memorial Cup victory, certainly would come to mind.  While Leafs fans may be hesitant to move a player with the potential of Bracco, I feel that the current outlook of the team lends credence to the idea that despite the offensive potential of the American-born winger, it is unlikely that he will have a place in a deep starting lineup for the foreseeable future. Rather than allowing his value to potentially diminish while waiting in the minor leagues, I feel that now is the time to move Bracco, alongside JVR and a pick to acquire Tyson Barrie. This pick shouldn’t be a first, as the apparent talent level of the upcoming 2018 draft class has been highly touted for quite some time, meaning teams will be hesitant to miss out on picking in the 1st round of the draft.  However, I feel that a 2nd round pick would more than satisfy the Avalanche’s newfound (and necessary) lust for draft pick capital, creating the rare situation in the NHL where a trade truly appears to be a win-win for both teams from the outset.

With Patrick Marleau and the projected inclusion of Tyson Barrie, the Leafs stand to increase their chances at true Stanley Cup contention significantly for the next few seasons. The scoring potential of this team runs from top to bottom on the roster, combining young and exciting talent, with grizzled veteran leadership, in a way that is eerily similar to consistent Stanley Cup contenders like the Blackhawks, Kings and Penguins. For his years of service with the Leafs, even as they toiled in mediocrity for what felt like forever, JVR still served as a beacon of offensive talent on a team that desperately needed it. Now, under this scenario, JVR may finally garner the acclaim and fandom that he deserves, serving as a beacon of offensive talent on a team that desperately needs it.