The general consensus after it was announced that the Toronto Maple Leafs had acquired No. 2 overall pick James van Riemsdyk in a trade with Philadelphia for No. 5 overall pick Luke Schenn was that it was a win for the Leafs.
Both Schenn and van Riemsdyk were in similar situations, coming off rough seasons after signing long-term contracts, but van Riemsdyk's problems were merely situational. A slew of non-related injuries throughout the year in conjunction with a shot percentage that brought down his career average didn't have Philly fans, media or brass thinking he looked at all like the same player who had scored 21 goals the year before.
Luke Schenn on the other hand, was in full need of a re-think. Defencemen are much more difficult to judge than forwards and their contributions to the play are difficult to analyze. Schenn played four seasons in Toronto and looked good for just one of them: the 2010-11 campaign before he signed his four-year extension with the Maple Leafs.
Last season, he was eighth on the Leafs blue line in average ice-time per game. He had awful puck-possession statistics despite playing much of his time next to rookie sensation Jake Gardiner, visually Toronto's most impressive defenceman. By contrast, Schenn's game was full of turnovers and missed assignments leading to ugly goals against.
The good news for Schenn is that if there's a team more bereft of defencemen than the Maple Leafs, it's the Flyers. They were ready to lose Matt Carle to free agency in the summer and had accepted that Chris Pronger has likely played his last National Hockey League game. With Kimmo Timonen and Brayden Coburn leading the way, they had to make a play for somebody. They traded for Schenn, uniting him with his younger brother Brayden. He now plays primary minutes with the Flyers on their second defensive unit. Unfortunately, the Flyers are 5-6-1 to start the season while the Maple Leafs are 7-5.
Tonight, Schenn returns to Toronto for the first time since the trade, a deal that Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer swears has been equal for both teams:
Schenn, 23, has become one of the cornerstones of the Flyers' defense and is in their top pairing with Kimmo Timonen. He leads the NHL in hits (46) and is 12th in blocked shots with 27.
Van Riemsdyk, 23, has seven goals in 12 games - tops on the Maple Leafs and tied for fourth in the NHL entering Sunday - and is a major reason long-suffering Toronto is off to a 7-5 start.
At this point, calling the trade anything more than a win for the Maple Leafs so far is a misuse of the data the NHL has available for analysis.
Things like hits and blocked shots are recorded with inconsistency throughout buildings, and neither of those statistics are particularly positive. A player who hits or blocks a lot of shots tends to do so because his team rarely has the puck when he's on the ice, indicative of a greater problem.
After all, this defenceman led the Maple Leafs last year in hits:
And this defenceman leads the NHL in hits this season:
Flyers blogger Eric T., one of the smartest people and best thinkers inside or outside of hockey, made an excellent point today on Twitter that judging defencemen by blocked shot totals is analogous to judging goaltenders strictly by the number of saves and not adjusting for the number of minutes played or the number of shots faced.
Hits are similar in that regard. Hitting is an effective way to separate your opponent from the puck and a good collision may make its way onto SportsCentre or even SportsCenter, but the best young defencemen in the league are known primarily for their skating and hockey sense and not for their physical attributes.
More to the point about Schenn's ability, when he's on the ice at 5-on-5, the Flyers are usually playing in their own end. His Corsi rate is -3.58 per 60 minutes of play, meaning every 60 minutes, the Flyers spend a moderate amount of time longer in their own end than in the opponent's, which is where Schenn does his best work blocking shots.
By Corsi and quality of competition measures, Schenn has been better in Philadelphia than he was in Toronto, but van Riemsdyk has been absolutely lights-out for the Maple Leafs. He's been a versatile player who has played on all three top lines and, recently, has found a spot vacated by another former Philadelphia Flyer Joffrey Lupul. Lupul and Leafs' star winger Phil Kessel had been together ever since the trade from Anaheim brought him and Gardiner to Toronto. He was injured earlier in the season after a slapshot from Dion Phaneuf fractured his forearm.
Van Riemsdyk is making it difficult for the Leafs to envision a scenario where Lupul regains his job. His seven goals aside, van Riemsdyk is better at creating space and drawing defenders than Lupul was. While Lupul's primary talent was "go to the net", van Riemsdyk has become effective working the boards as well as the open areas in front. His Corsi rate is only slightly better, at -1.83 per 60 minutes, but he plays on a team that doesn't have as many puck movers in general.
It's hard to make a proclamation on whether the deal was even or tips to either side after 12 games. The pair combine for about nine years and about $36-million remaining on their deals combined, and surely stretches like this will happen that tip the scales some way or another for either team.
But given how well van Riemsdyk has settled into a role vacated to injury on the Leafs this early on, it's hard to say anything other than the Leafs are looking better so far on the trade.
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