Scoring every which way over the last 24 (ish) hours, James van Riemsdyk went ahead and pretty much dashed what remaining optimism existed regarding the potential of him returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs next season at a discount rate.
After registering his third career hat trick with an array of goals from about a combined 10 feet in Wednesday’s come-from-behind win over the Dallas Stars, van Riemsdyk popped in two more in the space of three minutes in the first period Thursday night in Buffalo, and later tacked on another point on a Tyler Bozak marker.
His first goal was slid in from an unimaginable angle below the goal line, and the second ripped off the post on a shot released from distance (at least by JVR’s normal goal-scoring proximity). The veteran winger’s two-night total saw him eclipse the 30-goal standard for just the second time ever, and in turn establish a new career high in that department at 31.
It also saw him pull three tallies clear of injured centre Auston Matthews for the team lead in goals and increased his advantage to four over the only other active skater with a shooter’s chance of finishing the season with the team lead, Nazem Kadri.
On a top-five scoring team in the league, surely that’ll account for something in negotiations for the pending unrestricted free agent.
Whether these goals resembled a combination of gut punches for a Maple Leafs management team hoping to see his numbers fall in line with his historical outputs for the sake of bargaining alone, or the sudden outburst just reinforced the inevitable, it’s become abundantly clear the Leafs simply will not be able to match the other offers that will come van Riemsdyk’s way this offseason.
Toronto has just one more campaign to work with before Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner all graduate from their entry-level contracts, and will together likely earn well in excess of $20 million. That leaves less than three quarters of a payroll to build a Stanley Cup contender around the most talented nucleus this team has seen in a lifetime.
It’s hard to imagine a long-term contract being tabled to a player ostensibly at his peak when team that has provided every indication that it has a strong grasp of timeline.
(As much as he might like to remain with the Maple Leafs — even for just one season, and for the purposes of a postseason run — van Riemsdyk, almost 29, simply cannot throw away the chance to sign a lucrative long-term contract at this point in his career, even before the recent spike to his earning potential.)
Though it certainly remains an option, with their stable full of talent on the farm, including several labelled for the middle-six wing position that JVR currently occupies, the Leafs don’t have to look elsewhere to replace his spot in the lineup.
Preserving that skillset, however, will be easier said than done.
Van Riemsdyk is a specialist, a truly unique player by NHL standards — and one of tremendous value to the Maple Leafs. A power forward despite being a bit of a plodder, this is a player with the ability to create from areas few are able to convert from, whether it’s through flipping the puck under the bar after he’s dug it out of his feet, tipping pucks with his heels on the edge of the blue paint or using that deft touch in traffic to find cutting teammates on the power play.
Maybe the deepest organization in the NHL, the Maple Leafs have designed a system built to withstand the losses of players, be it to injury or simply end of term.
But it might not have an answer for the loss of JVR.
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