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Siegel: Can van Riemsdyk, young Leafs climb higher this year?

Jonas Siegel
9/30/2013 10:05:41 PM
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MONTREAL – James van Riemsdyk shakes his head with a growing grin and hearty chuckle when talk of 30 goals comes up in conversation.

"I'm not going to give up that number," he laughed of setting a hard goal for the upcoming season.

van Riemsdyk fronts a class of young Leafs looking to scale new heights this season.

The 24-year-old American winger managed 18 markers in 48 games last season – a 30-goal pace for an 82-game schedule – his first in Toronto, demanding the spotlight yet again with an explosive playoff against the Bruins.

What follows this season could be a very pronounced step toward elite status at the power forward position, a realizing of potential for the player picked second in the 2007 Draft.

"Obviously I had some success last year, but it was a 48-game season," said van Riemsdyk, ahead of the season opener in Montreal on Tuesday. "This will be a full season to really, I don't know if prove myself is the right word, but just keep continuing to take strides as far as consistency.

"I think that's the big thing you find that separates guys in this league is their consistency. If you're able to be consistent night in and night out I think that's what makes you a better player and more reliable player so that's what I'm going to continue to try to do."

Just as Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and James Reimer thrived with breakout campaigns in the lockout-shortened schedule of 2013, van Riemsdyk too will be challenged with demonstrating similar production over 82 games this winter.

With an imposing stature, speedy wheels and easy hands, the tools are certainly there for him to become a dominant power winger, an evolution Joffrey Lupul realized in totality upon his arrival in Toronto.

"With his size and his skill, he can score that pretty goal where he dangles a [defender] and goes in and snipes, but he also gets a lot of greasy goals; battling in front, he's not afraid to stand in there," James Reimer observed.

Leafs coach Randy Carlyle prodded van Riemsdyk to put those to gifts to use with greater consistency early last season, preaching that he establish a Holmstrom-like presence around the net. Evident in stretches a year ago, the test will be to become more consistent in that regard this season.

"He's impressed me," said David Clarkson, who faced off against van Riemsdyk as a Devil. "I think you don't really see what a player has until you practice with him.

"He's got the size, he's got the hands and he's shown what he can do in this league."

While conceding that he has more to offer in the future, van Riemsdyk also suggested that his performance in Toronto last season was more a by-product of opportunity after being wedged behind a talented group of forwards with the Flyers for the three seasons prior. "…in my time in Philadelphia I showed when I was given the opportunity that I was able to produce and here I got a more consistent opportunity and I think I was able to consistently produce a little bit more," said van Riemsdyk, who averaged upwards of 19 minutes last season, substantially more than the 15 or so he garnered in Philly.

Taking full advantage of the increased ice-time at the outset, van Riemsdyk scored 12 goals in his first 22 games as a Leaf before cooling down the stretch with only six snipes in the final 26 games.

When the playoffs began, however, it was the playoff-tested van Riemsdyk that emerged to the forefront once more. He was perhaps the lone player in blue who appeared at home in a chaotic Game 1 loss. Much like the tease he offered in the 2011 playoffs – 7 goals in 11 games – van Riemsdyk showed signs of domination against the Bruins over the course of the first round matchup, finishing with seven points in what proved a heartbreaking 7-game series.

Inked to what now looks to be a cap-friendly deal stretching beyond the 2016-2017 season – $4.25 million annual cap hit – van Riemsdyk is in line to take another leap this season, perhaps even adding responsibility on the penalty kill for Carlyle.

"I got an opportunity last year to play in some key roles and some key minutes and I think I was able to take advantage of that and now I'm going to have to continue to do that this year," he said.

Whether the Leafs can climb to another level this season will in part lie in how the class of emerging youth in the lineup rises or falls.

Can van Riemsdyk knock down the door with 30 goals? Can Kadri and Franson re-establish impressive 2013 production over a full 82-game slate? Can Jake Gardiner regain his rookie form and inject a whirling offensive force on the back-end? Can Jonathan Bernier realize the pedigree and potential he offered in glimpses with the Kings? And what of Reimer, can he stave off a challenger to the crease and cast aside doubts once more?

Answers to those questions will help determine whether the Leafs can build on a surprising 2013 and climb new heights this season.

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