TORONTO – When Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle first coached James van Riemsdyk last season, he was met initially with a hardheadedness that reminded him of someone very familiar.
"Maybe I looked in the mirror," Carlyle said, chuckling as he walked off.
Blossoming into something special for the Leafs, van Riemsdyk set a new career-high Tuesday night with his 41st point this season, also equaling a career mark with his 21st goal of the year, the game-winner in a 3-2 edging of the Lightning.
All the 24-year-old desired when he was traded from Philadelphia to Toronto in the summer of 2012 was an opportunity to prove himself on a grander stage and, with that opportunity, he has most certainly flourished. In addition to goals and points, van Riemsdyk has also set new career-highs in power-play goals (8), shots (186), shorthanded goals (1) and power play points (14), already having matched a career-high in assists with 20 on the season – all this in just 53 games.
He is also fetching nearly 21 minutes per game – by far the highest of a five-year career – teaming with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak on what's become an offensively dominant top line.
"That was the key for me is the opportunity," said van Riemsdyk, who feigned no surprise when he was traded for Luke Schenn in a long-rumoured deal on June 23, 2012. "I was always confident in myself as far I think I proved it in Philly. I showed when I had the opportunity to play a lot, play in those key situations, that I was able to be a productive player. I've been able to get more of those opportunities since coming here.
"For me personally, I think it was good to start somewhere else, go to a place where I was going to get a chance to show what I can do."
Before being dealt, van Riemsdyk was maybe most known for a seven-goal explosion in the 2011 playoffs as a member of the Flyers, a foreshadowing in many ways of what was coming down the line.
Last spring, during his first campaign with the Leafs, he offered another tantalizing glimpse of where his career might be headed in the very near future, a force with seven points during a memorable seven-game first round series with Boston.
"I think JVR has picked up a lot of where he was in the playoffs last year," Carlyle said prior to Tuesday's game, which snapped a mini two-game slide for the Leafs. "He seemed to be able to take that next step. He's more confident."
"I just want to try to keep getting better and better every single year," van Riemsdyk said. "I've been given an opportunity here to play in some key situations and play some big minutes. I'm definitely happy about that."
1. More van Riemsdyk
Carlyle indicated that van Riemsdyk often proved stubborn early in his Toronto tenure, but with time has grown more receptive to the prodding of the coaching staff.
"He used to be a guy 'yeah, but' [or] 'but if'," Carlyle said of van Riemsdyk's response to coaching. "But he's not that [anymore]. Now he's more receptive to [it] … There's a difference between coaching and criticism. Sometimes they all become the same to players. That's the difficult part is when to use it, when not to use it as a coach."
It was only days into the 2013 campaign that Carlyle first publicly prodded van Riemsdyk. "He's got to go into the dirty areas a little bit more and that's one of the things we're going to ask of him," said Carlyle before an early season game against Pittsburgh. "He's a big man, who can go to the front of the net. He's got soft hands around the net. We want to see him drive that puck to that area..."
Improvements in those areas have notably helped the New Jersey native blossom into an offensive force, specifically his willingness to camp out in the difficult areas around the net.
2. Shouldering a Heavy Burden
With 40 stops on Tuesday, Jonathan Bernier improved to 7-1-2 this season when facing 40 or more shots this season, an impressive mark under the strain of a heavy workload.
Bernier made a number of key saves throughout the evening, but none more brilliant than a stop on Martin St. Louis with just over three minutes to go in regulation. Sliding to his left, in rhythm with a Hedman cross-ice feed, the 25-year-old used his left pad to turn aside the surefire game-tying goal.
"Great save, game-saving save," Kadri said. "We almost expect him to make those type of saves now because he's done it so often. He's a great goaltender, up with the best, and he definitely showed it there."
3. Kadri Brushes Off Speculation
Nazem Kadri scored for the fifth and sixth time in the past four games against Ben Bishop, the NHL's save percentage leader and six-foot-seven Tampa netminder.
The first saw the 23-year-old employ six-foot-six Lightning defender Victor Hedman as a screen in transition, the second a sure Highlight of the Night candidate that saw Kadri dance around Hedman before slipping a backhand beyond the grasp of Bishop.
Boasting 35 points on the year, Kadri has quickly quieted trade speculation that always seems to bubble in Toronto.
"I'm just ignoring that," he said. "I don't think I use it as motivation or as a concern – it doesn't discourage me. I just try and focus on what I have to do and what I can bring to the team. I know I can help this team, it's just a matter of when."
"The thing about him is he doesn't let anything bother him," van Riemsdyk added of Kadri, who is up to 14 goals this season. "It's definitely impressive to see. I think he's probably used to it maybe growing up in the spotlight here."
4. Adjustments for Kadri
Sliding out from a slump that lingered for the better part of a month, Kadri has now posted points in six of the past seven games. "Our request [for him] is to play more north-south versus east-west, specifically through the neutral ice," said Carlyle.
"When he's not playing well you see him, he gets caught from behind on the back-side pressure. And when he's playing well, he seems to be able to create space in that area."
Carlyle also observed that Kadri was playing more physically in recent weeks, adding that his acumen in the faceoff circle had improved. A real source of concern earlier in the year – he was amongst the worst in the league – Kadri has won just under 50 per cent in the past 10 games, victorious on 10 of 16 draws against the Lightning.
5. Gleason Effect
Tim Gleason has been paired with Cody Franson for all but two of his 12 games with the Leafs and he's proven a stabilizing force in that span. "He's a very solid, aggressive, and physical style player," Franson said of Gleason. "For me, he's very easy to read off of. I know he's going in there to try to be aggressive as the first guy. When you have guys like that where you don't have to think too much, it makes it easier. You can react quicker and it makes the plays a little easier to read."
Franson, who leads the Toronto defence with 25 points, has benefited from the meat and potatoes style of the longtime Hurricane defender, similar in some ways to the effect Mark Fraser had on the 26-year-old last season.
"Mark would always be aggressive trying to get hits and staple guys to the wall and allow our defensive zone coverage to take place," Franson said. "Gleas is the same way. He has a physical mindset and goes in there and tries to get people in tough positions to make plays and allow us to break out of the zone a little easier."
Gleason battled through a difficult night against the Lightning. The 30-year-old blocked a shot in one uncomfortable area, received a pass in the face and was then hammered into the end-boards in the final two minutes by Teddy Purcell. He was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury, one that Carlyle didn't believe to be serious.
10-5-2 – Leafs record against the Atlantic division.
7-1-2 – Record for Jonathan Bernier this season when facing 40 shots or more.
2 – Multi-goal games for Nazem Kadri this season.
41 – Points for James van Riemsdyk this season, a new career-high.
49.7% - Success rate for Kadri on the draw in the past 10 games.
7 – Phil Kessel shot attempts that were blocked by the Lightning.
75% - Leafs success rate on defensive zone faceoffs against Tampa.
21-6-3 – Leafs record this season when scoring first.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22% (4th)
Season: 77.1% (29th)
Quote of the Night
"They thought I've been playing excellent over this last nine, 10-game stretch. Kudos to them for sticking with me. I know they're a patient bunch as well and they understand what I can bring to the team. I've been very coachable and they've given me some great pointers that I've listened to and just tried to get better."
-Nazem Kadri on the patience of the Toronto coaching staff.
The Leafs host the Panthers on Thursday night.