TORONTO – James van Riemsdyk was the Maple Leafs big off-season acquisition, but through a six-day training camp and two games, the big left winger has yet to find his form.
"I see a guy that's in between," head coach Randy Carlyle said following Tuesday's practice. "There are some things we would like him to change and we're going to make sure he's well aware of those things."
"Obviously, I'm on a new team this year, new system, new everything so it's a matter of getting comfortable with all that and just playing more instinctual rather than thinking too much," van Riemsdyk said. "When you get in those new systems, you tend to think too much out there and making sure you're always in the right spot, but I think I've got to just get more comfortable with that and start playing a little bit more."
Expected to play in the top-six forward group, van Riemsdyk has found himself on the third line during the first two games with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.
Carlyle has said he plans on pushing his players to get out of their comfort zone and for van Riemsdyk, that means playing more of a gritty game.
"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. "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, push people off the puck."
The 23-year-old insists that's already part of his hockey DNA.
"I've been doing a good job of getting to the net and stuff like that. Sometimes you don't get those bounces and those are huge [in] getting that confidence going, but, yeah, there's definitely some things I can improve upon, but I think I've done some good things out there as well," said van Riemsdyk, who has faced sky-high expectations since being picked second overall in the 2007 draft.
Despite his size – 6-foot-3, 200 pounds – van Riemsdyk has never been known as a physical player.
"I wouldn't say he's an overly-aggressive player from a body standpoint, but he's a big body with skill who can score goals," Carlyle said.
"I can score in a lot of different ways and definitely being in front of the net is one of them," van Riemsdyk said. "I know I've been around the net a lot in the last couple of games. I don't think I've necessarily gotten some those bounces where maybe the puck sits there for you and you have a chance to get a stick on it. The bounces haven't been going my way right now. But I think I've been there, tipping some pucks, being in that area, because that's where you're going to score a lot of goals so I'm going to continue to do that."
It's not just van Riemsdyk who needs to get to so-called "dirty areas" more, according to Carlyle. The coach noted a key reason for Monday's loss to Buffalo was that his players made life too easy for Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. The Leafs peppered the veteran netminder with 35 shots, but only beat him once. The team went just 1-7 on the power-play and squandered a two-minute two-man advantage in the first period.
"We allowed Miller to see the puck far, far too much. We should have more people in front, more people as a distraction ... the new term in hockey is, 'taking the goalie's eyes away,'" said Carlyle. "That, to me, is competing for your space. That's the term that we use and there are times when you have to get whacked to score a goal.
"This group, we've asked them to go there more often. We stressed that from day one and we went there last night, but not often enough and not at the right time."