Heading into the 2012 Entry Draft, after a disastrous end to a season that resulted in the Leafs collapsing all the way to the 5th worst record in the league, Maple Leaf fans needed Brian Burke and the Leafs brass to have a very good weekend at the draft to recover some hope heading into the offseason.
In the first round, the Leafs grabbed a highly touted offensive defenceman in Morgan Rielly. In the second round, another strong two-way defender, Matt Finn, was still available, giving the Leafs two very strong pieces towards the future of their blueline.
But before the day was over, the Leafs would have made another move to acquire a scoring forward many Leaf fans had desperately hoped the Leafs would be drafting. In a long-rumoured swap with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Leafs sent away their 2008 first-round pick Luke Schenn, a player drafted 5th overall in 2008 who just a few years ago was heralded as the future of the Leafs blueline, for former 2nd overall pick of the Flyers James van Riemsdyk.
The swap was well received among Leaf fans. Schenn's development had stagnated; while his offensive game had matured, another summer focused on adding strength had cost him mobility (he was never particularly quick to begin with), and his decision-making with and without the puck had not developed accordingly. Projected as a shut-down defender, he was moving farther and farther away from that goal; unable to play the tough minutes the team expected out of him significantly harmed his value to the team, and as the needs of a defenceman began to evolve (evidenced by the Leafs move away from slow, physical defenders towards mobile puck-movers who can defend through positioning and speed), Schenn was becoming obsolete to the Leafs future.
So to swap him in exchange for Van Riemsdyk, a young power forward type who had begun to emerge from behind Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in Philly's system, was a great coup for the Leafs. In JVR, Brian Burke's years long quest for a skilled power forward to complement Phil Kessel was finally complete, after several false starts with players who did not possess the skating ability to survive in the NHL, or couldn't register enough offence.
Van Riemsdyk is expected to slot right in somewhere in the Leafs top six, and debuts on our list at #2.
The battle for runner-up on our list came down to a question; did Jake Gardiner's rookie season instill enough confidence in our panel that he is more likely to become a more valuable contributor to the Maple Leafs than what Van Riemsdyk has accomplished in 3 seasons in Philadelphia? Ultimately the answer was no, but it was close.
Ultimately, Van Riemsdyk established himself as a top six forward on a Philadelphia team stocked with great forwards like Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Scorr Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. That carries more weight than being better than Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn to be the fourth best defenceman on the Leafs.
At 24 years of age, and with 3 years of pro experience, van Riemdyk has reached a point where it's not unreasonable to expect a jump in his production. To date, he's made modest gains each season; from 35 in his rookie year to 40 in his sophomore, to on pace for 45ish over an 82 game season last year. Moving above 50 points would go a long way towards eliminating the Leafs problem of relying too much on Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul for offence, and would give the Leafs a more balanced and dangerous top six that other teams' would have more difficulty defending.
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The top of the countdown isn't quite as fun to dissect, since there's much more consensus among the group in who belongs at 1, 2, 3, etc. So with 5 people voting Van Riemsdyk at number 2, and the other 2 voting him at number 3, it's pretty clear that for everyone they see JVR as one of the elite under 25 players in the Maple Leafs system.
SkinnyFish sums up Van Riemsdyk's case fairly succintly:
Because he's James Van Reimsdyk and Phil Kessel is still under the age of 25.
People will knock on JVR for not putting up humongous numbers like the 2008 #1 overall Patrick Kane, but Kane didn't have to play behind the murderer's row that existed in Philadelphia. On the Leafs, JVR is going to find himself on one of the top 2 lines (Please be on Grabbo's wing) and likely get in the neighborhood of 18-20 minutes a night with ample PP time. If he sticks between Kessel and Lupul, he's a 20G, 35A centerman no problem. If he plays on Grabbo's wing, he's a 30G, 30A player. Only idiots would say that isn't enough for JVR. He's a damn good hockey player and one half of the greatest trade Brian Burke has ever pulled off at Leafs GM