James van Riemsdyk Steps Up in NHL Rookie Race
"I'm very lucky that way," van Riemsdyk told FanHouse the other night. He was walking to the team bus 45 minutes after Philadelphia won on Long Island, the rare game in which he wasn't a major contributor. Considered only a possibility to make the Flyers' roster out of training camp after two years at the University of New Hampshire, van Riemsdyk has emerged as one of the top rookies in the league.
He is a top contender for the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. Giving his candidacy even more power is that he is a first-year player on a team expected to challenge for a spot in a conference final. The second overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft (after Patrick Kane), van Riemsdyk -- perhaps more than any of his top rookie brethren -- is going to be playing big minutes in big games.
"We're counting on him," said Flyers head coach John Stevens, in a big switch since two months ago in training camp when the bar was set much lower for his young player. "James has been outstanding for us and I do not expect that to change."
The left wing's performance this season has been as big a surprise to the Flyers as it has been to the rest of the league. Although van Riemsdyk has been highly-touted for his strength and skill since he was a teenager, hopes were checked a bit last spring when he joined the Flyers' minor league affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, after leaving New Hamspire. Combined over seven regular season and four playoff games, van Riemsdyk had just a goal and an assist.
To his credit, he practically camped out at the Flyers' training facility in South Jersey last summer, working with team strength coach Jim McCrossin. He wanted to be prepared for the 82-game NHL schedule after playing less than 80 games in college over two years. "I had every intention of making the team," said van Riemsdyk. "Not being in the best possible shape was not an option."
Now the only question with the 20-year-old is whether he can maintain his consistency over the 82-game grind. On Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum, van Riemsdyk looked dominant on his first two shifts but was less effective as the game went on.
Stevens acknowledged that the rookie was a bit worn down in the final game of the Flyers' five-game road trip, but after games Friday and Saturday van Riemsdyk will be get the chance to rest since his team does not play until next Thursday. "It's a learning experience for James," said the coach. "This first quarter of the season, he was a real pleasant surprise. If he can get to the point where he can achieve a high level for every game in the second half, and I have a lot of faith he will, he's going to be an important player for us."
"I'm going to be fine," said van Riemsdyk, who had never been west of Colorado (for Team USA training) until the Flyers played in California earlier this week. "Like everyone says, consistency is more of a mental game than a physical one. There's still plenty I have to learn about life in the NHL. I'm fortunate to have a lot of veteran teammates showing me how it's done."
"It's never easy stepping in with big expectations," said Chris Pronger, van Riemdyk's future Hall of Famer of a mentor, who also was drafted second overall (in 1993). "But he has lived up to them. What he's learning is how the league is so fast, how the back-side pressure is relentless. James is also learning that won't have the same energy every night. No one does. It's going to come down to how he prepares himself. So far he's been amazing for us. He's easily one of the top rookies in the league."
If van Riemsdyk wins the Calder Trophy, he would make history. In the 41 years of the franchise, the Philadelphia Flyers have never had a rookie of the year.