PITTSBURGH -- Brian Burke was by no means perfect during his time as general manager in Toronto. But his summer blockbuster that sent disappointing defenseman Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers for James van Riemsdyk has a chance to be one of the best trades he made for the long-term outlook of the Maple Leafs. It was a classic one-for-one hockey trade, and gave the Leafs a young, up-and-coming power forward who's already signed to a long-term (though pricey) contract.
Through his first two games this season, van Riemsdyk hadn't really shown much (small sample size alert!) and was kept off the scoresheet entirely. Even worse, coach Randy Carlyle didn't think he was doing enough to use his size or get to the "dirty areas" of the ice, and it resulted in a conversation between the two that made some news in Toronto this week.
On Wednesday night during their 5-2 win in Pittsburgh, van Riemsdyk responded and did exactly what the Maple Leafs were looking for with a two-goal, three-point performance.
"It's always nice when you have a conversation with a player about getting into the dirty areas and doing certain things and he comes out and scores two goals and has an assist," said Carlyle after Wednesday's game. "I guess you have to say you're pretty happy with that."
"It's not done specifically to criticize the player," added Carlyle when asked if he saw what he was looking for from his 23-year-old forward. "It's done to motivate the player and help him. He understood it. It's not like he's been terrible, he just needed to step up his game and we need his physical presence and taking the puck to the net. We need that offense."
Van Riemsdyk's first goal had to be exactly what Carlyle had in mind as it resulted in him crashing to the front of the net, beating Penguins forward Craig Adams, and tapping the puck in past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
"It's always good to get that first one out of the way," said van Riemsdyk. "It's a monkey off the back type of feeling and it really gets you going. My linemates played great tonight and made it very easy. On both of those goals I didn't really have to do too much."
His second goal (shown above), which proved to be the game-winner for the Leafs, was the result of some agressive forechecking by his aforementioned linemates, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, which forced a brutal giveaway by reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP Evgeni Malkin. As Kulemin closed in on him, Malkin made an ill-advised pass attempt to the middle of the ice in his own zone, giving the puck directly to van Riemsdyk in the slot. Van Riemsdyk wasted no time in taking advantage of the wide open chance and ripped a shot past Fleury.
"I think that play just goes to go to show how good the forecheck was," said van Riemsdyk. "Kulemin and Grabo [Grabovski] were like hounds on the puck and made Malkin make a play he probably didn't want to make, and then I just threw it on the net and it went in."
The Maple Leafs were always going to need van Riemsdyk to be a big-time player this season given their lack of scoring depth and players with natural finishing ability. He becomes even more important now that Joffrey Lupul is expected to miss some time after suffering a fractured forearm on Wednesday night when he was struck by a Dion Phaneuf slap shot.
Even after the meeting with Caryle this week, van Riemsdyk insisted that he doesn't pay attention to the noise coming from outside (like the media) and is continuing to try and get better.
"I don't try to read into too much of the media stuff," said van Riemsdyk. "I just try to go out and play my game. I knew I was doing some good things but sometimes you have to step up your game and I'm going to keep trying to do those things and get better and better every game."
Wednesday night was a good start for him and the Maple Leafs.