Joffrey Lupul is midway through his projected six-week recovery from a broken arm. That means the question of who will man the Leafs top line will only grow in importance.
Those conversations need to centre on James van Riemsdyk, specifically moving him to the middle of the number-one unit upon Lupul’s return.
Aside from the excellent play of James Reimer the dominant conclusion of the early season is that when healthy James van Riemsdyk is a stud. He certainly looks healthy enough roaring around the opposition net. Van Riemsdyk’s eight goals lead the club.
That Phil Kessel has only scored twice says nothing about his ability to share the top line with van Riemsdyk and everything about how deeply he depends on Lupul as a set-up artist. Tyler Bozak, the incumbent centre on the first line is a good player but can’t bring the size and net presence van Riemsdyk commands. Watch for Kessel’s game to surge when Lupul returns.
Moving van Riemsdyk to centre carries some risk. He is inexperienced in the face-off circle. Van Riemsdyk’s passing is adequate but Lupul and Kessel possess far better puck distribution skills. If you are building an argument that van Riemsdyk is no set-up man look no further than his candidacy for the hockey version of the Cy Young Award. The New Jersey native has garnered only two assists to garnish those eight goals.
But van Riemsdyk would be the best defensive player on the reconstituted first line. He played centre in the U.S. development program and at the University of New Hampshire. Besides, the number one unit doesn’t need another passer; it needs an aircraft carrier.
The move needn’t involve a major reshuffle but would promote Nazem Kadri to the second unit between Leo Komarov and (when he is ready to return from minor knee surgery) Matt Frattin.
That would allow for the familiar third line of Kulemin-Grabovski –MacArthur.
Bozak can be moved around the lineup and spell van Riemsdyk on defensive zone face-offs.
Is it a surprise that van Riemsdyk should be installed in the middle of the team’s top line?
Not if you consider his pedigree.
Van Riemsdyk was the second overall choice in the 2007 entry draft. The Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane first overall.
Number two draft picks are routinely equivalent to players chosen first overall.
Take a look at the comparison between players chosen second and those picked number one over the last 20 years.
By my very unscientific measurement I found eight instances where number two picks outperformed the top pick. The number one choice was validated nine times. I settled on three draws: Gabriel Landeskog against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kari Lehtonen vs. Rick Nash and Eric Staal against Marc-Andre Fleury. My pick for the better player is boldfaced.
Number 2 Number 1
Year Player Team Player Team
2011 Gabriel Landeskog Col Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edm
2010 Tyler Seguin Bos Taylor Hall Edm
2009 Viktor Hedman TBL John Tavares NYI
2008 Drew Doughty LAK Steve Stamkos TBL
2007 James van Riemsdyk Phi Patrick Kane Chi
2006 Jordan Staal Pit Erik Johnson STL
2005 Bobby Ryan Ana Sidney Crosby Pit
2004 Evgeni Malkin Pit Alex Ovechkin Wash
2003 Eric Staal Car Marc-Andre Fleury Pit
2002 Kari Lehtonen Atl Rick Nash CBJ
2001 Jason Spezza Ott Ilya Kovalchuk Atl
2000 Dany Heatley Atl Rick DiPietro NYI
1999 Daniel Sedin Van Patrik Stefan Atl
1998 David Legwand Nash Vincent Lecavalier TB
1997 Patrick Marleau SJS Joe Thornton Bos
1996 Andrei Zyuzin SJS Chris Phillips Ott
1995 Wade Redden NYI Bryan Berard Ott
1994 Oleg Tverdovsky Ana Ed Jovanovski Fla
1993 Chris Pronger Hfd Alexandre Daigle Ott
1992 Alexei Yashin Ott Roman Hamrlik TBL