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Maple Leafs' van Riemsdyk embracing enhanced role

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs made sweeping changes over the summer, but it was not entirely a case of out with the old and in with the new.

The new-look Maple Leafs will turn to a holdover, forward James van Riemsdyk, to provide some of the offense following the departure of Phil Kessel. Kessel, who led the Maple Leafs in scoring the past six seasons, was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and van Riemsdyk is one of a handful of players expected to help pick up the slack.

It is a situation the 26-year-old Middletown, N.J., native welcomes.

"That's what you want as a player, the pressure to perform and be one of the go-to guys," van Riemsdyk said. "When the team needs a big play you want to be the guy they look to. It's an exciting situation."

It also means the highly skilled 6-foot-3, 200-pound left wing will have to bounce back from a disappointing season. After hitting the 30-goal plateau in 2013-14 for the first time, van Riemsdyk slipped to 27 goals in 82 games. His line, with Kessel on right wing and Tyler Bozak at center, was a collective minus-101 as all three struggled at both ends of the ice. Consequently, the Maple Leafs missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second season in a row and ninth time in 10 seasons.

"It [stinks] when you are going through that," van Riemsdyk said. "You don't want it to affect your play and make doing your job seem more like work. By no means is it easy to go through."

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan decided major changes were required. In addition to trading Kessel, he hired coach Mike Babcock, who guided the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 2008, and general manager Lou Lamoriello, the architect of three championship winners with the New Jersey Devils.

"We didn't have the year we wanted to have last season, and when that happens things are going to be different when you come back," van Riemsdyk said. "There were a lot of changes and there's a lot of excitement around the group, and we're excited to get back into it."

Van Riemsdyk wishes Kessel all the best in Pittsburgh and believes he will be successful playing on a team that includes offensive stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"Obviously Phil is a tremendous player and I enjoyed playing with him," van Riemsdyk said. "We had some success together. He's a funny guy to be around. He's got a great sense of humor and he's a character. He's a good friend too, so he'll be missed. It's the nature of the beast; when thing don't go the way they should, changes happen, and here we are now."

Can Kessel, who has never scored 40 goals in a season, get to 50 with the Penguins?

"That's a big number," van Riemsdyk said. "I think he's going to have the most goals in his career, but I don't want to say a number. People will be putting a lot of pressure on him and I don't want to add to it."

The Kessel era is over and van Riemsdyk is eager to see what the future holds in Toronto. He knows Babcock is a demanding coach who holds players accountable, and though it could be difficult for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs, van Riemsdyk isn't counting them out.

"That's the beauty of sport: You prove it on the ice," van Riemsdyk said. "There's always talk about how certain teams will do at the start of the year, but really, it comes down to what you do on the ice."

As excited as van Riemsdyk is to get started and as determined as he is to be an impact player, he also sees an opportunity in his seventh NHL season to be a leader.

"Becoming a leader is something you earn over the course of the year," van Riemsdyk said. "You don't just come in and say, 'I'm a leader.' You do it with how you act and how you go about your daily business and how hard you work. I'll never be an overly rah-rah guy, but I'm a guy who works hard and does things the right way every single day."

Defenseman Morgan Rielly, 21, believes van Riemsdyk has plenty to offer the Maple Leafs on and off the ice.

"He's a great player and the expectations amongst his teammates, but also from himself, are high," Rielly said. "He is a really motivated guy who is a true professional. I think he'll be ready for this season. I love watching him play. He's a guy who is always trying to get better and I think he's going to have a big year. I think he is a guy who can take on a leadership role and that is exciting. He is a huge part of the team moving forward."

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