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James van Riemsdyk ready to 'get after it'

Maple Leafs forward healthy again, eager to play with No. 1 pick Auston Matthews

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

James van Riemsdyk's eagerness to get the season started is understandable. 

The Toronto Maple Leafs left wing hasn't played since Jan. 9. Two days after that 7-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center, the Maple Leafs announced van Riemsdyk had a non-displaced fracture in his left foot. 

At the time, van Riemsdyk's 14 goals and 29 points in 40 games led Toronto. He could only watch while the injury-riddled Maple Leafs went 13-25-4 during their final 42 games to finish 30th in the NHL standings with a 29-42-11 record and 69 points.

But van Riemsdyk now is healthy and extremely optimistic about the team he is returning to following a whirlwind of changes.

"Definitely lots of excitement, lots of, at this point, potential, because we have a lot of things to prove," he said. "I like the moves that management has made in the summer, and hopefully those young guys that got a taste at the end of last year are ready to go, and there's no reason to think they won't be. There's lots of great kids, lots of great players in our organization, so I'm really excited to get back and get after it."

Video: TOR@ARI: Riemsdyk puts it past Domingue on PPG

Although some familiar faces, including captain Dion Phaneuf, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling and James Reimer, were traded in the process, the Maple Leafs retooled their roster to get younger. Those moves and a barrage of injuries gave prospects such as William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, Connor Carrick, Viktor Loov and Rinat Valiev an opportunity to show what they can do at the end of last season.

Watching those young players learn and seeing the Maple Leafs grow throughout the season under coach Mike Babcock has van Riemsdyk believing they have turned the corner after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons.

"I think last year the way we played, as opposed to the couple years before that, we were right there every game," he said. "We were a couple plays away, it seemed, from winning games. It's such a fine line and every team is so close. We'll be ready to go from the start and we know we have a lot of work ahead of us, but there's also a lot of potential, so it's really exciting."

Perhaps the biggest reason for that excitement is the addition of center Auston Matthews. Like their fans, Maple Leafs players were thrilled when they won the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery and the right to select Matthews with the No. 1 pick.

Video: Auston Matthews signs three-year deal with Toronto

"It's kind of that double-edged sword," van Riemsdyk said. "You don't want to be drafting first too often, but when you do you, hopefully you get an impact player and he's shown the potential that he's going to be able to do something like that, so we're excited to have him come in. It's not one of those things where he needs to come in thinking he has to be the savior. It's a team game. He knows that. We're going to be there to support him and help him, and I'm really excited to play alongside him."

After being selected with the second pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, van Riemsdyk knows what it's like to be a high draft choice and the expectations that can come with it. With seven NHL seasons under his belt, including four in Toronto, van Riemsdyk, 27, hopes he can use his experiences to aid Matthews' adjustment to the League.

"I'm sure he's had a lot of great people around him giving him great advice," he said. "In the team setting, my job is to be a good role model and try to help him along when different things may come up for him. I'm going to try to be as professional as I always am, come to the rink and just show the commitment you have, and then his raw ability and tools will come out from there."

Before playing with Matthews, van Riemsdyk might have to face him at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, which begins Sept. 17 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Van Riemsdyk will play for Team USA, and Matthews is on Team North America, which consists of players from Canada and the United States who are 23 or younger.

Video: SJS@TOR: van Riemsdyk scores late in the 2nd period

Those teams are in different groups, so van Riemsdyk and Matthews would play if both teams reach the semifinals or final. Van Riemsdyk expects playing the tournament in his NHL home arena to be fun but knows the fans there won't be rooting for his team.

"It will be interesting to see because I remember hearing [former Maple Leafs defenseman from Sweden] Borje Salming talk about the Canada Cup they had in Toronto and he was expecting to get booed by the Canadian fans when they played Canada, but he said he got a pretty nice ovation," van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously in all of this, I'm the enemy. I'm not on Team Canada, but the Leafs fans have been so great to me in my time there, so it's going to make it that much more special playing in Toronto in this event."

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