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Van Riemsdyk making a big impression

by John McGourty
 
While some of the favorites for the 2010 Calder Trophy include John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, keep an eye on Philadelphia Flyers rookie forward James van Riemsdyk, the second pick of the 2007 Entry Draft, who has had an outstanding training camp and appears to have secured an opening-night roster spot.

"He just needs to keep doing what he's been doing," Flyers coach John Stevens said earlier in camp. "We were concerned about how competitive he could be in an NHL setting and he's certainly been all that and we hoped he would be. He has to show he can play without the puck. It's pretty obvious what he can do when he has the puck. We have to make sure he continues to get better without the puck, being responsible and working as hard as he does when he has the puck. ... He's gotten better each time out in an NHL setting."

Van Riemsdyk seemingly had disappeared from the NHL radar after being picked one spot after the Chicago Blackhawks took Patrick Kane, who went on to win the 2008 Calder. While Kane was winning NHL hardware, van Riemsdyk was playing two seasons at the University of New Hampshire.

The Flyers pressed van Riemsdyk to turn pro this time a year ago, but the Middletown, N.J. native felt he wasn't yet ready and there were things he still needed to learn while growing into his 6-foot-3 body.

"Coach (Dick) Umile really just wanted to see me compete for pucks. That's what they've been preaching here, is to make sure you battle for everything, compete, and work hard," van Riemsdyk said. "They stressed that during my two years at UNH and that definitely helped me become a more well-rounded player.

"They had me playing center last year which was a good adjustment for me, especially playing this solid. You have to know how to play every position if you want to succeed."

He had 11 goals and 34 points in 31 games as a freshman and 17 goals and a team-leading 40 points in 34 games last season. He also moved from left wing to center in his sophomore season while helping the Wildcats to the NCAA Final Eight.

At the end of the college season, van Riemsdyk joined the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms for seven regular-season games. He had a goal and an assist, but was scoreless in four Calder Cup playoff games.

Van Riemsdyk spent his summer on a weight-lifting program designed by Flyers trainer Jim McCrossin and went to camp at 210 pounds, up 10 pounds from the spring. In a two- goal performance against the Detroit Red Wings in a preseason game Sept. 22, van Riemsdyk showed good strength and displayed good skills with the puck in heavy traffic around the net.

Van Riemsdyk overpowered Detroit's veteran defense all night in his effort to establish position in front of goalie Chris Osgood, and it was from there that he tucked home a pass from Mika Pyorala, off a nice pass from center Claude Giroux. Then he beat Osgood with a wrist shot in the third period for his third preseason goal. The linemates combined for 6 points.

"I'm feeling more and more comfortable every game and I'm just trying to get better every game," van Riemsdyk said. "I played with some great linemates out there and they made some great plays out there to get me the puck and it's my job to finish them off."

There were six penalties in the Red Wings' game, a marked contrast to the Flyers' previous game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when 20 penalties were called. That night, van Riemsdyk played an effective game without incurring a penalty and had over four minutes of power-play time, plus an assist.

"I think a huge confidence-builder for me was when we played Toronto and I went up against a guy like Mike Komisarek," van Riemsdyk said. "He's one of the tougher guys in the League and really strong and a really good defenseman. Going into the corners with him was a lot different than I'm used to but I definitely felt like I held my own strength-wise. So it was a good sign for me."

Stevens is considering using Giroux and van Riemsdyk on the third line and hopes to get 12 minutes a game from van Riemsdyk in the early part of the season. Having played less than 40 games a year the past two seasons, the Flyers will want to avoid the problem the Bruins encountered last season with Blake Wheeler, another player going directly from college to the pros, who faded in the late going.

But Stevens gave him a long look in preseason games. van Riemsdyk played 17:26 in the Flyers' 1-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, when he was on the ice for the game's only goal.

Van Riemsdyk is excited to play with the speedy Giroux, the Flyers' first-round pick in 2006, and also from whom big things are also expected this season.

"He can find you anywhere on the ice. He puts it right on your tape," van Riemsdyk said. "I probably should have buried a couple more of his passes. He made some unbelievable plays. It's pretty cool playing with a guy like him."

The feeling is mutual, Giroux said.

"We only played a couple of games together. He's a really good player -- a great shot, great hockey sense and he really works hard," Giroux said. "It makes my job much easier when you play with guys like that.

"I'm feeling more and more comfortable every game and I'm just trying to get better every game. I played with some great linemates out there and they made some great plays out there to get me the puck and it's my job to finish them off."
-- James van Riemsdyk

"He's very good at getting open. I like to play with guys who can get open real fast and he's doing very good right now with that."

It's going to be interesting watching van Riemsdyk develop because he is a really nice young man who seeks a rugged, dirty job. He is very well mannered, polite and accommodating to fans and the media. He is ambitious and modest at the same time, but there is a quiet confidence about his toughness.

He listened quietly before the 2007 draft as a Chicago broadcaster talked about what a tough challenge it would be for a young power forward to break into a League as tough as the NHL. Could he handle the banging, the shoving and pushing and the inevitable fighting, he was asked.

Van Riemsdyk looked down at his erstwhile interrogator and smiled.

"I can handle myself," he assured him.

We saw the same confidence when he was asked if he can skate effectively with a player as fast as Giroux.

"I pride myself on being a big guy who can skate so I think I can keep up with him pretty well out there," van Riemsdyk said. "I just have to get to the open ice where he can find me and it's my honor just putting it in the back of the net."
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