Over the summer months we took a good look at the Leafs and how the hiring of Babcock could rehabilitate some players’ ability to play a solid puck-possession game after the years of trash hockey under Carlyle. The main target was usually Dion Phaneuf, but in August I asked the same thing about van Riemsdyk, a player far less polarizing but certainly getting his fair share of criticism over his defensive game as well.
Basically he’s spending too much of his time with the other team reeling off shot-attempts, and that’s never fun. But that goes for many of the Leafs under the trainwreck that was Randy Carlyle hockey, and now they have a bit of a clean slate.
What should come out in the wash this upcoming season is how much of that inability to reduce opposing shot-attempts is systems-related and so on. There’s a real possibility that under Babcock – and keep in mind van Riemsdyk just turned 26, with much of his prime still to go – he can become a better defensive player and round out his game.
Now that we’re nearly a month into the season, it’s clear to this point the change under Babcock has been stark for the entire team, even if they’ve had trouble winning games. The penalty-kill and goaltending have let them down in the early part of this schedule, but at 5-on-5 it’s truly a completely different team out there, and van Riemsdyk is a player benefiting the most from it by evidently rounding out his game and shedding the identity of a defensive liability. Oh what a difference a coach makes.
Below is a quick and dirty chart of van Riemsdyk’s performance from a play-driving perspective using even-strength score-adjusted Corsi. It goes without saying the season is young, but there’s no denying that the difference in his game has been incredible so far. We can’t expect him to maintain this obscene level of play from a puck-possession standpoint, but it wouldn’t be surprising if at year’s end his numbers are well above where he’s been in previous years, especially from the Carlyle era.
And it isn’t just van Riemsdyk who’s seen his numbers spike. The entire top line, including Bozak until his injury absence, has seen their shot attempt-based stats get up to very respectable levels. We should also note van Riemsdyk has four goals already in eight games, so he’s off to his usual high scoring rate, and his shot-rate is up from his career average (3.38 per game to 3.18), so no worries there yet.
Of course when we hear all this we just want more gold to build the Babcock statue outside the ACC just 10% of the way into the season, but it also brings up questions about the Leafs shipping out Kessel over the summer. Was his departure needed in turning the Leafs into a better defensive team, or would he have benefited the same way van Riemsdyk has? My guess would be the latter, and he’d obviously come in handy now for a team just dying for someone who can break a game open.
But this team isn’t about winning now, it’s about the process and the system, and so far van Riemsdyk looks like just another example of how it’s going to work.