With the Toronto Maple Leafs still without an even-strength goal two games into the season, and the power play a feeble 1-for-7 in its last outing, Randy Carlyle wants his forwards to start crashing the net.
In particular, the Leafs head coach wants 6-foot-3, 200-pound left winger James van Riemsdyk to heed this command.
“There are times you have to dig and get a whack to score a goal, like sometimes you have to take a bodycheck to make a play,” Carlyle said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s no different than going to the front of the net. It can be a war zone at times.”
The trouble is this invokes a phrase often heard during the reign of recently departed general manager Brian Burke – forcing square pegs into round holes.
Van Riemsdyk is only 23, but in his three NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers before coming to Toronto in an off-season trade, he did not show an appetite for using his size to make goaltenders uncomfortable and create scoring chances. He prefers to use his deft touch with the puck to get goals (although his top total was 21 in 2010-11).
Van Riemsdyk is not the only forward being told to do something outside of his comfort zone. The top line of centre Tyler Bozak and wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are not bruisers by nature, either, although they spent more time in Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller’s crease than anyone else in last Monday’s 2-1 loss. But that line has the skill to score without knocking bodies around.
Carlyle’s main concern is with his second and third lines. Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin have not left opponents sore after a game, while van Riemsdyk and linemates Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov also need to step up their physical play.
The Leafs offence should get one boost this week, when slick defenceman Jake Gardiner is expected to return from a concussion suffered Dec. 8 in an AHL game. Gardiner, 22, made the trip to Pittsburgh, where the Leafs will play the Penguins Wednesday, after being cleared for contact in practice. However, he may not get in the lineup until Thursday’s game at home against the New York Islanders, or perhaps Saturday, in New York against the Rangers.
As for van Riemsdyk, he may have the size to play the net-crashing game Carlyle wants but there is a lot more to it than that. The front of NHL nets is not a hospitable place. There are all kinds of belligerent fellows there, such as Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik (6 foot 2, 219 pounds), who don’t mind serving up stick sandwiches or crushing a few spleens.
Going into what a lot of hockey people call the “dirty area” of the ice takes as much want-to as size. There have been countless players with size and skill who did not stick in the NHL or never realized their potential simply because they could not force themselves to be aggressive.
Carlyle made it clear van Riemsdyk has to find that quality in a hurry. Right now, according to the coach, he is a player who is “in-between” playing a skill and a physical game and not doing either particularly well.
“We have a plan for van Riemsdyk,” Carlyle said. “There’s some things we would like him to change and we will make sure he is well-aware of those things.
“He’s got to go into the dirty areas – I’ll take your phrase. We want to see him drive that puck to that area, push people off the puck. I wouldn’t say he’s an overly aggressive player from a body standpoint. But he’s got a big body with skill and he can score goals.”
Van Riemsdyk says he is still trying to get comfortable playing a new system and thinks a few bounces got away from him thus far. But he doesn’t sound like someone who embraces a hard-hitting game.
“I think I can score in a lot of different ways and being in front of the net is one of them,” he said. “I’ve definitely been around the net a lot in the last couple games.
“I’ve been there tipping some pucks and that’s an area where you score a lot of goals, so I think I’ll continue to do that.”