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Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk (21) celebrates after scoring the game winning goal on the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 3-2. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk (21) celebrates after scoring the game winning goal on the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 3-2. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Mirtle: Van Riemsdyk emerges as a game breaker for Leafs Add to ...

He has been in the shadow of Phil Kessel, Jonathan Bernier and Dion Phaneuf all season, despite producing and playing big minutes in all situations every night.

But given James van Riemsdyk’s progression with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it may not be long until he is as talked about as one of the team’s MVP candidates, his name up in the bright lights with his more heralded teammates.

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The player known to most as simply JVR appears to be getting better and better, and at 24, still has room to grow.

Van Riemsdyk matched his career high in goals and set a new one in points on Tuesday night – only 55 games into the season – as he scored the winner with four minutes to play by wiring a Kessel pass high and hard off the back bar.

The big kid from New Jersey, who was deemed too soft and too inconsistent by the Philadelphia Flyers when they punted him away two years ago, has evolved into something much more. Van Riemsdyk has become a difference maker, a leader and an Olympian all in relatively short order.

And, according to his coach, it’s partly because he stopped making excuses and started building on the natural talent he’s always had.

“He used to be a guy [that would say] ‘yeah but,’” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “If you’ve ever coached, you’ve heard it before. But he’s not that [anymore]. Now he’s more receptive to [coaching]. [He says] ‘Maybe I’ll take a look at it. I see your point of view.’”

Carlyle was then asked if van Riemsdyk’s initial stubbornness reminded him of anyone, to which the veteran coach quickly quipped that perhaps it was a little like looking in the mirror at the player he used to be.

And there were laughs all around.

“The key for me was opportunity,” van Riemsdyk said. “I was always confident in myself. I think I proved it in Philly – I showed when I had the opportunity to play a lot, in those key situations, I was a productive player. I’ve been able to get more of those opportunities since coming here…I’m just happy that coaches are showing faith in me and working with me to help my game grow.”

As for the trade – which came just after the 2012 draft in Pittsburgh finished – he explained Tuesday that, looking back, he was ready for it.

He needed a change of scenery and to go where he was more wanted in order to get where he wanted to go.

“I don’t think I was too shocked,” he said. “I kind of sensed it was coming… and for me personally, I think it was good to start somewhere else and go to a place where I was going to get a chance to show what I could do.”

Van Riemsdyk is unique case in that he always comes across as quiet, thoughtful and well spoken, the type of player who isn’t naturally mean or inclined to be a power forward but who is bright enough that there was always the potential he could eventually figure things out.

So when Carlyle first got his hands on him at the start of last season, he preached again and again for van Riemsdyk to park himself in front of the net, “or we’ll find someone who will.”

It’s a message that’s since sunk in to the point that he is now on a 32-goal, 62-point pace and in the top 40 in NHL scoring with a lot of that production coming from in close, with his size and remarkably nimble hands proving a difficult combination for other teams to deal with.

He also has the makings of a potential captain down the road, if Phaneuf ever moves on, especially given he has quickly grown attached to Toronto and hopes to make it his long-term home.

“I love it here – it’s such a great city,” said van Riemsdyk, who lives right in the heart of downtown in the same luxury condo complex as teammate Dave Bolland. “It’s the most Americanized Canadian city so it’s easy to adjust coming from the States here, and it’s got its own local flavour. It’s not too hard to get used to this.

“Obviously being a Maple Leaf, you’re way more recognizable than being a Flyer, but they’re both great markets to play in. This is a little bit bigger – everything’s on a little bit bigger scale.”

Meanwhile, for all the trade rumours swirling around the Leafs other young players as Toronto’s season has hit its peaks and valleys, van Riemsdyk’s is never a name that comes up.

From management on down, everyone’s hugely pleased with his progression from question mark to franchise cornerstone, all in the span of only 12 months given he didn’t even make his Leafs debut until Jan. 19 of last year.

And they believe there’s more yet to come.

“We think he’s a young player that’s still getting better,” Carlyle said.

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