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Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk celebrates a goal against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday. The winger becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, leaving Toronto to decide whether they re-sign him, or trade him to create salary-cap space for young stars such as Matthews, Marner and Nylander.

John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

James van Riemsdyk is not going to make this easy for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And why should he? For the past three seasons, all he has done is score more goals than just about everyone else while all the talk concerns the gifted kids: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander et al. Van Riemsdyk, at the advanced age of 28, is almost considered a relic from the bad old Leafs.

Yet, here he is leading the Leafs in goals with 31 going into Saturday night's game against the Montreal Canadiens. Van Reimsdyk is the hottest scorer in the NHL over the past week with five goals in his past two games after failing to score in his previous four. It should also be noted van Riemsdyk has those goals despite being 10th among Leafs forwards in ice time with an average of 14 minutes 48 seconds a game.

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The 31 goals are a career-high for van Reimsdyk and make him a model of consistency. In his five non-lockout seasons with the Maple Leafs, van Reimsdyk scored 30, 27, 14, 29 and 31 goals, respectively. The 14 goals came in 2015-16 when he missed 42 games with a broken foot.

This restarted the debate about what the Maple Leafs should do with van Riemsdyk as he approaches July 1, when he becomes a restricted free agent. The assumption used to be van Riemsdyk would be traded by the Feb. 26 trade deadline along with his fellow veterans approaching free agency, linemate Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov.

However, Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello elected to hold on to all of them as in-house rental players, the theory being, presumably, the assets gained by trading one or all of them would not yield better players for the playoff drive. It was also a strong indication Lamoriello, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and head coach Mike Babcock believe their team is capable of a long playoff run.

Now the question becomes, do you sign van Riemsdyk to the long, expensive contract he will get from someone on July 1, or do you trade his expiring rights in June to a team that thinks it can sign him?

Babcock, who mused just before the trade deadline van Riemsdyk just might be on his way out, probably wants to keep him in an ideal world.

"He has obviously been real hot here since the trade deadline," Babcock said after van Riemsdyk followed Wednesday's hat trick against the Dallas Stars with two goals in Thursday's win over the Buffalo Sabres. "Now, I don't know if it's just you get to concentrate on hockey and not think about all the other things. He's been good for us, obviously has real good hands around the net and he's an important player for us."

Unfortunately for them, the Maple Leafs live in a salary-cap world, not an ideal world. Hence the assumptions older players such as van Riemsdyk have to be sacrificed in order to sign long-term deals with the up-and-coming stars on the team.

But given what van Riemsdyk offers, Lamoriello and Shanahan need to weigh this decision carefully. He arrived in June, 2012, in one of the best trades in franchise history, as outgoing Luke Schenn was starting the slide from fifth overall draft choice in 2008 to third-pairing defenceman. Van Riemsdyk proved to be a pure goal scorer, able to use his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame to establish a position in front of the net and his soft hands to flick pucks into the net from any angle.

"I just try to get to the good spots where you can score goals," van Reimsdyk said. "And I'm playing with some smart players who want to get the puck to those areas. I try to get better and better every year."

Van Riemsdyk also lights up the Leafs' power play. His work around the net has produced nine goals and 17 power-play points this season.

Even in the increasingly youth-oriented NHL, in which players begin to decline around the age of 30, van Riemsdyk still has several years of prime career left just as the Leafs' rebuilding plan is kicking into its critical phase. The trouble is the cost of keeping him versus what needs to be paid to Matthews, Marner and Nylander in the next two seasons.

The free-agent market come July 1 is known mainly for over-paying players, both in term and money. Van Riemsdyk is well aware someone will cough up a six-year or more deal for US$7-million-plus a season.

Even with the salary cap poised to go from US$75-million this season to as much as US$82-million in 2018-19, it will be difficult to fit them all into the payroll. But not impossible.

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Lamoriello was famous in his New Jersey Devils days for persuading players such as Martin Brodeur to take a hometown discount in exchange for being on a team that was in Stanley Cup contention every year. Besides, the real cap crunch doesn't come until 2019-20 when both Matthews and Marner come up for renewal along with Kasperi Kapanen and Jake Gardiner. Maybe there will be another healthy bump to the cap like this year's.

Right now, the Leafs have about US$24.6-million in projected cap space for next season, according to CapFriendly.com. There are eight or nine players in that projection who will need to be re-signed or replaced, including Nylander and recent call-up Andreas Johnsson, who is a potential replacement for van Reimsdyk.

It is possible, then, for van Reimsdyk to sign a contract with a cap-hit somewhere in the US$6-million to US$6.5-million range. A comparable is Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand, a 29-year-old elite 30-goal winger who is signed through 2022-23 with a cap hit of US$6.125-million.

But those contracts looming for Matthews and Marner make it very, very difficult.

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews says recovering from his Feb. 22 shoulder injury is a gradual process. Matthews took part in his second straight full practice Tuesday, but continued to wear a red non-contact jersey. The Canadian Press
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