VOORHEES, N.J. — As James van Riemsdyk was introduced Wednesday at Flyers Skate Zone, it was hard not to think back to the youthful 18-year-old the team drafted No. 2 overall in 2007.
The voice may be a little deeper, the shoulders are a bit broader, but perhaps the biggest change is one that won’t be noticeable until the Flyers take the ice in October.
van Riemsdyk’s game clearly evolved throughout his six years with the Toronto Maple Leafs under three different coaches. Then again, playing for Mike Babcock, it’s either adapt or die.
“He wanted to be part of a winning team and a winning culture and he was very demanding of his players,” van Riemsdyk said. “He was a communicator and you pretty much knew where you stood at all times with him.”
Which wasn’t necessarily the case with Peter Laviolette, JVR’s only head coach with the Flyers until now. Working with a veteran-laden roster, Laviolette probably didn’t exercise the necessary patience required of a young, talented winger still finding his way in his early 20s.
After suffering a broken foot, which forced him to miss half the 2011-12 season, van Riemsdyk remembers the vibes he was hearing from his agent Alec Schall and how he’d fallen out of favor so early in his career.
van Riemsdyk, traded at 22 years old, played just 196 games with the Flyers.
Such a deal — which may be one of the worst in franchise history, a move that brought defenseman Luke Schenn to Philly — can oftentimes speed up the maturation of a young professional.
“You figure things out in a certain way and you figure out the best way to approach certain situations that have to do with doing your job to the best of your ability,” van Riemsdyk said. “There’s certainly things you learn over the years and different ways you can have success and that sort of stuff. There’s different things you have to figure out as a player and work your way through. Having more experience is a good thing.”
In Toronto, van Riemsdyk endured almost every phase of a culture change that has transformed a perennial loser into an organization determined to end a Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. Just about every coach he’s played for has won a championship, from Laviolette to Randy Carlyle and then eventually, Babcock.
There are lessons that have been burned into his brain. van Riemsdyk still has a blistering shot with the imposing size to be a physical presence when he desires, but now the nine-year veteran understands a bigger picture and why his all-around play needed to evolve.
“The longer you play, you realize certain details are very important,” van Riemsdyk said. “As a winger, that’s making good plays along the wall in your own end and giving your defensemen time to go back and pick up pucks. Little things like that are what make you really reliable.
“I think that was good to learn from [Babcock]. As a player, it’s nice to learn little tricks like that, that you can use for the rest of your career.”
Having turned 29 earlier this summer, JVR is now on the downside of the NHL’s age curve, and when his newly-signed contract with the Flyers expires, he’ll be in his mid-30s playing in a league that continues to trend more toward speed, skill and youth.
“I think off the ice, too, the teams tend to be a little bit younger, so that’s a bit different,” van Riemsdyk said. “I remember walking in here for my first training camp, guys like Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Ian Laperriere and guys like that. It’s interesting to see the shift in average age of guys over the course of my career.”
As strange as it may seem now with the addition of van Riemsdyk, the Flyers got a little bit older, a little wiser and in all likelihood, a little bit better.