Say what you want about the proximity to home, the prospects of a promising roster and the comfort level of familiar faces. Perhaps the most significant reason James van Riemsdyk chose the Flyers over other offers in free agency was because he has some “unfinished business” waiting for him in Philadelphia.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2007 never really captured the hearts and minds of Philly fans during his first go-round in the City of Brotherly Love. There was that initial disappointment of losing the draft lottery to Chicago and watching the Blackhawks take Patrick Kane, who went on to win three Stanley Cups with Chicago. Then there was van Riemsdyk’s decision to return to the University of New Hampshire for a second season of college hockey rather than take a timely shot at the pros.
The native of Middletown, N.J. (about a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia), had his moments in his initial three seasons with the Flyers but never really established himself as a top-liner, peaking at 21 goals and 40 points in 2010-11.
By the time he was traded to Toronto in 2012 in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn, there were few tears shed at the Wells Fargo Center.
So, there’s a part of van Riemsdyk, 29, that wants to come back and vindicate himself in the Delaware Valley. He made himself into a 36-goal scorer with the Leafs, and now he hopes to prove he can make an impact with the Flyers as well. “It is certainly an eye-opening experience the first time you go through something like that, getting traded,” van Riemsdyk said. “You’re a little naive, thinking you’re going to be in one place your whole career and hopefully win championships. There’s a sense of wanting to come back and be part of a group that’s there and hopefully do great things with that.”
On paper, it looks like an easy fit. He can look around the dressing room and still see faces he recognizes – Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier. And the Flyers needed a proven scorer on the left side, plus a little more depth on their power play.
It should be noted that GM Ron Hextall was an assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings when the van Riemsdyk-Schenn deal went down, so there was no first-hand emotional attachment to the player. “When you look at our needs, we needed a left winger with size,” said Hextall, mindful of van Riemsdyk’s 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame. “He’s obviously got soft hands, and goal-scoring is a premium, so he’s a good fit for us. Probably the fact he was here before came into his decision.”
The Flyers’ outlook factored into van Riemsdyk’s decision as well. Philadelphia has five players – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Nolan Patrick and Travis Sanheim – who are 21 or younger on their roster, plus a development system rated No. 2 by The Hockey News. “First and foremost, I looked at the team that they have and the guys that they have coming up, too,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’m really excited about that. They have some guys I’m familiar with from when I played there from my last stint…I can’t say enough good things about their organization.”
Van Riemsdyk, who signed for $35 million over five years, could have gone somewhere else. “There were others (interested teams) to varying degrees,” he said. “Probably 10 to 12, somewhere in there. There was a sense of comfort and what the Flyers organization is all about. I remember how badly they want to win and how they’re willing to put resources into that. That passion and commitment was a big thing for me.”
He says he’s a better player now than he was six years ago. “I’ve gotten some more experience,” van Riemsdyk said. “I got the opportunity in Toronto to expand my role. Play the power play, get more minutes. I think I’ve been able to expand my game. I’m a cerebral type of player who can skate well. Good offensive instincts, make the smart play in all three zones.”
He enjoyed his first stay in Philadelphia, even if it didn’t end all that well from a production standpoint. “They treated me very well the last time I was there,” he said. “I remember even getting a call after I got traded from (late owner) Mr. (Ed) Snider and that meant a lot to me. It showed me what a classy organization they are.”
The icing on the cake: van Riemsdyk’s family won’t have to travel far to see him play. “I think my parents are doing backflips right now,” he said. “It’s an exciting day for sure to share this with them.”
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.