James Van Riemsdyk: How Rookies Can Carry The Hopes and Dreams Of a City

Vince FrenchContributor INovember 10, 2009

PHILADELPHIA - NOVEMBER 02:  James van Riemsdyk #21 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates against Andrej Meszaros #14 of the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 2, 2009 at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

No Philadelphia Flyer has ever won the Calder Trophy. Since 1932-33, the trophy has been awarded annually to the best rookie in the NHL as voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and no Flyer has ever topped that list.

Could this be the year that someone from the Orange ‘n’ Black finally takes the silverware to Philly?


James van Riemsdyk, the number two overall pick from 2007-08, has an excellent shot at it. The player who went first overall that year – Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and taxi-cab fame – took home the Calder with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 82 games while being minus-5 on a team that was finally making a resurgence after languishing so many years in obscurity. Quite a shame, really, for an original-six team.

Through 12 games this season, van Riemsdyk has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) and is plus-6. His point total ties him for first among rookies with six fewer games played, and is the only rookie to average a point-per-game or more (1.17 PPG). More importantly, he has not looked at all out of place on the big club, routinely being one of the best players on the ice, and has done so while being shuffled around on different lines. It would seem as though the two extra years in the U.S. College program have paid off handsomely.

Van Riemsdyk has also been forced to deal with some adversity. Earlier in the season against the Washington Capitals, van Riemsdyk was driven hard into the boards and left the game with a concussion. He missed two games, but showed no ill-effects upon returning. Most recently, he suffered a broken pinky after being hit by a Jeff Carter slapshot. Van Riemsdyk could resume practice on Tuesday and the Flyers hope he is ready to go on Thursday.

The road to the Calder will not be an easy one. Several rookies have been stellar in the early-going. Michael Del Zotto has been very surprising on the Rangers blue line while chipping in 13 points, and first-overall pick John Tavares has re-ignited the surprising Islanders, and leads his team with eight assists and is tied for the lead in points with 13.

Add to that group Ryan O’Reilly of the first-place Colorado Avalanche, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, six-foot-seven defenseman Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres, and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It will not be an easy task for van Riemsdyk, but he has as good a chance as any of them. If the early season play is any indication, he should figure among the top three. Outside of Artem Anisimov (Rangers), van Riemsdyk averages the fewest minutes per game (12:50) among the top 20 rookies. Compare that to the 18:48 Tavares gets per night, and it is indeed impressive what van Riemsdyk has done with the time Stevens has given him.


The Ghosts of Rookies Past

In the spirit of this discussion, let us look at some past Flyers rookies who, while they may not have captured the coveted Calder, nonetheless managed to captivate our attention as rookies and fill us with hope.

Eric Lindros

Perhaps no rookie in Flyers history had so much weight placed on his shoulders before even lacing up his skates for an NHL game. Lindros refused to sign with the Quebec Nordiques, who made him the first-overall pick of the 1991 draft, thus forcing the team to deal him somewhere else. In fact, they apparently dealt him to two somewhere-elses in the summer of 1992: to the Flyers and to the Rangers. An arbitrator was called upon to resolve the dispute, and ruled in favour of the Flyers. Thus began the Lindros-era.

In his rookie season, Lindros was impressive. He scored 41 goals and added 34 assists in just 61 games, but was no match for Teemu Selanne, who quite handily took home the Calder with 76 goals and 132 points, both rookie records. This was to be the first shortened season for the injury-plagued Lindros. He went on to have 40-plus goals four times in eight seasons with the Flyers. Never once in his career – in Philly or elsewhere – did Lindros play an entire season.

At his best, he was as dominant a player as there was in the league at the time. He battled with Jaromir Jagr for the scoring title, and did everything he could on the ice to lead his team to the Promised Land. The “Legion of Doom” line with Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg was one of the best in hockey.  

He came very close. In 1997, he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings only to be swept in four straight in very humiliating fashion, including a 6-1 shellacking at the Joe Louis Arena. Despite leading the playoff scoring race, the journey was incomplete.

Unfortunately, several off-ice issues reared their ugly heads, including a feud with General Manager Bobby Clarke, and the constant perception that his parents interfered with his career. The former is what caused him to be traded to the Rangers prior to the start of the 2001-’02 season.

Fairly or unfairly, he will always be compared to Peter Forsberg – the cornerstone piece of the trade that brought Lindros to Philly. Even though their career numbers are eerily similar (Forsberg, 885 points in 706 games; Lindros, 865 points in 760 games), Forsberg has two Stanley Cup rings. With the Colorado Avalanche, Forsberg also won the Calder trophy, the Art Ross, and the Hart trophies.

Regardless, Lindros brought hope to millions of Flyers fans. Hope that the drought was finally going to be over. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Ron Hextall

It would seem as though goaltender Hextall – or Hexy, as he was affectionately known –  won everything during his rookie year except the Calder trophy – and, of course, the Stanley Cup.

The 1986-’87 rookie was phenomenal, compiling a 37-21-6 record, with a goals-against average of 3.00 and a save percentage of .894. While a number one goaltender wouldn’t keep his job very long with those numbers today, the NHL was a very different beast at that time. The Flyers’ 245 goals against in 80 games were second only to the Montreal Canadiens (241). This was also the era of Wayne Gretzky (183 points), Jarri Kurri, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Doug Gilmour, and of course, Tim Kerr. That’s a lot of firepower.

That magical rookie year saw the Flyers lose the Stanely Cup Final in seven games to the offensive juggernaut that was the Edmonton Oilers. Nonetheless, Hextall captured the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. At the awards ceremony, he also brought home the Vezina as the NHL’s best netminder.

Hextall never quite recaptured the magic of that first season, but provided stability in goal despite having a penchant for allowing the occasional team-deflating goal.

But he was a joy to watch and follow. Who will ever forget the familiar clanking of the posts before every faceoff? Or the two-handed slash on Kent Nilsson? Or the late-game attack on Chris Chelios to avenge fallen teammate Brian Propp?

I certainly won’t.


Pelle Lindbergh

It is fitting to end this retrospective with Pelle Lindbergh, as Remembrance Day will mark the 24th anniversary of Lindbergh’s tragic death. On November 10, 1985, an intoxicated Lindbergh drove his Porsche into a concrete wall and sustained fatal injuries. He was kept on life support until the next day when his father arrived from Sweden to pay his final respects. With his passing, so much potential was left unfulfilled, and a young man’s life cut short.

In his first NHL season, 1981-’82, Lindbergh compiled a 23-13-3 record along with a 2.98 goals against average. He was selected to both the NHL All-Star game and the NHL All-Rookie Team that year. Billy Smith of the New York Islanders  secured the Vezina that year, with a 32-9-4 record, and a 2.97 GAA. The 18-year-old Dale Hawerchuck took home the Calder, scoring 45 goals and 103 points in 80 games for the Winnipeg Jets.

Lindbergh finally did capture the Vezina in 1984-’85 after posting a 40-17-7 record with a 3.02 GAA.

For more on Lindbergh, read Bill Meltzer’s article and pick up the book.

New Blood

Today, we find hope in the likes of dual draft day gems Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They have risen to prominence over the past several years, and it has been great watching them reach their potential. They are the team leaders now.

Last year, we were teased with the emergence of Claude Giroux and his fantastic vision on the ice, conjuring visions of Peter Forsberg.

Neither of those three won the Calder trophy. But perhaps van Riemsdyk can capture the elusive silverware once and for all, and restore hope and promise to a Philadelphia Flyer fanbase who has been waiting 35 long years for another Stanley Cup parade.

And if that happens, will anyone really care about the Calder?


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