When James van Riemsdyk signed that five-year, $35-million free-agent contract back on July 1, 2018, everyone figured he would be a top six forward on the Flyers for years to come.
And why not? He was coming off a 36-goal season in his final year at Toronto
After a first Flyers campaign of 27 goals in 66 games mostly played on the second line, things appeared to be in good shape.
But the hiring of a new coach, Alain Vigneault, brought with it some changes and JVR spent much of this season on the third line. Result: 21 goals in the same 66 games.
A few heads were turned on Thursday when Vigneault decided to sit the New Jersey native for the round-robin game against Washington.
With Michael Raffl injured, the insertion of two rookies – Joel Farabee and Connor Bunnaman – could be taken two ways: Vigneault just wanted to get a look at the two kids in a less than do-or-die situation, or he just hasn’t been that impressed with van Riemsdyk’s work.
“It was less about benching James than looking at the big picture,’’ Vigneault said Friday afternoon in a Zoom call from Toronto. “ Yes, James has been okay, just okay so far after having in my estimation a real strong training camp.
“I wanted to get Joel in. I also wanted to get ‘Bunny’ in at some point. I felt with the opposition that it was the right time. It was probably less to do with the benching and more to do with the big picture.’’
Vigneault said JVR will be back in the lineup Saturday vs. Tampa.
There’s no way van Riemsdyk was going to push the red-hot Scott Laughton out of the left wing spot on the Kevin Hayes-Travis Konecny line so for now, he will have to be satisfied with playing on a third unit with Derek Grant and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
JVR might get to see some playing time on the power play, since Jake Voracek is listed as “not available’’ to play.
As always, van Riemsdyk is taking the high road. He was a former Flyers’ No. 2 overall draft pick in 2007 behind Chicago superstar Patrick Kane and has always been loyal to this organization, even after he was traded away to Toronto.
There’s no extra motivation to prove anything, he maintains, just because he had to sit a game.
“No,’’ he said. “For me, I look back at my career and playing in the playoffs and all these things. I’ve had success doing that in the past. My approach is going to stay the same, try to be the best player I can be and maximize every day.
“That’s always how I approach things no matter what. I love the game. We have a great team and a great shot this year. My motivation and my approach remain consistent day in and day out, no matter if you have a day that doesn’t go your way or if you have a day where things are going well.’’
He sounds confident he can get his game back on track when it matters most. His resume – 18 goals in 59 playoff games, suggests that’s a strong possibility.
“I think looking at my first couple games, when you think about playoff hockey, you think about detail and doing the little things right, I think I was doing some of those things well,’’ he said.. “I like to be a little more productive, in the sense of just being a little more dangerous and creating a little bit more.’’
Meanwhile, Bunnaman’s stock continues to rise in the organization. Especially in Vigneault’s eyes.
“I thought Bunny when we called upon him during the season gave us very good speed, good physicality along the wall, could play left wing, could play in the middle,’’ the coach said. “I thought with Nate (Thompson) and Tyler (Pitlick) that would be a hard line to play against.’’
Vigneault sent Bunnaman out to shadow superstar Alexander Ovechkin’s line and held the much-heralded unit without a point.
“That’s a big physical line with Ovi,’’ Vigneault pointed out. “I thought they handled themselves real well.’’
Bunnaman, a former fourth-round pick (109th overall) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, welcomed the challenge.
“We kind of just went out there and did our job,’’ Bunnaman said. “I think we did a pretty good job at that. Not much communication. Just shutting them down I guess.’’
Not only did Bunnaman’s unit keep Ovechkin off the scoreboard, he barely got a shot on net.
Bunnaman said he didn’t overthink the task at hand.
“That’s basically my game,’’ he said. “Keep it simple, get the puck deep and go to the net. Holding a guy like Ovechkin pointless is pretty good. He’s a pretty good player I guess. It was fun out there. We did our job. I don’t know what else you can ask for.’’
Well, you could ask to stay in the lineup on a more regular basis but maybe it’s just better to let his actions do the talking.