Wednesday, December 28, 2011

APB on JVR unwarranted

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

In the wake of the shocking blockbuster trades of Jeff Carter to Columbus and Mike Richards to the Kings on June 23, by necessity there had to be two more players already on the Philadelphia Flyers' roster who could fit the bill in the new fresh-faced era of Flyers hockey.

Enter Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. Fairly or unfairly -- and I'm leaning towards the latter -- both guys were dubbed the "leaders" of this year's team.

Anybody remember Pink Floyd's "Us and Them?" Forward they cried from the rear/and the front rank died...

That's sort of how I imagined the internal struggle of the franchise to competently supplant the former faces of the team with the right new blood in the wake of those blockbusters...with Carts and Richie gone, someone had to be behind them and now #20 and #28 stand at the front, one dodging and one taking the bullets.

We all know how Giroux has responded (and I believe it's in no small part due to Jaromir Jagr's presence but that's another column altogether) and it's been well beyond all expectations, so that leaves JVR, the 22-year-old Jersey native, in the dust.

Van Riemsdyk has a robust three points -- one goal, two assists -- in 10 December games through last night's 5-1 loss at Tampa. Not coincidentally, that follows a two-week absence for an upper-body injury apparently sustained on Long Island Thanksgiving eve. Before that, eight goals and eight assists in 20 games with a hunger to use his strength around the net that Carter wished he possessed.

The usual questions "Is he hurt?" "Is he hiding something?" "Why has he disappeared?" are irrelevant, and here's why: if you're an organization trying to craft a certain image, you just don't stick a random player with the label like new/fresh young leader simply because you have nobody else to fit the bill, and then sit back, watch how the scenario plays out, and judge with a jaundiced eye.

I'd issue the same warning to anyone in the media or sitting at home who is questioning or slamming van Riemsdyk at this point.

It's a fool's game, and the Flyers are lucky that one of the two has panned out.

Club history is littered with examples of failed Messiahs for one reason or another: Kevin McCarthy was suppossed to lead the club as a puck-moving defenseman; Ken Linseman was supposed to be a Bobby Clarke clone; Magnus Roupe was supposed to ease the scoring burden when Tim Kerr was out with his shoulder injuries in 1987-88; Peter Zezel was supposed to take the reins after a monster season in '87; Pat Falloon never lived up to some invisible and abstract expectations; Jiri Dopita was Jiri Dopita, Patrick Sharp didn't fit in with Ken Hitchcock, and so on.

Now the New Hampshire product is tasting the downside of "stardom," one which was thrust upon him for no reason other than he was there.

It is a fact of professional life that some players cannot reach past a certain level; this is not the failing of the human or of the athlete, but a failing of those in power to recognize that the player in question is functioning to his fullest potential. That means accepting streakiness, disruptions due to injury, and solid play in other areas that don't show up on the stat sheet as a part of his make-up.

In Zezel's case, he filled in admirably for Brian Propp, Ilkka Sinisalo, Pelle Eklund and others who missed chunks of time during that charmed '86-'87 campaign. He set career highs with 33 goals and 72 points, then added 13 points during that memorable playoff run.

But it became clear with time that Zezel's emergence was as much a result of Mike Keenan's sharp-minded and constant prodding plus the vacuum that existed with injuries as it did for his talent and ability. Perceived as having slid backwards under Paul Holmgren, the one-time fan favorite was sacrificed during a downturn early in the 1988-89 season to St. Louis for Mike Bullard.

By the way, Zezel lasted another 11 seasons -- first as a high-scoring second-line center and then as a solid checking winger.

If there were no elevated expectations placed on van Riemsdyk, would 19 points in 30 games seem so awful? No. It would be yet another statistic proving how solid the club's forwards are in lines one through four and a testament to battling through injuries.

But because Giroux has exploded into the limelight, leading the NHL in points, it makes van Riemsdyk's plight all the more perplexing and vulnerable to criticism.

Before you turn to the Dark Side, consider that van Riemsdyk's career has been one of constant hiccups and has existed slightly out-of-sync.

He was the second-overall choice in 2007 -- so, automatically he was a symbol of the Flyers' need to recover quickly from their dead-last record the year before. He only played two seasons for Dick Umile at UNH and there were constant rumblings from South Broad Street that he wasn't "developing properly." He left the Wildcats after only two years, then spent all of seven games in the AHL.

Then, NHL seasons of 35 and 40 points follow, plus the misleading stat of top goal-scorer (7) in 11 playoff games last Spring, and BOOM! he gets snared from his comfortable spot of "emerging young star" and plunked down into Golden Child territory.

No wonder he's experiencing the rising tides of concern and backlash, and it's not his fault. It's more than just saying he needs to "step up" like Ilya Bryzgalov clearly does given his contract.

First, you need to "step off" and recognize he's basically been collared into a role that will set him up to fail. Second, as a home-grown talent, you need to expect him to contribute to the long haul -- a haul that has nothing to do with 12-year extensions -- and that takes time and maturity to figure out his true niche and to excel in whatever that role is.

Which isn't a bad thing, unless you believe in the infallibility of those in power. Or that the only successful player is one who shows dramatic increases in stats and intangibles every single month of every single season until the very end.

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