James van Riemsdyk’s second stint with the Flyers has been star-crossed ever since it began. They had signed him to a five-year contract worth a reported $35 million, had made him their major free-agent signing in the summer of 2018, the signal flare that they felt they were close enough to competing for a Stanley Cup that they could afford to spend like it. Their head coach at the time, though, had enough foresight to offer a note of caution, to temper any too-lofty expectations.
“I truly believe JVR believes he’s joining a team that has a chance,” Dave Hakstol said then. “Our fans are going to want it to be year one. We all want to make that happen. But we’ve gone through some hard days, and there are probably more to come.”
There were. Those hard days included an awful 2018-19 season that cost Hakstol his job as coach and Ron Hextall his as general manager, and they included some bad vibes for van Riemsdyk. He took a shot off his knee in that season’s second game and missed nearly six weeks, and though he scored 27 goals that year and another 19 last season, he hadn’t earned enough trust from Alain Vigneault to avoid being scratched four times in the playoffs.
The quick start he’s off to this season, then, has to come as a welcome relief, a reminder of the scorer the Flyers hoped they had reacquired. Van Riemsdyk turned two power-play wrist shots from Ivan Provorov into two power-play goals Tuesday night in the Flyers’ 5-3 victory over the Devils. In seven games so far, the Flyers are 4-2-1, and he has five goals, four of them on the power play. This is why they wanted him back. This is why he wanted to be back.
“Certainly, you saw all the guys who were in place who were established and who were here, but also all these younger guys who were coming,” he said. “You kind of hope some of that starts to work out, too, and you can be a piece of the puzzle for that. Yeah, that’s ultimately why I chose to sign here.”
The timing of Van Riemsdyk’s signing 2½ years ago wasn’t quite perfect, not in light of the unsettled goaltending situation that the Flyers had then, and he’s not the cure for all their ailments now. Their defensemen still turn the puck over far too frequently; they handed the Devils chance after chance Tuesday night. And even once Sean Couturier returns to the lineup, they could probably stand to use another pure scorer, if there’s a way for GM Chuck Fletcher to pry one away from another club without surrendering too many resources in return.
But at the moment, and when he’s at his best, van Riemsdyk is about as close as they’re going to get to that kind of forward. He’s not going to win much praise for dogged backchecking in the defensive zone, but he can make up for the one-dimensional nature of his play with increased offensive production. He has five seasons with at least 27 goals in his career, and the relative ease with which he deflected those Provorov shots past Devils goaltender Scott Wedgewood demonstrated how skilled he is, at age 31.
“Easy goals might not be the right definition,” Vigneault said. “Anybody who wants to go to the front of the net knows that he’s going to take some abuse. But in those situations where he did go in there, positioning in front of the net, screening the goaltender, his stick available the way it was, and him having that eye-hand coordination to get those tips, those are big plays.”
“You try to use the time that you have in the offseason to prepare yourself as best you can to play,” van Riemsdyk said. “Obviously, sometimes you get a bit of puck luck and stuff like that, too. So obviously that’s been good. Just trying to go out there and be consistent from game to game, practice to practice.”
The Flyers will need those plays, that consistency, from van Riemsdyk later in the season and into the playoffs, assuming they qualify, given a leaguewide realignment, for his pandemic-abbreviated season, that has made their East Division-only schedule particularly rigorous. For now, they’ll be more than content with what he has given them so far: a presence on the power play to which opponents must pay close attention. That’s the player he was supposed to be, when he returned here, with those grand plans that perhaps required only a little patience.