PITTSBURGH – When Ron Hextall, then the Flyers general manager, signed James van Riemsdyk to a five-year, $35 million contract on July 1, he said the left winger would bring a “good net-front presence” and called him a “big body with soft hands.”
Hextall was correct on all accounts.
After missing 16 early-season games because of a knee injury and then taking more than a month to get accustomed to his new teammates, van Riemsdyk has flourished.
With a goal in Sunday’s win at Pittsburgh, he has 19 goals in his last 29 games since Jan. 10, the second-highest total in the NHL in that span, behind only Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl. The Central Jersey native had 10 goals over his last 11 games.
“It’s almost like he didn’t have a role with the team for a while,” interim coach Scott Gordon said of van Riemsdyk’s early-season struggles. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time and not playing as much top-six ice time. Now, I find his skating is more consistent. He’s getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often.”
And he has displayed an uncannily deft touch deflecting pucks into the net from out front. Most of his goals have been on tip-ins and rebounds.
“To do that, you have to be around the net, and he’s been around the net more,” Gordon said.
Van Riemsdyk, 29, has 25 goals and is on pace for 28 despite missing 16 games. He had 36 goals last season, while playing mostly on Toronto’s third line.
“You just like to play with smart players, ultimately, and we have a lot of those in this room,” said van Riemsdyk, who credited his teammates for getting him the puck in the scoring areas in front.
Samuel Morin, the mammoth defenseman who was the Flyers’ No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft (11th overall), is healthy, but sat out again Sunday.
After he returned to the Flyers following a brief rehab stint with Lehigh Valley last month, Morin has not played. The Flyers can’t send him back to the Phantoms because he would have to clear waivers – and he would probably be claimed by another team.
“As long as we’re in a position to still push for the playoffs [he’ll sit],” Gordon said. “Right now, he’s our eighth, and he’ll stay that way unless there’s an injury.”
With their 2-1 overtime win on Sunday, the Flyers are six points out of a playoff spot, with 10 games left.
If they are eliminated from playoff contention, Morin – who had knee surgery last May -- will get ice time.
“It would be in his best interest to get some games in,” Gordon said. “He’s put a lot of practice time in and obviously didn’t get much of a stint down in Lehigh with the waiver situation, but he’s responded well. He’s had all good days in practice. No repercussions.”