Michael Martin/Getty Images
By Allan Muir
January 11, 2016

Losing a leading scorer long-term would be a disastrous prospect for most NHL teams ... but the injury suffered by winger James van Riemsdyk might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The team announced on Monday that van Riemdsdyk suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left foot during Saturday’s 7–0 rout by the Sharks. He’s expected to miss 6-8 weeks.

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Gaping roster holes like the one he’s leaving aren’t easily filled (although much luck to minor league call-up Josh Leivo as he gives it his best). The 26-year-old van Riemsdyk has been the linchpin of Toronto’s attack this season, leading the team with 29 points. He ranks second with 14 goals and third with 15 assists and was the catalyst on Toronto’s much improved power play, pacing the unit with five goals and nine points.

He was on pace for 30 goals and 60 points, matching (or nearly matching) his career highs of 30 and 61, respectively. He was proving himself capable of being the go-to weapon with his former linemate, Phil Kessel, having moved on to Pittsburgh. And with his size, he was a natural for Mike Babcock's grinding, forechecking game.

And so, with JVR leading the charge, the plucky Leafs became one of the pleasant surprises of the past month, going 8-4-2 since Dec. 5 and winning praise for their disciplined defensive play and competitive intensity.

It’s been a nice run. But it’s also been a bit of a mirage. Because the Leafs, a team in the first year of a long-term rebuild, aren’t going anywhere this season.

And that’s OK, because it’s not the W’s that are important. This season in Toronto isn’t about points. It’s about process. It’s about buying into coach Babcock’s structure and building a foundation for sustainable success.

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Having JVR in or out of the lineup doesn’t change that. But it does impact this team’s chances of winning on a night-to-night basis. And that’s the blessing.

Even after their recent run, the Leafs enter the week with 39 points, good for 27th place in the league standings. Or, more vitally, on pace to secure the fourth-most lottery balls for the draft this June.

The Leafs were never going to tank, not even for a chance to draft a franchise center like Auston Matthews. But if van Riemsdyk’s absence leads to Toronto missing out on a few points along the way and that just happens to improve its chances of drafting Matthews or Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine, well, them’s the breaks. The sort of breaks that could alter the fate of this organization.

So get well soon, James. Just, you know, not too soon.

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