When Trevor van Riemsdyk made his debut with the Chicago Blackhawks last year, it was evident from the outset that he could be a more than a mere serviceable player.
The 24-year-old added stability and youth to a bottom defensive pair that played well at the start of the 2014-15 season. However, all of the development and good feeling for the young defenseman was lost when he suffered a fractured patella in his knee in November of last year. When van Riemsdyk attempted to make his return in March, he suffered another setback with a wrist injury that would force him to miss another two months.
It wouldn't be until the 2015 Stanley Cup Final that TVR had to step in for a shorthanded defense. This would continue a theme of the young blue liner taking well to larger roles. With the loss of stalwart former No. 4 defenseman Johnny Oduya to free agency, as well as the trade of one of the organization's top defensive prospects in Stephen Johns, there was a clear void defensively for Chicago this season. And with a two-year extension signed in July, a long-term opportunity was opened for van Riemsdyk to seize, provided he could return to full health.
So far through the early parts of the 2015-16 season, he's taken full advantage. And because of the brilliant foresight shown by the Hawks in inking TVR to just a $825,000 cap hit for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, his high-value contract will be key to Chicago doing business.
The Blackhawks were going to have serious questions with the defense regardless after Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The team couldn't retain key contributors from last season or pay to bring in new big names. It meant gambling on players like TVR, who was admittedly less than a sure thing. It's safe to say he's alleviated those concerns.
With his top-four role, the van Riemsdyk is currently averaging a healthy 20:22 of time on ice and has played in all 18 games so far. The health issues of last season are officially in the past. He also has four points as he has proven more than capable of effectively pinching in and jumping in offensively while being defensively responsible on a team that preaches constant discipline to its defensemen. More than anything, his instinctual ability to position himself according to the system makes him something unique.
In the recent previous absence of Keith, van Riemsdyk was relied on more than ever in his short career. As the de facto No. 3 defenseman through most of October and the early parts of this month, he was asked to do well with an expanded role. With the addition of more shifts as well as a spot on the penalty kill and power play, van Riemsdyk proved capable of helping to mask the loss of Keith in the short term. Many in and around the organization became quite impressed with how he handled the situation to say the least.
What helps drive home that point are his possession numbers.
He is currently sporting a Corsi of 54.51 percent during 5-on-5 play. That is a higher percentage than practically every other defenseman on the Blackhawks and while he isn't taking on the toughest matchups like Hjalmarsson, he's not being hidden with constant offensive zone starts, either. The Blackhawks have regularly raised the bar for what they ask of TVR and each time he's responded by proving there's another gear to his game.
Beyond the advanced statistics, you can even use the eye test with the young defenseman. He looks like a very smooth and natural skater, is quite confident and measured in his offensive pinches and has been rarely out of position defensively. With everything that's been asked of him recently, these kinds of numbers and observations only become more impressive.
And again, it's telling that van Riemsdyk has been this successful with a 56.63 offensive zone start percentage. That means head coach Joel Quenneville has not been effectively sheltering him with advantageous opportunities for fear that he could not handle a greater role. That sheltering is something Quenneville did with van Riemsdyk and other defensemen like Kyle Cumiskey in the 2015 Final, as he only effectively trusted his top four.
It goes without saying that Trevor van Riemsdyk has clearly gained the trust and exceeded expectations of the veteran coach.
All of this comes without even mentioning how much of a bargain the healthy van Riemsdyk is for the Hawks at his current level of play.
As mentioned earlier, van Riemsdyk signed a two-year extension worth only $1.65 million in total. In addition to his $925,000 salary for the present season, that means that Chicago has the defenseman locked up for less than a million annually for the next two-plus seasons.
By comparison to other teams in the Central Division, a No. 4 defenseman often comes at a much higher price. For example, rivals like the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues are paying Mark Stuart, $2.625 million and Carl Gunnarsson, $3.15 million respectively. The Minnesota Wild are even paying Jared Spurgeon $2.66 million. Paying one of your top-four blue liners just $825K makes it a lot easier to swallow those massive cap hits at the other end of the spectrum.
Given Chicago's salary cap situation, in which they currently only have less than $40,000 in cap space -- the lowest figure in the league -- they need guys like TVR. This minimal cap space comes on the heels of the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews contract extensions at $10.5 million for each player. Needless to say, someone playing at van Riemsdyk's level for his current minimal cap hit is huge.
The Hawks will tinker with the lineup over the next few seasons and make roster moves to alleviate some of that cap pressure. but having a player like van Riemsdyk slotted in the important role he plays for at least the next two-plus seasons will give them more flexibility. That fact is very important for a team trying to retool its roster to win another Stanley Cup.
Provided something unexpected happening, the rise of Trevor van Riemsdyk should only continue. He has blossomed early on as a top-four defenseman and should only continue to grow with consistency and an ascending confidence that has served him well. All of the talents he displayed when fully healthy and in the lineup last season are being shown off on a regular basis at this current juncture. On the eve of the upcoming long circus trip for the Hawks, it won't be surprising at all to see van Riemsdyk continue to thrive in hostile road environments.
With the precarious cap situation of the Blackhawks, they also have the good fortune of watching Trevor van Riemsdyk play well and mature even more under a cap hit they can effectively manage for the foreseeable future. It's a situation worth big smiles all around.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer and contributor for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. He is currently the sports editor at Aurora University. You can follow him on Twitter @ZigZags82.