What Does The Future Hold For VR?


Note: If you crave insightful, indepth Leafs‘ analysis, I highly encourage you to read RSW’s excellent article on Victor Stalberg.

This past Saturday, Brian Burke was a guest on “Leafs Lunch” (am 640) and spoke at length about the status of injured defenseman Mike Van Ryn.

Van Ryn, as you know, underwent career-threatening surgery as a result of a structural anomaly in his left knee.  The surgery, an osteotomy (known throughout hockey circles as “Steve Yzerman surgery”), is a complex procedure in which the knee is realigned via the removal of part of the bone.  Van Ryn has since resumed skating, but whether or not he will be able to resume his NHL career remains, at this point, unknown.

The recovery process, and more specifically the questions surrounding the future of his career, place both Van Ryn and the Maple Leafs at somewhat of a crossroads.  Van Ryn’s contract is up after this season, and naturally the question arises: will another team be willing to give him a look despite his injury history and this most recent surgery? For that matter, will the Maple Leafs?

Back to Burke’s radio appearance: The Leafs‘ GM, who is as intimately aware of Van Ryn’s progress as anyone in the organization, suggested that if Van Ryn is capable of making a comeback, the Leafs would be interested in re-signing him.  However, that is a big “if” — it’s one thing to be cleared to skate, but another matter entirely to be cleared for gameplay.  Questions which will need to be answered, before any team signs him, include how the knee holds up over 10 – 15 minutes of ice time, how his ability to make quick cuts is affected, and perhaps most importantly how well the knee is able to withstand contact, be it with another player or the boards.

Even with those questions answered, there is still the matter of a contract.  No team is going to commit more than a small percentage of their salary cap to a defenseman who has missed 137 of the past 164 regular season games due to injury.  Along these lines, there was some recent speculation that perhaps Van Ryn would be offered an incentive-based deal; there is, after all, an article in the CBA that allows for players returning from lengthy injury (100 days missed or more) to sign a one-year contract with performance bonuses attached.  Sounds like a perfect solution, right?

Er, not so much. Turns out the CBA (Article 50.2 for those who are interested) has a clause which limits the one-year, performance-based contract for injury returnees to players who have played over 400 games in their career.  Van Ryn, unfortunately, has played only 353.  Which means that barring some sort of loophole in the CBA, that idea is pretty much out.

The Day-Later Update: That loophole may have just been found. The CBA discusses 400 games for pension purposes … which could be legally interpreted as including games missed due to injury. Technically, a workplace would be required to continue the provision of benefits, pension contributions, etc during time missed by an employee due to an injury sustained on the job. Applying that logic to this situation would dictate that the games missed due to injury should still count – as a credit of sorts – toward the “400 game” mark for “pension purposes” (it is important to note the CBA does not stipulate ‘games played’). In other words, the incentive-based deal appears to be an option after all.  Hat tip to the PPP crew for catching that.

However, this is Toronto and money spent is of little consequence, so perhaps a the bonus structure possibilities for a potential contract wouldn’t be as great a deal to the Leafs as they would to a smaller-budget organization.  To that end, the consensus among observers seems to be that a one-year deal, around or slightly over the veteran minimum, will likely be in the offing from the Leafs — provided, of course, that Van Ryn’s recovery is enough to convince the team he is still capable of playing at an effective level.

By all accounts, Van Ryn was very effective in the 27 games he was able to suit up for Toronto, before falling victim to an injury bug of Carlo Colaiacovo proportions. Such a deal, were it to happen, would work very well for both sides: as mentioned above, there will be few suitors interested in taking a flyer on a player with Van Ryn’s injury history, beyond perhaps an AHL tryout.  In Toronto, Van Ryn would get a chance to prove to the league that he can still play, on a team whose coaching staff and general manager have professed support for his comeback on numerous occasions, and the organization would minimize risk by committing a relatively nominal amount of money to a short-term contract.

Assuming the events outlined above do indeed transpire, one question would remain: where exactly would he fit in?

Currently, the Leafs’ already-signed blueline for next season includes Kaberle, Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Finger.  Van Ryn, were he to re-sign, would be at best 8th on the depth chart if it were to remain as constructed today.  Given the nature of his recovery, one would believe that the ideal scenario would be for him to make his return as a #7 and slowly work his way back in.  But for that to happen, at least one player would need to be on the move.

Now, most would assume that player to be either Kaberle (via trade) or Finger (AHL).  However, there are caveats to either scenario.

In Kaberle’s case, most fans are operating on the assumption he will be moved this summer, but the truth is that is hardly a guarantee.  Right now, there is as much of a chance of Kaberle suiting up for this team in September as there is of him being dealt in the offseason.  And that is not because of Burke’s repeated exhortations that he is not looking to trade Kaberle; rather, it is simple logic.  Kaberle will remain a member of the team until an offer is made which, in the estimation of the Leafs’ brass, satisfies both immediate and long-term goals.  Players rarely get traded simply for the sake of being traded; rather, they are moved to acquire assets (be it players, picks or cap space) which will help the organization reach its goals.

In that sense, Burke is being quite honest when he says he is not looking to move Tomas Kaberle; after all, the team is better with one of the top offensive defencemen in the league than they would be with a return which, in the estimation of the management team, does not help to better the club.  That said, should an offer be made by another team for Kaberle’s services, Burke and his staff will evaluate it as they would an offer for any player, and if the proposed deal is deemed beneficial to their short- and long-term organization goals it will consummated.  And if not, Kaberle will remain a member of the Leafs.

Finger is another interesting case.  At $3.5m with two years remaining, he possesses a contract which (a) he can never possibly live up to, and (b) will not be easy to move.  Not easy, but not impossible either, as the Blake/Toskala deal has proven.  It’s a tough situation for Finger; a victim of the depth chart, he played only sporadically for the bulk of the season and was unable to make much of an impact when he did see the ice.  On the flip side, however, it is quite difficult for any player to be at their most effective when sitting for stretches of 5 – 10 games at a time.

In short, Finger needs to be on NHL ice, not in the pressbox or the minor leagues, if the Leafs are to have any hope moving his contract.  And to his credit, he does have some very desireable attributes: for a shutdown defender, he moves the puck well, and possesses the always-in-demand right-handed shot.  But unless he sees a regular shift, he will continue to struggle to find any level of consistency in his play.

Should the Leafs enter next season with 7 defenders on the roster, be it the 7 listed above or a new face or two in the mix, Van Ryn could still be re-signed and sent to the AHL Marlies to work his way back. But this presents its own quandary.  As we are all well-aware, the injury bug has struck the Leafs’ defensive unit on a couple of occasions this season, so the likelihood of a call-up at some point would be high.  However, the Leafs would be subject to losing him on the waiver wire, and beyond that Van Ryn’s presence would take ice away from younger, developing players.

It’s a tricky exercise at best to gauge what exactly the future holds for Mike Van Ryn.  For every plausible comeback scenario, there are a number of concerns and conflicting situations, be it the rate of recovery, the type of contract offered, or simply the roster depth ahead of him.  But to take Brian Burke at his word, should Van Ryn’s recovery continue to progress at the rapid rate that it has, and should he prove he is once again able to play the game, the Maple Leafs would be very interested in exploring options to provide him the opportunity to do so.

So, now I ask you:

What would you do, in terms of the Mike Van Ryn situation, if you were GM for a day?  Would you offer him a contract?  Place him in the minors where he may be subject to waivers?  Create roster space for him, not knowing when the next injury may occur? Or would you thank him for his contributions and pen a letter of reference? And why would you make the decision you do?

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,