Back in 2007, there was a debate as to who the Chicago Blackhawks should select with their first overall draft choice. On the one hand, there was a small, skinny undersized American who was piling up points with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. On the other hand, there was the big power forward that looked great with the U.S. National under-18 team. Both were viewed as “can’t miss prospects.” And three years later, both players are proving the scouts right.
Patrick Kane’s meteoric rise to stardom is pretty straight-forward. He played with the United States Developmental Program for a few years until he moved to the OHL a year before his draft year. During his single year in juniors, Kane played alongside fellow blue-chip prospect Sam Gagner and put up astronomical numbers. In 58 games, he had 62 goals and 83 assists for 145 points. When Chicago picked him #1 overall, no one thought twice about their decision. When he entered the league as an 18-year-old and scored 72 points in his freshman campaign, it seemed pre-ordained.
Kane’s first year was only the beginning of his charmed NHL life. Following his Calder Trophy year, his team started to experience the same levels of success that he’d experienced individually. As part of the rebuilding project in the Windy City, the Blackhawks had assembled a stable of young forwards and defensemen that were the envy of the entire league. They were able to make it to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, only to fall to the more experienced (and defending Stanley Cup champion) Detroit Red Wings.
Kane scored a very respectable 14 points in 16 playoff games in 2009. But like his teammates, he learned some valuable lessons about raising the bar when the games meant the most. In 2010, the Blackhawks had matured into an elite team while finishing 2nd in the Western Conference with 112 points. Any thoughts that they’d fall short were quickly erased when they swept through San Jose and beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games. And wouldn’t you know it; it would be Patrick Kane who would score that Cup winning OT goal in Game 6. Pre-ordained.
On the other side of that Cup winning goal was the man who went #2 overall in that 2007 draft. While Kane was celebrating his triumph, James van Riemsdyk was sitting on the Flyers bench at the end of a very different journey to the NHL.
While Kane had jumped on the fast track to the NHL, van Riemsdyk took a much more traditional route to the best league in the world. After the draft, the New Jersey native decided it would be best to head to Hockey East and the University of New Hampshire to continue his development. In his own words:
“In the NHL you must be able to play at both ends of the ice to really become an elite player in the League and that’s one area I really want to work on and keep getting better at so that I’m not considered a letdown in my own end. Once I take care of my own end, I can have some fun on offense.”
At UNH, van Riemsdyk showed the talent that made him the #2 pick. In 2007, he earned MVP honors at the U17 tournament. In 2008, he represented the United States and was the tournament’s leading scorer at the World Junior Championships. By any measure, he was a successful prospect that was showing the development and potential that any team would salivate over. As long as he wasn’t compared to Kane.
“We were both put in different situations and we were in different stages of our hockey development, and I did what I thought was best for me to be a better player.”
Even though Flyers fans and management expected him to start the 2009-10 season with the Philadelphia Phantoms, he was so impressive in training camp that he earned a spot on the opening day roster. Some people will argue that he made the jump too soon, and some people will argue that he needed to learn lessons in the NHL to become the player the Flyers hoped he’d be one day. He would show positive signs like when he won Rookie of the Month in November, but then he went through a few months that so many rookies deal with. 82 games is a long season—especially for a guy who was used to playing 30+ games each season.
This season, van Riemsdyk has almost as many goals as he did last season—in 26 fewer games. A 20 goal, 40 point season certainly isn’t out of the question for the 21-year-old. That’s right. He’s still only 21-years-old. He’s only going to get bigger and stronger—two key qualities for a power forward in the NHL. And considering the two-way game he’s already learned, he looks like he’s blossoming into the player everyone thought he’d be.
It’ll be great to see both players do their thing on Hockey Day in America. It’s no secret that Patrick Kane (and his mouth guard) will be the center of attention when Chicago takes the ice. But with each passing day, van Riemsdyk is proving that he can handle more and more responsibility. Regardless of their paths to the NHL and the differences in their play, they are both bright spots of hockey’s future and will shine for years to come.