Just because home is California doesn’t mean San Jose Sharks centre Joe Pavelski doesn’t know what he’s getting into with his two Team USA linemates.
“I get to see the highlights,” Pavelski said when discussing his new union with Toronto Maple Leafs linemates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. “Obviously, Toronto is on there quite a bit — a little bit more than a lot of other teams.”
Pavelski can joke about it because he knows he’s walking into one of the red-hot line combos in the NHL. Kessel to van Riemsdyk has been a potent combination for the Leafs and with high-end skill on one side and big-body presence on the other, what centre wouldn’t want to hop into the middle of that?
But Pavelski can take it a step further. He played alongside Kessel on the silver-winning team in Vancouver four years ago and, like most players around the league, is well aware of the continued improvement No. 81 has made.
“In four years, he’s learned his way around the league even more,” Pavelski said. “He’s gone through some really hot streaks in that time. A team can rely on him pretty heavily.”
Safe to say that Team USA coach Dan Bylsma will be doing just that. While there’s no guarantee the three will stick together, the trio was informed weeks ago of the plans. And on paper, anyway, JVR-Pavelski-Kessel shapes up as perhaps the most potent offensive threesome at the coach’s disposal.
The key, of course, is Kessel. When the Wisconsin native starts flying around the international-sized ice here, he could look even more dynamic than he has while emerging as one of the NHL’s most consistent scorers this season in Toronto.
With 31 goals and 34 assists, he is fourth in league scoring and tops among his red-white-and-blue teammates in the Olympic tournament.
“Almost all of the hockey world knows what he can do,” said van Riemsdyk, who has benefitted from the association by scoring 24 goals of his own. “He’s a game-breaker. He does a lot of things out there that a lot of other guys can’t do.
“I’m sure it will be fun for people to see how he goes. His skating ability. His shot. He’s a very underrated passer. He can change a game and he’s a special player.”
It had to be a difficult day for all of the U.S. players who, like the Canadians, arrived from their long journey and fought hard to stay awake just long enough to practise at 9 p.m., Russia time.
Bylsma put them through a brisk hour-long workout, too, in part to help negate the jet lag and in part out of necessity given the team will have only three practices before the tournament begins.
“It’s good to get a good sweat in and get the legs going a little bit,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’m sure we’ll feel good tomorrow after doing this.”
Kessel gave his thumbs-up on the line and seemed anxious to improve on his performance from four years ago in Vancouver, where he wasn’t exactly a key piece of then-coach Ron Wilson’s game plan.
“Hopefully, I’ll just play well and go out there and do what I can to help the team win,” a relaxed-sounding Kessel said Monday night. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s a short tournament.”
Van Riemsdyk was relaxed as well and couldn’t resist taking a playful jab at the guy who Pavelski will replace in this tournament, the Leafs’ regular No. 1 centre, Tyler Bozak. Kessel will be van Riemsdyk’s roommate in Russia, replacing Bozak in that department, as well.
“I’ll have to text him, send him photos,” van Riemsdyk said. “Make sure he doesn’t miss him too much.”
JVR PEAKING AT RIGHT TIME
James van Riemsdyk sure picked a good time to embark on a career year.
The Maple Leafs winger was no sure thing to make coach Dan Bylsma’s U.S. Olympic squad when he was invited to the team’s orientation camp in Washington in late August.
But a quick start with the Leafs made him an obvious choice and a part of what could be the top offensive line for the Americans in this tournament.
“I was by no means a lock to make the team in the summer and I just wanted to have a good start to my year and hopefully put myself in position,” said van Riemsdyk, who has 24 goals and 23 assists in 58 games. “I knew nothing was going to be guaranteed. I just wanted to play well enough to make this team.
“It was a big goal of mine. I’m very excited about the opportunity to be over here and now we’ve got a team goal to accomplish.”