VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Trevor van Riemsdyk was standing by himself in the corner of the visitors’ locker room at Calgary’s Saddledome on Friday morning when it was mentioned to him that it was the one-year anniversary of his knee surgery.
Right on cue, Trevor Daley — the guy whose shot shattered van Riemsdyk’s left kneecap — strolled by, chiming in with a mock-angry, “Yeah, thanks to Daley.”
Van Riemsdyk smiled and laughed. Of course, he did. That’s what he does.
Van Riemsdyk doesn’t dwell on the negative. Doesn’t look too far ahead. Doesn’t dabble in hyperbole, either. The Blackhawks defenseman is a pretty mellow guy — an affable sort who’s living in the present and seems to have a smile permanently etched on his face. Pepper him with your questions and preconceived narratives, and he’ll shrug it all off.
Hey, Trevor, considering you had come out of nowhere to crack the Blackhawks lineup last season, how devastating was the knee injury?
“I don’t know about devastating,” van Riemsdyk said. “But it was definitely tough.”
Hey, Trevor, after breaking your ankle in your last year of college, then breaking your kneecap, then needing wrist surgery just as you were about to return before the playoffs, did you feel cursed?
“I don’t know about cursed,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s something that happens in hockey.”
Hey, Trevor, when Johnny Oduya left for Dallas as a free agent, did you feel like that was your spot to take?
“I don’t know about that,” van Riemsdyk said. “If you start looking too specifically at spots and stuff like that, you might start driving yourself a little nuts.”
Hey, Trevor, now that you’re healthy and coming off an impressive four-week stretch as Duncan Keith’s fill-in on the top pairing and the penalty kill, do you finally feel entrenched in the NHL, a proven commodity?
“I don’t know about entrenched,” van Riemsdyk said. “You never want to feel too comfortable. You always want to prove yourself.”
OK, fine. But here’s what we do know about van Riemsdyk. He’s quickly become a favorite of Joel Quenneville — no easy task for a young defenseman — and has established himself as a versatile, viable No. 4 defenseman behind the Hawks’ big three of Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook.
Van Riemsdyk can play on the right side and be more aggressive offensively, as he did with Hjalmarsson while Keith was out. He can play on the left side and be more of a stay-at-home guy, as he is now with Seabrook. He’s third on the team in shorthanded ice time. He’s even seen a bit of power-play time. And he can carry a heavy load, averaging more than 22 minutes per game since Keith was first hurt.
He’s still technically a rookie. And he still has room to grow, as his struggles in Edmonton and Calgary proved. But if his stint on the top pairing proved anything, it’s that the 24-year-old New Jersey native is now a fixture in the Hawks lineup, a desperately needed stabilizing force on the back end.
“I think he did a good job — important minutes, tough matchup minutes,” Quenneville said. “Real good feel for the game, and I think he should be progressing as we go along here. But the fact that we’re comfortable with him against anybody in any situation is a big step and it’s a good accomplishment.”
The only question that remains is can he stay healthy? Three major injuries in about 15 months rattled even the unflappable van Riemsdyk. The unusual nature of the broken kneecap — as opposed to a more common injury like a ligament tear — had the rookie wondering how long the rehab might be, and if he’d ever feel the same. And the relief he felt when he came back in about four months, feeling great, was tempered immediately by the wrist injury suffered in Rockford in early April.
Maybe he didn’t feel “cursed,” but he certainly was feeling unlucky.
“You start thinking, what’s wrong with me?” van Riemsdyk said. “I need to drink more milk or something.”
Luck changes, though. And a year after surgery to repair the damage done by Daley’s shot, van Riemsdyk is still smiling — he’s healthy, he’s the Hawks’ clear No. 4 defenseman, and he’s a Stanley Cup champion. And he does know about how lucky he actually is.
“It wasn’t the most fun, going through all of that,” he said. “But obviously, with how the year ended, you’d do it all over again.”