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Saturday, June 23, 2012
Change of scenery good for Schenn, JVR

By Scott Burnside

If there is a theme for the 2012 NHL draft, it might well be O Brother, Where Are Thou?

For the second time in three days, a major trade brought two brothers together. In this case, late Saturday afternoon the Philadelphia Flyers bolstered their blue line by adding Luke Schenn from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for power forward James van Riemsdyk.

Schenn will join his younger brother Brayden, who was acquired a year ago at the draft when Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren sent former Philadelphia captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings for a package of players including the younger Schenn.

On Friday night, the hometown Penguins traded center Jordan Staal to Carolina, where he will play with older brother and Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, for a package that included Brandon Sutter, the eighth overall pick and a defensive prospect.

While the Hurricanes-Pens deal was generally considered by hockey people at the draft as a win-win proposition, the Leafs-Flyers trade is an exchange of two former top draft picks who never really evolved into the players their high picks suggested they would become.

Both Luke Schenn and van Riemsdyk had heard their names bandied about in trade talk for several years, including a strong rumor earlier this season they would be dealt for each other.

Now, it has finally happened, and both teams hope the change of scenery will benefit their blue-chip additions.

"I think I’ve told you enough about how strongly I feel about James becoming a good player, and I believe he will become a very good player in our league,” Holmgren said during a hastily arranged conference call before the Flyers’ contingent flew home after the draft. "Unfortunately for us, I think it’s going to be for Toronto now. The guy we got coming back is going to fill needs on our team and is going to be a good young player on our team. So I think it’s a win-win."

"I think both these players have their best hockey in front of them," added Leafs GM Brian Burke.

The Flyers, with captain Chris Pronger’s career in jeopardy thanks to a concussion that cost him the last half of last season, have been looking to get bigger and more mobile on the blue line. They added Nicklas Grossmann from Dallas at the trade deadline and signed him to a contract extension and Schenn looks to be another piece to that puzzle.

"He’s a young guy, he’s a right shot, he’s a big defenseman that plays physical and gritty, and he can move the puck," Holmgren said.

Playing together should also add to the comfort factor for the Schenn brothers, who are just 20 and 22.

"I know they’re very close, so I’ve got to believe it will be a positive thing for Brayden," Holmgren said.

There remains suspicion that the Flyers will be in the hunt for free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter, but Luke Schenn, the fifth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, is an intriguing figure.

"I don’t think anything shuts the door on anything else we may look to do to improve the hockey team," Holmgren added. "We tried to improve our defense over the last few days, we looked for ways to try to improve it, and we think we did today. Obviously, we gave up a good young winger in James, but we believe we got a good young defenseman, same age, back in Luke. As I said earlier, I think it’s a real good trade for both teams."

Certainly one would expect Schenn will get more or different opportunities with Philly than in Toronto, where the team’s depth on the blue line saw Schenn rank seventh in average ice time among all defenders who played at least 45 games last season.

Van Riemsdyk was taken with the second pick overall a year earlier, 2007, and while he has provided shining moments, he has also battled injury that has hampered his evolution as a player.

Last season he played in just 43 regular-season games after suffering a concussion and rib and foot injuries, scoring 11 times, down from the 21 goals he scored in 2010-11. He played in seven postseason games for the Flyers and scored once this spring.

But after his breakout 2010-11 season he was the best Flyers forward with seven goals in 11 games in the 2011 postseason and he signed a six-year contract extension that will pay him $4.25 million annually starting next season.

"He’s a skilled player with size," Burke said. "This is not a plow horse, this is a thoroughbred."

Although Burke noted that van Riemsdyk has played center in the past -- and the Leafs could use more depth down the middle -- he imagined head coach Randy Carlyle will likely use van Riemsdyk as a top-six winger, which would mean some power-play time as well.

Van Riemsdyk, 23, wouldn’t comment on reports that Holmgren told him he wouldn’t be traded before the trade happened.

"That’s between me and Homer," he said. "Homer’s a great man ... I think the world of him."

Van Riemsdyk said he feels he’s become a better person for having gone through the adversity of the injury issues that sidelined him this past season.

"I think I learned a lot this year going through those different injury issues," he said.

Although he admitted there were mixed emotions leaving Philadelphia, the team that drafted him and was close to his hometown, he was looking forward to the challenge.

"To go to a place like Toronto is unbelievably exciting for me," van Riemsdyk said, citing the team’s tradition and fan base. "It’s basically like playing for the New York Yankees of the NHL."

Well, apart from not having won a championship since 1967, perhaps he’s right.