By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 16) – Let me begin by asserting, once again, that I believe Jonathan Bernier will soon evolve into the undisputed No. 1 goalie with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was obtained by general manager David Nonis for that express purpose and has demonstrated such capacity early in the season.
Allow me to also assert – as I did throughout the abbreviated schedule last year – that James Reimer, too, can be a No. 1 goalie in the National Hockey League. It is an overwhelming matter of record, however, that contending teams virtually never deploy a pair of goalies. Though exceptions occur, clubs that divide goaltending chores are compelled to do so because neither man is flourishing. If such a circumstance develops with the Maple Leafs, I can almost assure fans of the team that disappointment will soon follow an impressive leap from the gate.
As of this writing, however, the Leafs are in a wonderful position (6-1-0 after seven games) and ultimately – pending injury – may have an unrivaled trading chip. When to utilize such an asset will be determined by how Leafs are faring later in the season, and whether or not my presage of Bernier grabbing the No. 1 role comes to pass. Reimer would certainly be a goaltending upgrade for any number of teams – not the least of which, Edmonton, is wasting precious, young talent up front.
But, not yet.
It is way too early in the schedule to consider trading a goalie that can start for a rival team. Particularly when you factor in the way Leafs have been garnering points: Playing generally poor hockey in most areas of the ice; getting widely out-shot (again), and relying far too heavily on gymnastics from Bernier and Reimer. We’ve seen it before. Until Randy Carlyle induces some defensive wisdom from his team – and assuming it happens at all – Leafs are categorically bound to both their netminders, lest one is shelved by injury for any length of time. Only when a much higher standard of performance is achieved – and generally maintained – can Nonis think about peddling either of his stoppers.
JAMES REIMER PROVED HIS WORTH BY HEISTING TWO POINTS FROM THE MINNESOTA WILD TUESDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE, AS LEAFS WERE SEVERELY OUT-PLAYED. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
On the flip side, it could be tempting for a club like Edmonton to act more hastily. Oilers have already burrowed into a 1-5-1 crevice while yielding a league-high 32 goals (4.57 per game). Such arithmetic, should it continue, will threaten jobs beyond the coaching level. As we know, Edmonton has assembled a core of young phenoms by virtue of its perennial rank near the bottom of the standings. Never again is a team likely to pick first overall in three consecutive NHL drafts, as did the Oilers, beginning in 2010, with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner were first-round picks in previous years. Among the aforementioned, only Yakupov has yet to be secured with a long-term deal. This enviable youth is being squandered in the absence of reliable goaltending. Neither Devan Dubnyk nor Jason Labarbera is likely to provide such assurance.
The notion, therefore, of acquiring Reimer must be appealing to Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson; even more-so to first-year coach, Dallas Eakins, who is particularly hand-cuffed. The Leafs, however, cannot bite this early in the season, and – as mentioned – not at all until some form of defensive acumen is attained. Even if the Oilers were to offer Yakupov in a one-off exchange for Reimer, Dave Nonis would be gambling mightily. Though Yakupov is a tantalizing prospect, Leafs are hardly shy of premier talent up front – with Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk providing a rock-solid nucleus. The addition of Yakupov would mean nothing if Reimer were gone and Bernier were to suffer a debilitating injury.
At some point, if Leafs are playing more thoroughly and Bernier develops as I suspect he will, trading Reimer could make sense. Professional sport is replete with irreplaceable commodity; we all understand, for example, that New Jersey Devils would not have won the Stanley Cup in any year that Martin Brodeur was on the shelf. In the National Football League, the absence of front-line quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees or Andrew Luck would spell disaster for the top teams this season. So, big time sport, by its very nature, is a figurative roll of the dice.
But, that doesn’t allow for carelessness. And, Leafs – playing as loosely as they are – would be whistling past the graveyard by trading Reimer.
It is occasionally a challenge for all of us to recognize – in mid-October – that the NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint.
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