By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 27) – First, let me be clear in acknowledging the Maple Leafs are okay right now. While banking 13 of 16 points in their past eight games, the team is trending upward in the Eastern Conference and has surged past the suddenly-abysmal Montreal Canadiens for third place in the Atlantic Division – guaranteed playoff territory. By no means is the sky falling.
That said, it seems clear Randy Carlyle is out to demolish any fragment of goaltending stability on the hockey club. Though deploying a pair of netminders is never an exact science, neither is it rocketry. For whatever reason, Carlyle has turned it into some kind of a board-game with dice. “Today’s roll says Jonathan Bernier. Okay, I’ll start him tonight. If tomorrow’s roll says James Reimer, I’ll go with him.”
For old-time baseball fanatics, this is how Billy Martin used to handle a pitching staff. Like Carlyle, Martin won with a loaded roster and by leaning on strategy – in his case, station-to-station baseball with a fleet line-up and insistence on fundamentals. It was called “Billy-Ball.” Had Martin, the manager, not habiltually destroyed every arm in his rotation and bullpen, he may have celebrated more than two World Series titles.
Here in Toronto, we have “Randy-Puck.” It relies on defensive execution and often favors sinew over skill, which is all well and good if you have Chris Pronger maiming opponents at the blue-line rather than Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren dropping mortar-filled gloves. Still, Carlyle has been known to derive maximum effort from his charges – as he did throughout the lockout schedule a year ago. Now, if only someone could make goaltending decisions for him, Maple Leafs might be in the clear.
JETS CAPTAIN ANDREW LADD WATCHES THE PUCK SAIL PAST JAMES REIMER DURING TORONTO-WINNIPEG GAME SATURDAY NIGHT AT MTS CENTRE. REIMER WAS PULLED IN FAVOR OF JONATHAN BERNIER AFTER JETS BUILT A 4-1 LEAD IN THE SECOND PERIOD. LANCE THOMSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
As such, I again implore Carlyle to follow a simple, three-step program:
? Choose a No. 1 goalie.
? Play that No. 1 goalie.
? Stay with the No. 1 goalie… EVEN AFTER A BAD GAME!
Again, this isn’t Wernher von Braun designing the Saturn-V moon rocket. It is basic coaching strategy, especially when it works, as during much of the past fortnight with Bernier. Maple Leafs win six in a row. Bernier – and everyone else wearing blue and white – fills the enema tray in Dallas. Reimer comes on in relief and fills it faster. Why, then, do you not go back to Plan ‘A’ in Winnipeg? Randy Carlyle has a legitimate No. 1 goalie, even if Bernier’s head is spinning right now.
Poor Reimer has to be looking for a doctor and a couch, as Leafs are overtaking all current playoff teams in the mid-game goalie shuffle.
Both of which could provide David Nonis the incentive he needs to begin circulating Reimer’s name before the Mar. 5 National Hockey League trade deadline. Not that the Leafs can’t use Reimer. Problem is, he’ll be devoid of sanity by then. Is he a starter? Is he a back-up? Is he a reliever? Any goalie will tell you that rhythm comes with repetition – either playing regularly or having a clear notion as to when he’ll be called upon (consecutive-night games, for example). If a coach uses a back-up as a starter for no particular reason – ala Carlyle with Reimer in Winnipeg – and then pulls the back-up-cum-starter in the second period, it creates nothing but confusion. For the starter and the back-up.
Reimer could be somewhat in limbo – too proficient a goalie to be sitting on the bench; not quite good enough to usurp the No. 1 ranking on his current team. Without question, and like many of his ilk, Optimus Reim is not nearly as effective when playing sporadically. When he’s in and out of the net on a yo-yo string, matters become more complicated.
Moreover, this is a contract year for Reimer, who obviously wants to improve on his $1.6-million salary as a restricted free agent in July. By deploying him so chaotically, Carlyle isn’t giving Reimer much of a chance. It is not a situation that will benefit Reimer – or the Leafs – much longer. And that’s why it’ll be no big surprise, here, if the native of Morweena, Manitoba is wearing a rival NHL jersey after Mar. 5.
All he has to do is keep his marbles until then.
OTHER STUFF: The more I watch Dustin Byfuglien of Winnipeg, the more I envision him a Carlyle prototype. I maintain that a Reimer-for-Byfuglien swap (with other variables) could make sense at the deadline, providing the Jets lose a game or two beforehand… Speaking only for myself, I’m enjoying the glut of NHL outdoor games as the league – under Gary Bettman – continues to market itself more aggressively. And, I agree with my ol’ pal Glenn Healy of Hockey Night In Canada, who suggested on Sunday that all 30 teams will ultimately engage in these events at least once per season… If somewhat hurried and signing autographs in a crowd of well-wishers, who would you rather be: Australian Open tennis champion Li Na or Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, chief medical examiner of Los Angeles during the O.J. Simpson murder trial?… Always enjoy listening to Bob Cole call a Leafs game, as he did from the MTS Centre on Saturday. And, Cole’s regular partner – former NHL defenseman Garry Galley – has evolved into a terrific analyst. I’ll be surprised if the incoming Rogers conglomerate doesn’t retain him… Speaking of Cole, he and I had a conversation at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale AZ last year. “Howard, why do so many people mis-pronounce the names of Jonas Gustavsson and Carl Gunnarsson?” Bob asked me. A good question, indeed. For as long as Swedish players have been in the NHL, TV and radio folk up here have Canadian-ized them. For example, the current Leafs’ defenseman is widely known as “Guhnnarsson,” with a soft-u. In fact, his surname is “Gewnnarsson,” with more of a hard-u accent. Same with “Guhstavsson” and “Gewstavsson – the ex-Leaf and current Detroit goalie.” Cole, if you listen, pronounces the names correctly… Detroit Red Wings are 9-11-8 at home after 28 games. In the 11 seasons between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, the Wings never lost more than 10 of 41 home dates… Yes, hockey has changed through the years. I cannot envision – for the life of me – Rocket Richard on a fly-by… Not sure what has happened to the Canadiens but Don Cherry is correct: Habs have gone into the toilet since P.K. Subban’s logo-massage a couple of weeks ago against Ottawa. That said, I’ve got a hunch Subban will be among the most valuable components of Team Canada at the up-coming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi… News you can’t use: On this date in 1971 (Jan. 27), the expansion Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings played to a 3-3 tie at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Thought you might want to know.
BOB COLE (SEATED) AND GARRY GALLEY CALL THE MAPLE LEAFS-JETS GAME SATURDAY NIGHT FROM THE MTS CENTRE IN WINNIPEG.
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