TORONTO (Nov. 14) — We can say this much for James Reimer: He is the only puck–stopper the Toronto Maple Leafs have deployed in the post–2005 lockout era to provide the team a stretch of dependable work. Literally, the lone netminder since Ed Belfour in 2003–04 that has carried the Leafs on his back. And, he’s done it twice — between January and March 2011, during his first extended appearance in the National Hockey League; then again for much of the lockout–shortened season and playoffs of January to May 2013.
His streaks have been un–matched by any of the stoppers in the past decade: Mikael Tellqvist, Jean–Sebastien Aubin, Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Scott Clemmensen, Martin Gerber, Curtis Joseph, Justin Pogge, Jean–Sebastien Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson, Joey MacDonald, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Drew McIntyre and Jonathan Bernier. Aubin turned in a nifty couple of weeks at the end of the ’05–06 season, but long after the Leafs had been scratched from playoff contention. Raycroft tied a team–record with 37 wins in 2006–07, but also lost 25 games. Cujo came back at the end of his career. Toskala, Pogge and Gustavsson — all advertised by the Leafs as the answer to their goaltending conundrum — were flat–out busts. Bernier had a terrific stretch from mid–January to early–March in 2014, but then folded with the rest of the team.
There are indications over the past week that Reimer could be adding a third juncture of reliability to his Toronto resume. In the injury–absence of Bernier — the de facto No. 1 goalie — he has started six consecutive games and compiled a record of 3–1–2. One regulation–time loss in six games is a miraculous achievement for this talent–starved Leafs team; every bit the equivalent of that 10–1–1 mirage from last November and December. Mike Babcock will ride his hot hand against Vancouver tonight at the Air Canada Centre. And, quite possibly, tomorrow in New York, if Reimer is able to defeat the Canucks and extend Toronto’s win streak to three. Beyond this weekend, however, the concrete definition of a No. 1 goalie remains open to question — that being whether Babcock honestly believes he possesses such a commodity.
The true test, of course, will be after Reimer has a bad game. If it occurs tonight against Sedin, Sedin and Co., Babcock has a built–in alibi — consecutive–night games — to use Bernier at Madison Square Garden (where he twice shone in 2013–14). That may already be the plan, regardless of the Vancouver outcome, given Leafs are in the midst of three games in four nights, having prevailed in Nashville on Thursday. Otherwise, a categorical No. 1 goalie is provided ample rope. If Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Corey Crawford, Tuukka Rask or Ben Bishop has an off night, he nearly always draws the next assignment. Here in Toronto — for as long as most can remember — it’s been “win–and–you’re–in” or “lose–and–you’re–news.”
Perhaps that will change with Reimer — for a third time.
The Manitoba native has shown the mental toughness to stick it out in the NHL. The previous Toronto administration — general manager David Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle — all but waved the towel on Reimer after the now–legendary collapse against Boston in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs. It mattered not that Reimer had won a couple of matches in that series by himself; or that he’d compiled a 19–8–5 record, 2.46 goals–against average and .924 save percentage during the lockout–abbreviated schedule. Nonis traded with Los Angeles for Bernier and anointed him Reimer’s successor. Case pretty much closed.
Coincidentally, it is a lack of mental toughness that has prevented Bernier from seizing the No. 1 role. He has all the skill required for the job, but not the emotional composition. At least, not yet. As with Reimer in the summer of 2013, Bernier endured a difficult off–season prior to the current schedule. Nonis had been fired, and the Leafs elected to haul Bernier into the salary–arbitration process. It resulted in a nominal raise over two years but did not inspire confidence. Bernier started this season wobbly; his plague — allowing a soft, early goal — shattering any opportunity to ensconce himself behind a mediocre team.
Then came a “lower–body” injury and the opening for Reimer.
JONATHAN BERNIER PERFORMED EXCEPTIONALLY WELL IN A 3–1 LOSS AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, OCT. 30, AND EARNED THE START AGAINST PITTSBURGH AT HOME THE FOLLOWING NIGHT. HE WAS SHAKY AGAINST THE PENGUINS IN A 4–0 DEFEAT AND SUSTAINED A LOWER–BODY INJURY. REIMER HAS SINCE PLAYED EVERY MINUTE IN GOAL FOR THE BLUE AND WHITE. JARED SILBER GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
So, the question remains: Does Babcock truly believe he has a No. 1 stopper and will Reimer be accorded such privilege on the heels of a sub–par performance?
My suspicion? It is still “win–and–you’re in” — “lose–and–you’re–news” in Leaf land.
But, let’s wait and see.