James Reimer made his second straight appearance for the Toronto Maple Leafs yesterday, stopping 29 of 32 shots sent his was by the Washington Capitals.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to win the game. Washington was able to ride a three-goal first period despite a strong finish by the Leafs. The team in general deserves blame for the loss and here Reimer’s no exception.
Reimer was giving out rebounds like candy on Halloween and the Capitals greedily accepted the treats in place of performing tricks. By the time Reimer and the Leafs finally got into the game, it was already over. Reimer definitely kept things close in the dying minutes of the game, but those big saves were needed in the opening frame where they could have really made a difference.
“Why am I talking about Reimer?” you may be thinking to yourself right now. After all, he’s the backup in Toronto these days. Jonathan Bernier has won the starting duties, and in Bernier’s hands, the Leafs are a much better team.
The stats might belie this argument. Reimer and Bernier held comparable numbers for the first part of the season – a situation that applied to their career stats as well – until Reimer began tanking in early December. Nonetheless, it’s hard to say if this drop in play rests on his shoulders alone or if the blame should be shared. Keep in mind that head coach Randy Carlyle had already written Reimer off by this point notwithstanding his strong play and no one likes playing rusty.
In any case, it’s generally accepted as true that Bernier’s the better netminder. This helps to explain why Carlyle has repeatedly called upon Bernier to carry the burden in net despite some inconsistent play of his own lately.
This arrangement, while arguably unfair from the perspective of Reimer, worked well enough for the team to see them rocket up the Eastern Conference standings. Toronto enjoys the rare luxury of possessing two good goaltenders – one favoured by the coaching staff, the other favoured by the fans – who can get them out of many jams.
At least, that’s how things worked up until last week. Bernier has been sidelined over the past week due to a minor injury. This has suddenly thrown Reimer back into the limelight – a position he hasn’t held since last season’s brutal meltdown in the playoffs against the Boston Bruins.
Under these circumstances, Reimer will likely make his third straight appearance (and second consecutive start) on Tuesday when the Leafs visit the Detroit Red Wings. It’s hard to estimate the importance of this game for Reimer because it appears that his fate has already been sealed: he’ll probably return to the bench when Bernier’s health returns.
Talking about the immediate future, at least, this seems like a fair assessment. Nevertheless, things may get complicated over the long-term if Reimer takes advantage of his current opportunity and really starts to shine again. A solid stretch of play might force Carlyle to revisit his preference for Bernier, but it could also conceivably affect Reimer’s status as a restricted free agent this summer.
Assuming he plays poorly, the Leafs may consider pursuing a veteran upgrade in the off-season over retaining Reimer’s services. At the same time, they might opt to keep him on the cheap (the Leafs don’t have much salary cap space to maneuver).
If he plays well, however, Reimer may suddenly prove too expensive for the Leafs to keep. Other teams might show greater interest in him and he may even be inclined to seek a starter’s job somewhere else. Reimer has professed a desire to remain in Toronto, but that was likely assuming the starter’s job was his to lose.
For Leafs fans, the loss of Reimer will probably hurt more on an emotional level than anything else. Since joining the team in 2010-2011, he has been one of Leafs Nation’s favourite players. Hence, from the selfish perspective of the fans, the best case scenario would see Reimer put up decent, not spectacular, numbers right now – numbers good enough to win, but weak enough to keep any prying eyes and hands away.
Having said that, it would be nice to see Reimer shine and once again get the credit that he deserves. Whether that credit ultimately pays out in Toronto or somewhere else, he should be the one who ultimately benefits.
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