If Tony Danza was never able to answer this simple question, then what hope to we have of answering it as fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Take the Leafs’ newfound crowded problem in net as the perfect example: is James Reimer the team’s starter or is it Jonathan Bernier? Both bring comparable stats to the table, but only one of them can claim the top job in Toronto.
Many fans will argue that Reimer has earned the job and I tend to agree with this position. Since making the jump to the NHL, Reimer has displaced three goalies – J. S. Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens – en route to claiming the space between Toronto’s pipes. I must admit that this isn’t exactly the strongest collection of goaltenders, but it’s still somewhat remarkable that a kid from nowhere could come out of nowhere to outplay them.
Reimer’s claim on the top job grows when you consider the team that has played in front of him over the past three seasons. Aside from their surprisingly strong finish this past season (thanks to the help of Reimer), the Leafs have been one of the regular laughing stocks of the NHL for the past eight seasons. No amount of bluster from former general manager Brian Burke could change that fact yet Reimer’s strong play kept the team competitive over part that stretch.
Bernier, on the other hand, has played backup for one of the league’s best teams over the past four seasons without looking any different from Reimer on the stats sheet. That says something significant in itself. (Bernier also couldn’t stand the pressure of playing backup for the Los Angeles Kings – he wanted to play as the team’s starter – so it’s unclear how he’ll respond to the intense media scrutiny of Toronto. My guess is that the media will eat him alive.)
One could argue that Reimer had his chance in 2011-2012, but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to get the job done. This is a fair criticism and health issues have quickly become a reoccurring problem in Reimer’s young career. However, there’s no obvious connection between his injuries other than a sometimes reckless desire to compete, which could also be counted as a strength. Both Reimer’s major head injury during the 2011-2012 season and his major knee injury last season occurred on big plays.
In any event, the proper response to any fears over the status of Reimer’s health would involve securing a reliable backup for the team – someone who could hold down the fort for a short period of time, not someone who’ll challenge Reimer for prime time. There’s no need to spend unnecessary money on another top goaltender in the salary cap era and there’s equally no need to cause further confusion over who’s the top guy in Toronto. It’s Reimer’s time.
Taking these points into consideration, Scrivens was the perfect backup for Reimer and the Leafs whereas Bernier doesn’t quite fit the mold. Problematically, he wants Reimer’s job.
Toronto general manager Dave Nonis has taken plenty of heat over some of his signings this past off-season. He paid a small fortune for the services of David Clarkson, but it’s the trade for Bernier and his subsequent contract extension that really grabs my (critical) attention.
Bernier will make $2.9 million per season over the next two years. This is money that could have been spent on resigning Cody Franson and Nazem Kadri instead – key players who remain without contracts. If the Leafs had opted to keep Kadri and Matt Frattin rather than trading them for Bernier, it would have cost the team only $1 million for next season (both players can hit free agency after the season).
Here you have to consider whether adding Bernier provides any clear advantage over keeping Scrivens. Based on Scrivens’ play last season, I’m inclined to answer in the negative.
None of this should be taken as a knock against Bernier – it’s really a knock against Nonis – as he’s a very capable, young goaltender. He may even emerge as Toronto’s goaltender of the future one day, but this means little to nothing if the same can already be said about Reimer. In the end, only one of the them can fill the net.
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