When Sidney Crosby’s Penguins match up against a backup goaltender, you’d be wise placing your wagers on No. 87’s club. But when the backup isn’t truly a backup, it’s a different story. James Reimer has played second fiddle to Jonathan Bernier this year, but the separation between the two stoppers is slim. Not to say GMs around the league don’t recognize the competitive value of having a No. 2 with the skill level of a No. 1 between the pipes, but as James Reimer demonstrated tonight, having a second goaltender with big-game ability has its clear advantages.
Reimer was sensational against the Penguins on Saturday night. As the Leafs withstood the Pens’ artillery in the second period, allowing 16 shots and mustering only four themselves, Reimer stopped every shot he faced in the frame, and the game remained deadlocked. It was an onslaught that would have caused many backups in the league to buckle. But Reimer faced it formidably, performing as he did last season when he led the Leafs to fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Having endured the second period siege, Toronto scored all three goals in the final frame and left with the W. Suppose former backup Ben Scrivens were in goal, or Jason LaBarbera, or one of many backups who don’t inspire confidence from their own teams. Likely, one of Pittsburgh’s 16 shots would have beaten a lesser goaltender, and perhaps two points would have been awarded the other way. And just two points, as we see year after year, can mean everything to a team in the last week of the season.
Looking around the league, the fortunes of many teams are tightly tethered to their No. 1 goaltender playing a ton and staying healthy. The Predators are such a team, and they find themselves relying on unproven backup Carter Hutton in the wake of a significant injury to Pekka Rinne. Preds GM David Poile used up $10.85 million in cap space this summer to bring in Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen and Matt Hendricks. Perhaps he should have used some of that cash to upgrade between the pipes. (Maybe part of the $3 million spent on Stalberg, who’s been a healthy scratch lately.) Teams overpay for third-line players every year. Why is that more acceptable than paying a bit more for a player who’ll certainly play 60 minutes a handful of times?
Of course, there are reasons all 30 teams don’t have two goalies of No. 1 caliber. There aren’t 60 goaltenders in the world good enough to be true No. 1’s in the NHL. There aren’t even 30. Then there’s the issue of ego and the unwillingness of most goaltenders to share the net equally. The Canucks were better with both Schneider and Luongo, but neither would accept the tandem scenario in the long term.
Given the lack of goalie talent available and the difficulty in making a 1A/1B system work in the long run, Leafs management should cherish the situation they have in goal, because contracts or egos may eventually create tension that will necessitate one of their goaltenders be moved. But until that day comes, the Leafs and those other clubs with high quality No. 2’s (Anaheim, Ottawa, St. Louis, Minnesota) should enjoy the benefits. The competitive advantage, as we saw Saturday night, is undeniable.