When Jonathan Bernier arrived in Toronto last summer, it was a matter of when, not if, he would become the starter for the Maple Leafs.
And Bernier has earned it by managing to maintain numbers that rank him among the league’s best stoppers. He’s been the defensively deficient team’s 1A or 1B MVP (tough call between the goalie and Phil Kessel).
In the meantime, James Reimer has been, predictably, relegated to a backup role. He steps in when the Leafs have games on back-to-back nights and when Bernier needs a rest or is injured. None of Reimer’s numbers have been as good as last year when he brought the Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout ended. Perhaps this is why he’s been given the bum’s rush for most of the season from a certain, seemingly growing, segment.
But you know what? Reimer has been an excellent backup for the Maple Leafs. If the pending RFA does depart this summer, which seems to be the next inevitable step in this process, who exactly should the Leafs be replacing him with that would fill the role as effectively, or better? And how do they go about acquiring that player?
The fact is, Reimer’s .913 save percentage – the best way to measure a goalie – ranks 24th league-wide among those who’ve played enough to qualify and he’s achieved it on a team with the worst shots-against per game average by a mile. This is not insignificant. Only three backups have a better SP than Reimer: Brian Elliott (.916), who plays behind the stingiest defense in the NHL, Anton Khudobin (.928), effectively a starter in Cam Ward’s absence, and Ben Scrivens (.931), who has become a starter in Edmonton. You could put Josh Harding (.933) in here, but he was effectively Minnesota’s starter when he was playing.
The Red wings beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 Tuesday night on the strength of two breakaway goals and one off a 2-on-1. Somehow, this loss put focus on the goalie instead of the defense that has been a problem area all season long. Coach Randy Carlyle didn’t do his goalie any favors when he told the media after the game that Reimer played “OK.” He didn’t indict him either, but in a city where you have to watch every word you utter about its hockey team and where every comment will be over-analyzed, this one instigated a sports talk radio firestorm.
Reimer’s agent reacted over Twitter not to Carlyle’s comments, apparently, but to the overall knee-jerk reaction to pile on the backup goalie for a loss and gloss over the bigger problem area.
As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game you blame your goalie.
— Ray Petkau (@RayPetkau) March 19, 2014
While Ray Petkau backed away a little from this comment, he’s not wrong. For the first time since probably Ed Belfour, the Maple Leafs and their fans have been spoiled with good goaltending. So much so that this, the 2-on-1 game-winner from Daniel Alfredsson, has been a focal point of the Reimer vitriol the day after.
This, of course, is utterly ridiculous. I’d be less concerned with Reimer on this one and more concerned, again, by the defensive decision. What is Jake Gardiner doing pinching on this play?
Toronto’s blueline does few favors for its goaltending, but its goaltending constantly bails them out. Bernier has been more efficient at it than Reimer this year, which is why he gets the lion’s share of starts. This does not mean Reimer has been poor at his job. He’s been perfectly capable and effective in the backup role.
The Leafs haven’t won a Cup since 1967 and have struggled to find their way in the salary-capped NHL. This has been due to questionable or absurd personnel decisions over the years, some of which have been brought on by creating controversies and problems where there aren’t any and driving out productive players.
This is what’s happening right now. The Maple Leafs should be content to move forward with Bernier as the starter and Reimer as the backup, at least until the latter has the leverage of UFA status to seek out a better position. If you trade Reimer, you sure aren’t going to get value in return on a weak goalie market.
Reimer has not been a problem for the Leafs – just last year he played a major role in bringing the franchise back into the post-season. You’d think that would be a guy you’d be happy to have step in for an injured starter. As my colleague Matt Larkin wrote, Bernier’s injury at this crucial stage on the schedule is actually a great reminder of why the Leafs were smart to keep Reimer at the trade deadline.
But this is Toronto, where patience is short and droughts are long.
The two go hand in hand.