Those with short memories have apparently forgotten the Grand Canyon level void James Reimer filled when he first arrived on the scene.
The fourth stringer in the minors, he was called up by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the middle of another lost season, and he immediately went on an unexpected tear.
It came right at a low point for the franchise, too. The year before, the Leafs had finished second last in the NHL and given up the second overall pick to a division rival, a collapse largely fuelled by brutal goaltending, which had become the team’s trademark.
Andrew Raycroft. Vesa Toskala. J-S Aubin. Justin Pogge. Jonas Gustavsson.
And on and on.
By the time Reimer got his first start, on New Year’s Day back in 2011, the Leafs were well on their way to another basket case season, sitting third last in the NHL and allowing three goals a night like clockwork.
That they ended up in an unlikely playoff race that fell a few wins short was largely due to the kid from tiny Morweena, Man., who had a 20-10-5 record and the 11th best save percentage in the league among regular starters.
His style wasn’t textbook – and was certainly picked apart by pundits – but he stopped the puck, more so than more heralded goalies like Corey Crawford and Semyon Varlamov (and dozens of others) over his first three years in the league.
And the .914 save percentage Reimer has posted in the first 135 games of his career speaks to the fact he should get a long look as a No. 1 next season.
These days, Reimer’s track record with the Leafs is considered ancient history, as this is a what-have-you-done-for-me lately league.
And the lately has been pretty ugly.
There’s no question Reimer has had a tough season and an especially awful stretch this past week when the Leafs badly need the saves. He’s deserved to be the backup, there’s no doubt, especially given the remarkable year Jonathan Bernier has had.
What he doesn’t deserve is to be the end-of-season scapegoat for a team that has failed in so many fundamental ways that have nothing to do with his play.
Make no mistake, the Leafs are in enormous trouble right now. Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils was their fifth consecutive game and sixth in the last seven without a single point, a stretch that has allowed all of the teams that were chasing them in the Eastern Conference to catch up.
With only nine games left in their season, Toronto now likely needs a significant run to make the playoffs – 6-3-0 or 5-2-2 should do it and something like 5-3-1 has a shot – a position that was almost unthinkable three weeks ago when they came out of the Olympic break with a seven-point cushion over ninth place.
That’s now down to a single point.
The heat on Reimer will only increase after Sunday’s loss, too, as he was bad enough that he was pulled after three goals in the game’s opening 22 minutes, although – as they tend to be with this team – two of the markers came on odd-man rushes as the Devils outplayed Toronto early.
After building a surprisingly good record all season on shootout wins and great goaltending, the Leafs are getting neither right now.
“We weren’t helping him too much these last few games,” centre Tyler Bozak said of his goaltender during the second intermission.
No, they weren’t. But that hasn’t stopped a good portion of the Leafs fan base from turning sharply on Reimer, including an especially seedy sort that have taken to directing obscene insults at his wife, April, on social media the past two days.
The reality in all this is that this Leafs team has been playing on a knife’s edge all season, allowing a historically high number of shots and leaning on Bernier to clean up the mess that systemic issues create in front of him.
That he was able to do so for 44 games before going down with a groin injury was the main thing saving this team from contention for a pick in the draft lottery.
That Reimer hasn’t been able to do the same – after a half season of pulling it off a year ago – speaks as much to the variance in goalies’ play in small samples as the difference between the two Leafs backstops.
Bernier may be a better goaltender, but asking him to keep this up, long term, is asking too much.
Expecting to rely on unbelievable goaltending, year after year, game after game, isn’t generally a viable strategy in the NHL. Short of Dominik Hasek in his heyday, no goalie can sustain the kind of insane save percentages this team needs to win games.
So blame Reimer for faltering in a few key games if you like. But don’t be surprised if whoever fills his jersey next year – or even Bernier – similarly struggles down the road, unless other changes are made to how the team plays in front of them.
It’s always easy to blame the goalie. The tough part is going to be fixing everything else.
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