There are plenty of burning questions left with this Toronto Maple Leafs roster.
They need another centre. They need more scoring depth. They may still yet change their blueline even further by moving Cody Franson.
And they need to figure out what exactly to do with James Reimer and their backup goalie situation.
There have been rumours the past few weeks that the netminder was going to request a trade, but there has been nothing publicly on that front from either side. Instead, Leafs GM Dave Nonis met with the media on July 1 and made it sound like they intend to keep him – in part because the goalie market is so shallow that they’d have to essentially give him away.
“If there’s a deal there that makes sense for us, then we would look to do it,” Nonis explained. “If not, then James is a good goalie. He’s not far removed from having some spectacular numbers. Did he struggle at times last year? He did. He was also very good at times.
“If there’s not a deal there that makes sense, then James would be back in Toronto. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about that. I don’t. If he’s back here, he’s a good person, he’s well-liked by his teammates and I think he’s a quality goaltender.”
By the numbers, Reimer has been good enough in Toronto to warrant being a starter somewhere. The last four seasons, averaging 35 games a year, he has posted a .914 save percentage, which is tied for 24th among regular starters.
It’s on par with Jonas Hiller, Corey Crawford, Cam Ward, Jimmy Howard, and it’s better than a whole host of others, putting him in that top 30 group of goalies who at the very least should be in an equal tandem somewhere.
And, minus Reimer’s injury-plagued second season, his save percentage is a little more than .918, which is well above the average.
(Leafs starter Jonathan Bernier, by comparison, had a .922 save percentage last year and is .918 on his career.)
The problem for Reimer is he’s very clearly the No. 2 guy in Toronto, and he’s a restricted free agent, meaning his leverage is limited. He will turn down his qualifying offer of $1.6-million, but he did receive one, so the Leafs retain his rights and need to negotiate a deal. It’s possible they even have to go the arbitration route, where Reimer’s likely to be awarded more than $2-million, which the Leafs will not be able to walk away from.
At this point, the best case scenario from his perspective may be that he comes to camp, plays well and another team has an opening due to an injury or poor performance in October and November.
The only opening around the league right now after a wild first day in free agency – where 11 NHL-calibre goalies signed mostly to be backups – is with the Winnipeg Jets alongside Ondrej Pavelec, but they’re a budget-conscious team and have a promising prospect in Mike Hutchinson to consider.
That puts the Leafs and Reimer in a position where they may have to resolve their differences.
It’s no secret that the netminder and Randy Carlyle have had their run-ins – including a couple early yanks from the net and the now infamous “he was just okay” incident during the team’s late-season tailspin when Bernier was hurt – but Nonis attempted on Tuesday to smooth that over by playing down the whole thing.
He doesn’t believe there's an issue between coach and player.
“I don’t see why this coach thing comes up with all these players,” Nonis said. “I don’t know what the coach did wrong with James Reimer. Except for one time say ‘I thought he was okay tonight.’ In most other cities that’s not a big deal, but here it’s huge.
“James was very good for a large part of the season. He didn’t have a completely horrendous season; he had stretches where he wasn’t as good as before and he had stretches where he was excellent. He’s a quality goaltender. For that reason, we’re not in a position to let a guy who could end up being a starter somewhere else just walk out the door.”
Given Bernier’s going to be coming off a pretty major groin injury that required surgery, that’s the smart move, too.
Part of what put the Leafs in the position they were late in the year is they overworked Bernier in his first full season as a starter, playing so poorly defensively that he had to stop a ridiculous number of shots to keep them competitive as long as they were.
Carlyle then became reluctant to play Reimer because they needed heroics every single game, putting even more pressure on Bernier to the point that he even tried to play through the injury before further aggravating it.
If Reimer can be coaxed back into the fold, the best decision the Leafs could make would be to split the starts more evenly, especially given they have one of the league’s highest number of back-to-backs (18) on their upcoming schedule. When Bernier went down to injury last year, he was on pace to appear in more than 60 of 82 games and had faced a ridiculous 34.9 shots per 60 minutes of play, the highest rate of any goalie to play more than 36 games.
If not for the injury, he would have easily finished second in the NHL in saves made and shots faced, behind only Semyon Varlamov, who somehow survived a similar barrage in Colorado and nearly won the Vezina for it.
That’s too much for anyone, let alone a young goalie coming back from surgery.
The reality is the Leafs likely need a decent backup capable of starting at least 30 games next season, and given what’s available, Reimer is the best of their options.
As long as he’s willing to stay.