There are thin pickings in terms of positives for the Toronto Maple Leafs right now.
The offence has dried up again, with the power play looking disjointed and ill at ease. The defence has been just a little sleepy, especially early in games like tonight’s 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto’s sixth defeat in its last seven games.
And other than a 22-year-old rookie who was making his seventh NHL start, there are as many questions in goal as ever.
It’s a real mess, all told, although that’s nothing new. Just what to do with netminder James Reimer the rest of the way, meanwhile, has become one of the lone intriguing questions left to ponder.
Reimer was again solid in goal against Tampa Bay, especially in an incredibly lopsided first period that saw the red-hot Lightning dominate on the scoreboard, the shot clock and in the faceoff dot.
“They were all over us,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We didn’t have the answer except Reims kept us in the game. He played a great first period.”
It was a good thing, too, given the Lightning out shot his team 17-4, including a Martin St. Louis breakaway that came only a few minutes in.
Reimer would see him twice more, in alone, before the game was over, but the NHL’s fifth highest scorer couldn’t find a way to beat the "aw shucks" fourth-round pick who has turned heads since training camp.
Despite 29 saves, his record fell to 4-3-0 this season, but his stat line improved to a 2.25 goals-against average and .933 save percentage – numbers that far surpass those of the two veterans who have been ahead of him on Toronto’s depth chart all season.
Humble to a fault, Reimer tried accept some of the blame in defeat despite the fact he didn’t ultimately get a single goal in support and was left to fend for himself far too often in the early going.
“I gotta find a way to make saves, make a couple more saves,” Reimer said. “I think if I made, you know, maybe one more we would have had an even better shot at winning.
“I mean, every shot’s stoppable. At least that’s the way I try and look at it.”
While it's only been seven games, Reimer’s clearly been consistent enough in his brief tenure to warrant a consierably longer look, but with a three goalie headed monster at practice and on the road this week, it’s also evident that situation won’t work long term.
Should struggling sophomore Jonas Gustavsson go down to the minors on a two week conditioning stint on the other side of the all-star break, that will buy Leafs GM Brian Burke some time at the position. Fourteen days would mean another seven games, games Reimer could share with J-S Giguere to see if he can continue his success.
Other than Gustavsson, Toronto doesn’t have a goaltender with NHL experience under contract next season, and with their record well off any sort of playoff pace, the time for evaluation for 2011-12 is right now.
Every game is a tryout, even at this level.
For his part, Reimer has no idea what’s next – whether tomorrow will bring a return trip to the minors or a trip home to tiny Morweena, Manitoba, to see his family after a gruelling travel schedule that has seen him play seven NHL and four AHL games in nine cities all over North America the past 25 days.
“They could give me the break,” Reimer said when asked what his weekend would bring. “They could send me down and then call me up. They could send me down and let me have the AHL all-star break.
“I have a flight booked to go home tomorrow evening, but flights can be cancelled. I have no idea. Hopefully.”
Given how wild his schedule has been of late, giving Reimer a breather would be the best call. There’s little sense in running him ragged while also trying to test his readiness for the NHL.
And then, come next week, throw him into the fire a few more times to see if he keeps bailing out teammates who could certainly use the helping hand these days.
“Whatever they choose, I’ll be good with it,” Reimer said. “And just go with it.”