The contrast was hard to miss on Saturday.
In Game 1 of Hockey Night in Canada’s double header, a young Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender made save after save (and 31 in all) en route to shutting out the Ottawa Senators, improving his record to 13-4-4 on the season.
In Game 2, both of the Vancouver Canucks netminders struggled early, allowing four goals in the game’s first eight minutes in an ugly loss to the relatively low-scoring Edmonton Oilers.
The night’s final score?
James Reimer 1, Potential Replacement 0.
With the NHL’s trade deadline approaching on Wednesday afternoon, all eyes are expected to once again be on the Leafs goaltending situation and the question of whether or not they need an upgrade over their inexperienced young tandem.
What is already widely established is that GM Dave Nonis has adding a veteran netminder on his might-do list this week, as the organization has already been kicking tires on veterans like Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo.
What makes that decision more divisive than it was back in training camp is that Reimer has, in his limited sample size, established himself as a more than capable No.1 goaltender.
After Saturday’s shutout, the 25-year-old former fourth-round pick is up among the league leaders in save percentage, sitting tied for eighth among goaltenders with 15 or more starts at .920.
Even more tellingly, his even-strength save percentage – which is generally more predictive of future success – has been .933, .918 and .926 in his first three seasons, putting him significantly above the average in a career that is approaching 100 games.
The numbers also appear to have been trending upward ever since Reimer recovered from a concussion early last season.
One debate that has raged in Toronto all season, however, is over how much credit the Leafs’ dramatic drop in goals against – from 3.12 to 2.63 per game – is due to their goaltenders and how much should go to the players in front of them and the coaching staff.
Has Reimer, in other words, really been the difference? Or has he had help?
According to a recent analysis done of Toronto’s play by the Sports Analytics Institute – an advanced statistics group which currently works with two other NHL teams – the answer is a little of both, with the biggest differences being better goaltending and better shorthanded play.
SAI analyst Mike Boyle, for example, calculates that after Saturday’s game, the quality of shots the Leafs goalies have faced is down roughly 3 per cent at even strength and 13 per cent on the penalty kill this season over last year, making their jobs easier.
But “goaltender effectiveness” is also up 17 per cent, which is consistent with how many more pucks they have been stopping over last season when Reimer was hurt and Jonas Gustavsson appeared in 42 games.
Beyond that improvement, from both Reimer and backup Ben Scrivens, the most convincing argument against landing Luongo or Kiprusoff simply comes down to cost.
Both will require an asset to land – with Vancouver looking for help up front and a backup goalie and Calgary wanting a first-round pick – and are also under contract at a big cap hit, with Luongo at $5.33-million (all currency U.S.) a season for another nine years and Kiprusoff up for one more at $5.83-million.
Contrast that with Reimer and Scrivens, who together will cost Toronto just $2.4-million of their $64.3-million in cap space next season, an incredible bargain given they’ve posted the eighth best team save percentage in the league.
The Leafs also have plenty of needs to address beyond getting experience in goal, with another top four (and preferably top two) defenceman and an upgrade at centre likely more pressing concerns.
The good news is that their young goalies’ strong play may just be what allows them the flexibility to go out and upgrade elsewhere, either at the deadline or in the summer.
LEAFS GOALTENDING STATISTICS:
-- not with team --