You say you want a competition? James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier do not.
The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltenders vying for playing time insist they’re not worrying about the other’s performance. But there’s no doubt that through training camp and the preseason, their play will affect which one starts opening night against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 1.
Beyond that, Bernier and Reimer could share time during the regular season until one steals the starting job away. In a perfect world for Randy Carlyle, the Leafs’ coach won’t have to make the decision.
“In most of the situations I was previously in we always had competition for the position for a certain period of time,” Carlyle said. “By the end of the season it sorted itself out. There was an equal opportunity given to the people to earn that No. 1 job and usually their play indicates to you who will be the No. 1.”
Reimer, the incumbent, helped Toronto make the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2003-04. He had a .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average along the way.
Reimer acknowledged that competition can help him stay sharp. But there’s also an advantage in having familiarity with teammates and the coaching staff.
“It’s good to have that sense of comfort. You know what coaches want and you know what they’re expecting,” Reimer said. “But whatever the situation, you go out there and you compete. You compete your hardest.”
Bernier, acquired via trade from the Los Angeles Kings in June, isn’t thinking of it as a one-on-one competition.
“I’m not going to compete against Reimer,” he said. “I’m competitive enough that I want to be the best, and that’s not something I’m going to focus (on) — to beat Reimer. I’m just going to focus every day to be the best, and that’s the only thing that I can control.”
The 25-year-old Bernier has only 62 games of NHL experience, but he’s helped by previous goaltending battles he was a part of against Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Before Quick was a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion, there was plenty of debate about whether he or Bernier would be the Kings’ starter.
“My first couple years in L.A. we got asked a lot, me and Jonathan Quick, who was going to play the next day and who was the No. 1 guy,” Bernier said. “I’m used to it, and I better get used to it.”
Reimer and Bernier better get used to it because the questions aren’t going away. Bernier is making $2.9-million to Reimer’s $1.8-million, so there’s plenty of discussion about whom the Leafs will rely on more this season.
Carlyle likes to consider goaltenders “1A and 1B” instead of labelling a starter and a backup.
“Having both Jonathan and James in net gives the coaches a lot of options,” Toronto general manager Dave Nonis said. “Goaltending, you can’t win without it. It’s impossible without goaltending. We feel we have two of the top young guys.”
Training camp and eight preseason games provide the first proving ground. But Reimer and Bernier have different priorities for the next few weeks that go beyond showing why they belong in net.
For Reimer, it’s about ramping up the intensity from informal workouts over the summer. And for Bernier it’s about being in game shape.
“Training camp, it’s there to get ready for the season,” Bernier said. “That’s what it means to me, and even if I have some bad preseason games or bad practice, it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
It might mean something to the coaching staff and certainly will by the time games start counting. At that point, one goaltender could take over the starting role by virtue of Carlyle’s win-and-you’re-in philosophy.
“The best goaltender is going to play, and if we have two that are real good then we’re better for it,” Carlyle said. “Do you think that one guy is going to take the ball and run with it? That’s always a nice way for things to develop, but that’s up to the individuals and it’s up to how our team plays in front of them.”
The Leafs didn’t play their best in front of Reimer in the third period of Game 7 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins, when they blew a three-goal lead to end the season. Questions about Reimer being the man in net for Toronto were plentiful before that, and it wasn’t too long after that Nonis sent backup Ben Scrivens, forward Matt Frattin and a future second-round draft pick to the Kings for Bernier.
Nonis said at the time it wasn’t an indictment of Reimer but rather a way of strengthening the team. But it’s hard to deny the Leafs got Bernier as at least an insurance plan in case Reimer can’t bounce back.
Reimer would love to have the full confidence of the franchise but conceded that “the world isn’t roses.”
“Life sometimes isn’t like that, so you’ve got to keep working and you look at yourself in the mirror,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t worry about how people think about you. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how close they are to you. All you can do is be your best.”
Being the best is what the Leafs’ goaltending competition is all about.
“They’re both quality goaltenders,” Carlyle said. “We think it’s healthy to have competition for the position.”