New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock learned his lesson about goaltenders almost 30 years ago in his first stop at Red Deer College. He split the duties between two goalies all season and into the playoffs, and the team was eliminated in the first round.
"I haven't done that since," Babcock said. "I like one guy to know he's the guy."
The same goes now for Leafs goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. Babcock wants one of them to grab the starting job and hold onto it, though he characterized it as an open competition.
Bernier, who stopped 28 of 29 shots in his preseason debut against the Ottawa Senators on Monday night, is still the best bet to be the No. 1 goaltender. But no matter who wins the job, minding goal for the Leafs should be simpler this season.
That's because Babcock believes defenders should take care of backdoor plays and other situations that make goaltenders have to guess. He wants the goalie to have a good idea where shots are coming from.
"They're trying to eliminate maybe some of the grey areas and just give guys that structure and preparation," Reimer said. "Guys are going to have their jobs of where they're supposed to be and who they're supposed to be taking, and as a goalie you can just focus on the puck and the shooter and know that your teammates, they've got their responsibilities and all you have to worry about is yours."
Reimer said his job is just to stop the puck. In previous years, it wasn't that easy.
Especially last season, the Leafs' defence struggled in front of Bernier and Reimer, opening them up to look worse than they were actually playing. As his teammates transition to Babcock's system, Bernier is trying to do a better job of trusting them.
"They really want me to just hold my spot and not worry about the backdoor, so it has been an adjustment for me," Bernier said. "Obviously, sometimes you don't trust – you need some trust into it and we need to keep working at it, but they really want me to challenge the shooter and be square to them."
Sounds pretty easy for two veteran goalies who are going into their third season as a tandem in Toronto. But with more structure in front of them, the onus is also on Bernier and Reimer to prove they belong.
Bernier is beginning a new $8.3-million (U.S.), two-year contract, and Reimer is in the last of a two-year deal that counts $2.3-million against the cap. Babcock has shown in his time with the Detroit Red Wings that he cares more about who plays the best than who has the bigger salary, which makes this more of a true competition than it had been in the past.
"It's an opportunity," Reimer said. "It's fun. You always want to play your best and you always want to have that opportunity to play, and so now if you have that opportunity, you're ready for it. I prepared and hopefully things work out the way I want them to."
Note – The Leafs have a day off Wednesday. Babcock said he'd talk with general manager Lou Lamoriello on the plane ride back from Montreal on Tuesday night about cutting down the training-camp roster.