If there is a face that represents the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, then it is goaltender James Reimer.
However, it is still a face of uncertainty for both. While Reimer and the Leafs went into this season full of promise, thanks to their emergence in the last calendar year, the jury is still out on both parties because of their uneven performances so far this season. Reimer and the Leafs tumbled to 10th place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with a terrible December and who knows where they will be come the playoffs.
One year ago Sunday, Reimer was given his first NHL start. No one expected much, since he was just a kid up from the farm team thanks to injuries to Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the veteran starter, and the anointed successor, Jonas Gustavsson. But things happened quickly after Reimer stoned the Ottawa Senators for a 5-1 win.
Reimer just kept getting better and by the time he turned 23 on March 15 he was the No. 1 goaltender. He finished the season with a 20-10-5 record, a 2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
When he looks back on the last year, Reimer says the point where he knew he could play and thrive in the NHL came on Jan. 10 and 11 when he beat the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in back-to-back road games.
“That was my first game playing huge players like [Patrick]Marleau, [Joe]Thornton and [Dany]Heatley,” Reimer said. “To play back to back against those guys and win was something.”
The Leafs may have finished out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season but this time there was a sense of optimism about general manager Brian Burke’s rebuilding job. In addition to Reimer, 11 new faces came to the Leafs dressing room by the start of the new season in trades (Matthew Lombardi, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul, John-Michael Liles, Keith Aulie and Dave Steckel), free-agent signings (Tim Connolly and Phillipe Dupuis) and the draft (Matt Frattin).
With Lupul and Phil Kessel combining to be two of the top scorers in the NHL in the first three months of the regular season, the Leafs charged out of the gate and to the upper reaches despite some old problems that continued to linger. By the new year, those lingering problems, a bad defensive game and an almost comically inept penalty-killing unit, wiped out that optimism.
An equally vexing problem is the goaltending. Reimer missed 18 games after he was hit on the head by Montreal Canadiens forward Brian Gionta on Oct. 22. Since his return Dec. 3, Reimer has struggled to be consistent. He was good in consecutive games just before Christmas, giving hope he found his game, but then imploded in a loss to the Florida Panthers on Dec. 27 and wasn’t a lot better in losing to the Carolina Hurricanes and then the Winnipeg Jets last Saturday.
Looking ahead, the Leafs have four games at home in the next eight days. Three are against teams they are fighting for a playoff spot – the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg and Buffalo Sabres. If they can’t get the new year launched right, it will be another bad spring.
Either Reimer or Gustavsson, who also struggled to be consistent, has to step forward and seize the job as No. 1 goaltender by playing well enough to overcome the team’s other problems. Chiefly, that means making saves when the Leafs are trying to kill penalties.
Dion Phaneuf and the rest of the defencemen have to stop undermining strong offensive play with mistakes in the Leafs’ zone. And forward such as Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin have to start scoring to take the pressure off Kessel and Lupul.
There is nothing quite like the Winter Classic in the other major North American professional sports leagues. The annual outdoors game, which pits the New York Rangers against the host Philadelphia Flyers on Monday at Citizens Bank Park, now outstrips the all-star game as a league event, and in terms of television ratings and media coverage (at least in the United States) it ranks with the Stanley Cup final.
But it is still just another regular-season game. Despite the drama injected into the game by the riveting HBO series 24/7, all that is really at stake are two points.
However, thanks to the tightness of the Eastern Conference race, there is more at stake this time around. The Rangers used a hot streak in late December to move to the top of the Eastern Conference standing with 50 points, while the Flyers are just two behind despite the loss of defenceman Chris Pronger for the rest of the season and uneven play from their big free-agent acquisition, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the hit that ultimately caused the NHL’s biggest star to stay on the sidelines for more than 10 months. But Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the second hit Sidney Crosby took that week, one that may be just as responsible or even more responsible for his serious concussion.
Now, Crosby is back on the injured list because of a seemingly innocuous hit last month that limited his comeback to eight games. He is still experiencing concussion symptoms and there is no estimate for his return.
In the meantime, Crosby’s injury was the one that may have finally shaken the NHL’s complacency about the rash of concussions among the players. The concussion debate gained steam over the past year, although a solution is not in sight.
One thing to keep an eye on in this regard are the annual general managers’ meetings Mar. 12 through 14 in Boca Raton, Fla. Almost all of the discussions will probably concern remedies. Look for a long list of ideas to be kicked around, from better equipment to finally outlawing all hits to the head to slowing the game down. Putting the red line back in play to slow down traffic in the neutral zone is a popular idea in the media but at this point does not seem to have much support among the GMs.
TEAM TO WATCH
The rumblings persist that this could be the Phoenix Coyotes’ final season in the suburban city of Glendale. Despite the insistence of city and NHL officials that talks continue with two interested ownership groups, other NHL people say there is an equal chance the Coyotes will be headed to Quebec City come spring. But Seattle is now gaining some traction as talk of a new arena is starting.
One of the local bids is fronted by former San Jose Sharks president Greg Jamison while the other is led by lobbyist and prominent Republican John Kaites, who has connections to Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
More might be known about the chances of either bid succeeding later this week. City officials say council expects to vote to approve one of the bids by January or February and the NHL has not objected to the timing.
Glendale councillor Phil Lieberman recently told the Arizona Republic he hopes to get more information at a closed-door council meeting on Tuesday. Then again, he told The Globe and Mail the same thing last month and nothing came of it.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT THE WINTER CLASSIC
A sellout crowd of a little more than 44,000 is expected at Citizens Bank Park. Of those seats, according to The Associated Press, 20,000 were distributed through the Philadelphia Flyers, 10,000 through the New York Rangers, 4,000 through the Philadelphia Phillies and the rest through the NHL and its sponsors.
The Flyers put on a three-day festival around the baseball park and team president Peter Luukko said they expect 175,000 fans for it.
Aside from an alumni game last Saturday, there are a couple of university games on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by an American Hockey League game on Friday between the Flyers’ farm team, the Adirondack Phantoms, and the Hershey Bears.