This has not been an easy year for James Reimer.
He has for the most part ridden the bench, starting sparingly over the last few months as Jonathan Bernier has maintained some of the better numbers league-wide and been the backbone of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season.
The battle for the crease has gone rather predictably, with the man management brought in during the summer to take Reimer’s spot getting more opportunities and outplaying him for the job.
But what often gets lost in that narrative is the fact that Reimer really hasn’t had a poor season.
The best number to evaluate a goalie’s performance, especially in a small sample size, is to look at the percentage of shots they stop at even strength. By that measure, Reimer has a .927 save percentage, which is well above the league average of .922 and more than respectable for a starting goalie.
(Bernier, by comparison, has a .935, third best among goaltenders with 30-plus starts.)
So while Reimer has been the second best Leafs goaltender through 69 games, he has hardly been the disappointment some have made him out to be, especially when you consider how many of his starts have been the gong shows that last week’s blowout in San Jose was.
He has also had far weaker goal support, which you obviously can’t blame on the goalie.
With Bernier going down last week at this critical point of the season, it’s created an interesting dynamic late in the year. Reimer gets what could be his last chance to prove his worth in the crease in Toronto here, for a few games at least, and it comes at a pivotal time.
So far, the results have been there. Reimer was excellent in 40 minutes in relief in a win over Los Angeles and then merely solid three days later in a loss to Washington.
Tuesday’s start against one of the main teams chasing them, the Detroit Red Wings, will be the biggest test yet – at least until Wednesday, when Reimer will likely have to go back-to-back against another Atlantic Division rival in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Then there is another back-to-back set on the weekend.
Given he has started only 25 games this year – and only seven in the 30 games since Christmas – Reimer’s not being given a simple task to fill in here.
And you get the sense he’ll be blamed if the Leafs lose a couple games here and their playoff drive becomes more of an endeavour.
There remains all kinds of debate in this city of what Reimer is. He is, aside from perhaps Dion Phaneuf, the most controversial player on the roster, even though all the evidence still points to his capability.
The four years Reimer has been in the NHL, he has a .915 save percentage, which is tied with Craig Anderson, Jonas Hiller, Jimmy Howard and Cam Ward. It’s ahead of Corey Crawford and way ahead of Steve Mason and Ondrej Pavelec, all of whom have starting jobs elsewhere.
If you take out the year Reimer had a concussion, which dramatically affected his numbers in coach Ron Wilson’s last season, he’s a .920 goalie the rest of his career (about 100 games).
Which is, incidentally, what Bernier is as well.
You can debate Reimer’s style all you want; you can’t debate the fact he’s stopped a lot of pucks as a Leaf.
That may not ultimately matter when it comes to his future in Toronto. Reimer needs a contract in the off-season, believes he is a starter who deserves starter money, and with the Leafs budget expected to be tight, it’s safe to say it’s a real long shot he returns to sit on the bench.
So with Bernier’s groin injury not expected to be long term, these next few games could well be Reimer’s last stand as a Leaf, one last chance to prove some of the doubters wrong by helping solidify their playoff chances.
It’ll also be a chance to catch the eye of another team that needs a goalie and is willing to take a chance on a guy with better numbers than many realize.
Pay attention Garth Snow.
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