The truth is what James Reimer has accomplished so far really isn’t all that rare.
Roughly once a season in each of the last 15 years in the NHL, a rookie goaltender has entered the league, played lights out and generated a buzz that he might be the next big thing in the crease.
Reimer’s certainly getting to that point with the Toronto Maple Leafs, going 9-4-2 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 16 NHL games.
Even his cynical head coach is getting on board, planning to play the 22-year-old as much as possible over the team’s final 22 games as the Leafs continue an unlikely playoff push.
“I’m riding James,” Ron Wilson said Wednesday, indicating the rookie will likely start three games in the next four nights, beginning Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
“He’s a young kid and he wants to be in every game. I think our team deserves to get that kind of goaltending and he deserves to play.”
Just when that ride will end isn’t all that clear.
According to data compiled by hockey statistician Gabriel Desjardins, Reimer is the 15th goalie since 1995-96 to begin his NHL career with a .925 save percentage or better after 15 games.
The list of those who have been here before includes a few who became regular starters (Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Niklas Backstrom, Marty Turco) and others who were less successful but still have/had NHL careers (Patrick Lalime, Vesa Toskala, Brent Johnson, Ty Conklin, Alex Auld, Josh Harding).
A couple, like Reimer, still have an incomplete body of work (Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky), while others (Erik Ersberg and Kevin Hodson) only shone in that first, brief taste of life in the NHL.
It’s not the worst company to be in, and especially not given Reimer was not pegged for a long NHL career as recently as last fall. His hot start will likely guarantee plenty of ice time to show what he can do the rest of this season and into next year, even if maintaining this pace is unlikely.
“Obviously, I hope [my save percentage] stays at .934,” Reimer said. “I mean, it is possible, but if it comes down, it’s not like it’s going to be a shock per se. It’s just normal that it’ll fluctuate.
“Honestly, I want it to be as high as possible because that gives our team the best chance and it looks good. But as long as we’re winning, I don’t think the stats really make a difference.”
Because of how low-scoring the Leafs have been this season, however, how many saves their goaltenders have made has had a huge impact in terms of earning wins.
Toronto has a combined save percentage of only .895 with Jean-Sébastien Giguère or Jonas Gustavsson in goal, the equivalent of allowing 1.2 more goals against per game than Reimer’s .934.
Even as the Leafs have fallen to 28th in scoring, they have continued to win games. Reimer is 5-1-2 since the all-star break, despite his team scoring only 19 times in those eight games.
“He hasn’t cracked,” Wilson said. “These are all tough games. They’re low-scoring, tight hockey games and he’s got to make five or six big saves a game and he’s been doing it. He’s only made a couple of mistakes since he’s been up. You minimize mistakes like that, you give your team a chance to win.”
Recent history suggests there’s a drop off coming for Reimer. On average, the other goaltenders who excelled through 15 games saw their save percentages fall dramatically the more they played, going from an average of .931 to just .906 over their next 45 games.
Only time will tell if Reimer is one of the exceptions to that trend.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s been hard to kind of grasp the whole thing because it feels like every day something new happens. I’m still just trying to enjoy the ride.”