James Reimer is keeping a brave face, his only option really, but for him the game has changed.
He may have a new two-year, $4.6-million (all currency U.S.) contract, a promise from Toronto Maple Leafs management the fight for the No. 1 goaltender's job is wide open ("Yeah, definitely, that's what I was told," Reimer said.) and a fresh new attitude toward the employer he wanted to divorce three months ago. But, despite the nomenclature, his role is much different than it was at last year's training camp.
"1a and 1b," is how Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle describes the positions of Jonathan Bernier and Reimer on the goaltender depth chart. Perhaps 1 and 1a were not available, which is how this charade used to be played.
However, it does not matter if the designation is 1a, 1b, associate goalie, co-pilot or whatever else human resources down at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment can come up with. Nor does it matter that at $2.3-million per year Reimer is earning a handsome stipend compared to many NHL, um, 1b goalies.
The fact is, he is the backup. The understudy. That b in 1b means (second) banana.
There may be fans and the media still willing to debate the status of Bernier and Reimer and, hey, there are only so many hours the talk radio can scream that William Nylander should be on the big team and the power play right-freaking-now but this issue was settled last season. It was determined when Bernier came to town and was the only reason the Leafs were contenders. It was confirmed in March when Bernier got hurt and Reimer could not provide the team with a last gasp before elimination from the playoffs.
This does not mean Reimer should be kicked to the curb. It just means he should be examined in a different context. Is he the kind of goaltender who can sit for 10 days and then come in and play effectively to give Bernier a rest?
History suggests this is a maybe at best. Reimer's game is more athleticism than fundamentals and he has always needed to play a lot to get on one of his famous hot streaks. This is not the path to success for a backup.
Nor is this something Reimer cares to discuss. He thinks in terms of playing as well as he can and snatching back the No. 1 job he had in name only a year ago or forcing an equal share of playing time with Bernier.
"If we're both on our games that will help us," Reimer said. "We need two goalies to perform at a high level. If one guy has an off-night or is tired, another guy steps in and you don't lose anything."
And Reimer certainly looked sharp enough Wednesday night in his half-game of work in a pre-season split-squad game against the Ottawa Senators. His Leaf teammates even made him feel like it was last season, letting a mostly anonymous group of Senators outshoot them 18-9 while Reimer was in goal. This time, though, Reimer held off the opposition and departed halfway through the second period with a 2-0 lead.
The Leafs completed their reprise of last season for Reimer's replacement, Christopher Gibson in what turned out to be a 4-3 shootout loss. They coughed up two awful giveaways in the third period to let the Senators tie the score on goals from Alex Chaisson and Ryan Dzingel. Chaisson scored the decisive goal in the shootout. Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk scored for the Leafs in regulation time.
It was a mild surprise that Reimer returned to the Leafs this summer given his trade request and strained relationship with Carlyle during last spring's infamous late-season collapse. But, Reimer said, he did some thinking before he signed the new contract just before his salary-arbitration case.
"Time is a big thing, a lot of the emotions go away," he said. "You look at things logically, you just think about it.
"Obviously I liked the way things were moving this summer. You definitely could see the potential and possibility we have to do great things. That was my mindset. This was a place I wanted to be."
Well, whether or not it is a place he will be after this season's NHL trade deadline remains to be seen. Part of the reason Reimer is still here was a decided lack of enthusiasm for him as a restricted free agent and on the trade market and partly because Leafs general manager David Nonis needed an insurance policy because Bernier is coming off a knee injury and sports-hernia surgery. However, if Bernier stays as healthy as he looked in his first appearance Tuesday night and Reimer plays better than he did last spring, Nonis just might land one of the many things he needs in a trade for the latter.
Despite all this, Reimer says he's happy to be a Leaf.
"Definitely," he said. "It doesn't change no matter what rumours are swirling. I was excited to come back, excited to be here and make this team better, whatever the situation may be."