It's a funny thing, this business of NHL hockey.
Every year when a team's season ends, the general manager gathers his lieutenants and the coaching staff and decides where they went wrong and what needs to be done to fix it, whether it is acquiring players or shipping them out. Then they do their best to get the players they want.
But more often than not, since there is only one Stanley Cup winner among 30 teams, it doesn't quite work out. Through bad luck or bad judgment or both, a team can end the next season two steps behind the previous one.
So it goes for the Toronto Maple Leafs, unless one of those deemed to stand in the way of progress a year ago can hold the fort for the last four games of the regular season starting Saturday night against the Winnipeg Jets.
A little more than a year ago, after the famous playoff meltdown against the Boston Bruins, Leafs GM David Nonis, head coach Randy Carlyle and the rest of the team's executives decided goaltender James Reimer stood in the way of progress. A trade was made for Jonathan Bernier, a highly regarded prospect who was stuck behind Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings.
Despite the ensuing goaltender controversy, there is no arguing it was a good move. Bernier grabbed the No. 1 job from Reimer and as of Friday was tied for fifth in the NHL in save percentage at .923 among goaltenders who played 50 games or more. Not bad, considering some of the Leafs' other player moves did not work out nearly as well and they are still a dreadful defensive team.
But there is that thing called fate, something Leafs fans will tell you is a permanent enemy of their team. Bernier was lost in mid-March to a groin injury for five games and by the time he got back, there was a losing streak that would grow to eight games, Reimer's confidence was shot, and Reimer was under fire from anyone who had access to any form of media. There was also little realistic chance of the Leafs making the playoffs.
Then came worse news. Leaf defenceman Paul Ranger pushed Bruins centre on top of Bernier the other night. Now he's done for a minimum of three weeks with a strained medial collateral ligament, wiping out the rest of the regular season and maybe the first round of the playoffs if the Leafs should be so lucky. The Leafs are also without winger Joffrey Lupul, who is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury but is not expected to play Saturday.
"Those are the type of injuries you don't like to see happen, but they do happen and now we have to move forward without Bernier," Carlyle said after practice Friday. "All the time in the NHL now you try and face challenges through the course of a season and this is another one."
So now the Leafs brass turns to Reimer, the man they spurned, coughs and says, 'Um, gee, could you forget about that other stuff and help us out?' No one could blame Reimer if he coldly looks at this as a chance to buff his résumé before becoming a restricted free agent July 1.
"Honestly, right now there's a lot of thoughts swirling in your head about a lot of things," Reimer said Friday. "But now it's just time to stop the puck. It doesn't really matter what transpires after the season and all that white noise.
"All I'm trying to do is help get those two points and then move on to Florida [for a Leafs road trip]. I try not to think about all that other stuff."
While Reimer's return Thursday after Bernier hurt his knee was encouraging, as he gave up the tying goal to the Bruins but then held them off until the Leafs got the winner in overtime, his body of work is less so. Reimer's last win in a game he started was back on Jan. 21. The last time the native of Morweena, Man., faced the Jets, the closest thing he has to a hometown team, they lit him up for four goals on 19 shots in front of his family and friends in Winnipeg on Jan. 25 and he was pulled.
But no, Reimer, 25, insists he is not gun-shy.
"It's always fun playing that team, where they're from," he said. "It's fun playing in that scenario.
"It will be good to play them again tomorrow. It doesn't really matter what's going on around the rink, it's the two points we need [Saturday]. We've got a pretty focused group in here."
The Leafs have to win all four of their remaining games, against the Jets followed by a season-ending road trip against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. They also need the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sit in the last Eastern Conference wild-card spot – one point ahead of the Leafs – with two games in hand going into Friday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks, to get no more than six points out of their last six games. The Jackets could also help by losing all six games, but that is unlikely.
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