When a team has earned, what is it, 6 points in the last 17 games or something, it doesn’t require insightful analysis to determine that something is off. And in recent weeks I’ve posted on various subjects (and will again, I’m sure) that cover part of the laundry list of things that have seemingly befallen the team—including some self-inflicted wounds from on high.
But it gets way too discouraging to simply sit back and criticize every night as the team comes up short game after game. When they score they can’t stop the other team. When they are fairly solid defensively, they aren’t scoring. It’s a mess.
(To be clear, I’m not someone who likes the idea of cheering for more losses and therefore, a high draft pick this summer. There’s nothing wrong with that. I understand the allure of finally getting a potential superstar talent through the draft. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s just that…well, that is not what we are supposed to be thinking about, this far into the ongoing rebuild. The idea was to make a splash in the playoffs, not back into a top pick by playing poorly. While a nice top three or four pick might provide some solace (and maybe even that “superstar”) surely this is not where we’re supposed to be. But I’ll deal with the above matters another time.
For now, my thoughts rest not on Carlyle, the new “system” or even the slump/slideskid—or whatever we want to call it. I’m not even thinking about the Leaf goaltending “situation”. I’m more reflecting specifically on the future of James Reimer, the guy we actually have signed to play goal for the next two seasons. (Not that we can sign or trade for someone else this summer…)
We all know the Reimer story. A Ferguson draft choice, he climbed the Leaf system and by the middle of the 2010-’11 season, joined the big club and became an instant sensation in Leafland. He was steady, even spectacular at times. Most importantly, perhaps, when he gave up a bad early goal, he seemed to have the capacity to rebound and play well the rest of the night. He was often particularly effective when the Leafs were fighting to get back into a game. He rarely, for example, gave up the big “next” goal that would kill any hopes of a comeback.
This season, on the heels of a nice new three-year contract, he was the unabashed number-one guy—the goaltender Burke and Wilson were going to hang their hat on. He was young and inexperienced, yes, but more and more teams were going young and “cheap” in goal. And he was damn good last year.
However, a very unfortunate early-season injury kept him out of the lineup for weeks on end. Since his return, he has had moments, for sure, but not the sustained kind of steady play that marked his game in his breakout season a year ago.
Of lat, Gustavsson has earned more time, including under Carlyle. What if any impact that has had to further erode Reimer’s (fragile?) confidence, I have no idea.
I do want to say a few things, here. I’m not a goaltending expert, by any stretch of the imagination. Not even close. I’ve observed the sport for five plus decades and have seen hundreds of NHL goalies come and go, but if you start asking me technical questions, my eyes will glaze over pretty quickly.
What I do know is when I’m seeing a goalie that is on his game, and feeling like he can’t be beat. And, also like most of you, I can a see when a guy appears to be playing with a fairly shallow level of inner confidence.
That has been Reimer, for the most part, since his injury earlier this season.
I have written here often that I honestly believe the Leaf brass killed a lot of Gustavsson’s confidence—over the past couple of seasons, especially. I won't go into all of that, again. If you want to see some earlier posts, click on his name under the “Categories” section on the right-hand side of this site. You may not agree, but my thoughts are there.
Whether they have now managed to skewer the confidence of another of their own goalies’, how can we know? But right now, when he does play, Reimer is not looking like a guy who trusts his teammates (can we blame him?) or himself, very much.
All this said, it is not unusual for a young player, and yes, a young goalie, to see his game slip in his sophomore season. In fact, I would argue that, for goalies, their entire careers can be a roller-coaster of hot periods and times when they struggle to stop a balloon. (I’ve posted on this subject before, citing a number of goalies that have fit this pattern through the years I have followed hockey.)
Bottom line, a few tough weeks, or even a bad season or two, don’t necessarily mean that the goalie in question is finished. Didn’t many assume Jose Theodore was “done like dinner” years ago? Yet, there he was in goal Tuesday night, for the Panthers—beating the Leafs.
Steve Mason was talked about like he was the worst goalie in hockey history through much the last two seasons, after his very impressive rookie year. But before a recent injury, Mason won four in a row for a terrible Columbus team, with an astonishingly highs save percentage over that span. At 23, is anyone really prepared to say he won’t be a very good NHL goaltender someday—especially if he works behind a good defense at some point, and re-gains that sometimes elusive confidence that most athletes need to be their best?
Look, I get that many are saying the Leafs simply have no had NHL-caliber goaltending this season. At times, yes, I acknowledge that has been true. But I make the comments I am today based on watching a lot of young goalies over, well, a long time.
This leads me to simply say, I still really like Reimer’s chances of a rebound next season and beyond, of being the Reimer we saw last year.
He is young. He has a great temperament. He has skills. It strikes me that, as his confidence flagged at times this season, he was often caught “in between”, as in “Do I stay up, do I go down?” Indecision can’t be a good for a goalie, eh?
I’ve seen enough of him to believe the young man will—after a summer to re-energize, get fully healthy and think on what he experienced this past season—come back better, stronger, wiser and more relaxed at training camp in September.
Could I be wrong? Of course. But I’m betting on Reimer, and I’m guessing the Leaf brass think he can be their guy, too.