About a month ago, if you had asked serious NHL fans who was the best goaltender in hockey—at least the guy who was playing the best—the answer for a lot of them would have been Mike Smith.
There is no question the (I was going to say young—but he’s not really young) still youngish Phoenix goaltender opened a lot of eye this past season, particularly so in the recent NHL playoffs. Smith led the Coyotes to a seemingly improbable run that, for a time, looked like it would actually lead to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. As we all know, getting there is not easy. And while the Coyotes are a very well-coached team and had exemplary leadership via Shane Doan along with a group committed to playing hard, team-oriented hockey, Smith was the glue that catapulted them to a great performance this spring. He was outstanding.
Now, if we actually delve, even briefly, into Smith’s track record, the question might be: exactly when did we ever foresee this kind of performance from him? He was drafted in the 5th round (not that being drafted in a certain round, or being drafted at all, ensures any particular degree of success…). He did not play in the NHL until he was 24. He was never considered a superstar in the making, as best I can recall, though he was certainly a fine goaltender in junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League.
He showed promise off and on in recent years after being drafted originally by Dallas, sure. But over time he was traded to Tampa Bay, and ultimately let go in free agency whereupon he signed last summer with the Coyotes.
For those who like “numbers”, his weren’t particularly enthralling in his career heading into 2011-’12. He hovered above/below .900 in save percentage most seasons. His “best” statistical year was .916 in 2008-’09.
But Tampa GM Steve Yzerman clearly didn’t see Smith as a core goalie for the future even a year ago. Interestingly, Tampa is looking for a goalie now, and they obviously would have re-signed Smith if Yzerman had any inkling he was a star-in-waiting.
Smith, now 30, has just come off his first (and rather surprising) superstar season, if we can call it that. A .930 save percentage in the regular-season, with a GAA of 2.21—and even better numbers in the playoffs.
Where, we may ask, did this come from?
Well, clearly Smith is a talented guy. We saw that this season, and especially so in the playoffs. He’s a tall goaltender at 6 feet, four inches, and sometimes bigger goalies can take a while to develop. When I was a kid in the ‘60s, Toronto's Cesare Maniago was an example of a young goalie who took years to develop into a confident, elite NHL goalie. (I've included a great old picture of Maniago above as a young Maple Leaf, shown in action against the Habs in Montreal.) John Davidson in the ‘70s was another example of a big goalie who got better over time. Kari Lehtonen has seemingly found his groove now in Dallas while Jonas Gustavsson is more in the "to be determined" category. The "size" discussion aside, the defensive system in Phoenix clearly helped Smith. But mostly, it was a case of opportunity, timing and confidence, I would guess.
Where is all this leading me?
Well, just as I’ve often stated here that I hate the idea of giving up on or trading away young defensemen because it’s hard to find them later without paying a king’s ransom, goalies are a precious commodity as well. I know many Leaf fans have jumped off (or were, in truth, never on) the James Reimer bandwagon. They feel either he was never as good as we may have first thought, or that he is damaged goods and unlikely to rebound to his earlier form. (For what it’s worth, if we care to “compare” him with Smith, Reimer just turned 24, is 6 feet, two inches tall and was a 4th round draft choice…)
Uncertainty around Reimer, and other frustrations, has led to many Leaf supporters pining for some kind of relief in goal—either via the free-agent route with a Harding or Vokoun, for example, or through a trade to acquire a Lindback, or a really big fish in Luongo or Kiprusoff.
I understand that feeling completely. Goaltending matters—a lot. There was a brief blip a few years ago when people were feeling, “Hey, you don’t need top goaltending to win it all. The Wings won with Osgood, and the Hawks won with Niemi…”. We perhaps forget that, when those teams won with those particular goaltenders, those goalies generally were playing very, very well come playoff time. They may not be all-world, but they were solid NHL goalies who could handle the playoff spotlight—and win.
We don’t know if Reimer can do that, but we do know that, in 2010-’11, and through the first handful of games this past season until he was seriously injured, the young man showed uncommon calm under pressure in the Leaf nets. And off the ice he showed uncommon grace in one of the world’s more challenging media and sports markets.
So count me in the group that wants to see the Leafs continue to give Reimer an opportunity. I know he has a contract for two more seasons, and that’s part of the equation, for sure. But it’s more than that. It’s what I’ve seem him do, it’s what I think he may be capable of.
It’s the fact that Carey Price, for example, went from hero to bum in fairly short order in Montreal, and now he is once again considered one of the premier netminders in the NHL. And we can all cite other examples along those lines.
Patience matters. We’re all, understandably, in a rush to see the Leafs improve and get not only to the playoffs but be in a position to do something once they get there. Luongo may be an answer. Harding might be as well. Maybe it can be Ben Scrivens. There are plenty of names out there.
But before we throw Reimer under that ever-present bus in Leafworld, I suggest the Leafs continue to support him and build him up. He may just re-pay the favor some day.
And we may not have to wait until he’s 30.