For those who may be following the "Leaf Matters" podcast, Matteo Codispoti (We Want a Cup) and I were finally able to do a show that covered actual Leaf games. After 25 shows without NHL hockey to bat around, our latest covers a range of observations from Game 1 and 2 against the Habs and Sabres. It's a big week for the blue and white, with games Wednesday and Thursday night. We'll have much more to discuss after those contests. The latest podcast is available on iTunes or on the Podalmighty Network...
Hey, anyone who visits VLM fairly regularly is likely aware that I have a fondness for James Reimer. I was one of many who was captivated by his “aw shucks” manner when he first arrived on the scene in Toronto a couple of years ago.
Why was I drawn to him? Well, I suppose a) he was not a ballyhooed high draft pick and b) I didn’t know much about him. So when he arrived and donned the Leaf uniform, I saw a kid with energy and some talent, and almost as importantly, someone who seemed to actually appreciate the opportunity, the money and the adulation that comes to players who work hard in a Leaf uniform. In a world where professional athletes are often ego-centered (and almost have to be, sadly) and grasping—caring more about the name on the back than the name on the front of the jersey, as the saying goes—this young man seemed different. And genuinely so.
That he also played well enough to turn heads during the last half of the 2010-’11 season didn’t hurt. And when he started last season off in similar manner, the sky seemed to be the limit. That may be hyperbole, but he was pretty good, and had an attitude to match, immediately making him a Leaf that fans truly liked and gravitated to.
That Gionta hit turned a season—and Reimer’s career, in the short-term—upside down, however. And he is still fighting to get back to where he was 16 months ago, while also fighting to earn back—and ultimately win—the confidence of Carlyle and the Leaf coaching staff, which includes new goaltending mentor Rick St. Croix.
Many Leaf fans have been begging for us to go out and get Luongo. They aren’t saying that we should give away all the candy in the store, but under the (incorrect?) assumption that Vancouver GM Mike Gillis needed to move the veteran (and expensive) goalkeeper, many Leafers thought Luongo would indeed look good here. He would surely put us on a level playing field with many other kind-of-OK Eastern Conference teams, and maybe, just maybe, help us sneak into the playoffs. And it’s the old adage, once there, who knows?
Different sport, I realize, but we can ask the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL about that. They have both recently navigated the challenge of just managing a playoff berth- and taking it to the Super Bowl.
So here we sit, heading into Game 3 of this NASCAR-like sprint to the finish of a mini-NHL season. Ben Scrivens, slightly older but less NHL-experienced than Reimer, has taken the bull by the horns (who actually does that, by the way—seems like a very bad idea) and played not only the season-opener but the home-opener for Carlyle and the Leafs. And he's been fine. Did that recommendation come from St. Croix, or from something Carlyle noticed during "training camp" last week? Or was it as simple as the fact that Scrivens had played a lot—and well of late—for the AHL Marlies so far in the 2012-’13 season?
My guess is it was a combination of all of the above, but also that there remains an underlying fear within the organization that Reimer is not all the way back, and that we can’t afford to give a game away early on in a very short season. That sounds harsh, but coaches are not generally prone to emotion. Like when a player is injured, their first reaction is generally: damn. Then, it’s pretty much, "next man up". Not much more emotion than that.
Similarly, with Reimer now, it will be great if, when he plays, he plays lights out. That’s good for the Leafs, who surely would be better with a goaltending controversy stirred by two goalies playing well, as opposed to the kind of despair-driven debate that comes from feeling as though the team has two guys who can’t play.
For my part, I still continue to believe that Reimer can indeed play. I’m quite confident that, despite his perceived weaknesses (all goalies have weaknesses, and almost all goaltenders go through periods when they slump, or are simply not as sharp and confident as they otherwise might be) he will again play well for the Leafs. Reimer has not been healthy, and sometimes ‘keepers can seemingly ‘lose it’ for two or three years and then just as suddenly as it left, their confidence returns.
I’ve posted here before that I am not enamored of the idea of bringing Luongo in, especially if it cost the Leafs quality, which I believe it would. Is Luongo a good goalie? Of course. He is probably still one of the elite goalies in the game. He may well be enough to be the difference in Toronto making the playoffs. But if the pressure of playing in Vancouver, behind the most skilled team in hockey—maybe the best team in hockey—was too much for Luongo, I’m not comfortable that he is the longer-term answer here.
I want a goalie that can handle playing in the playoffs in this market. Luongo came up short in the playoffs for Vancouver three years in a row, and the last two seasons, was actually pulled by Vigneault when things got tough. That doesn’t mean Luongo can’t play any more. I just don’t see him as needed in Toronto.
Let’s focus on what we do have: two relatively young, relatively inexperienced goaltenders. Neither of whom has proven they can do the job—or that they can’t. I’m fine with this arrangement for this season. I mean, what are our objectives, anyway? To improve, sure, as the team gets accustomed to playing for Carlyle. Maybe get to the playoffs, like all teams strive to do. For that, the Leafs need to be consistently hard on the puck in all three zones, and need some decent, not necessarily superlative (though that would surely help) goaltending. I choose to believe—for now— that Reimer and Scrivens can provide that. Are they good enough to win a Cup? I highly doubt that. But in the parity-filled East, where there are maybe three (or four at most) truly elite teams this year, who is to say what will be enough to get to the dance in April/May?
I can’t help but feel that, in the weeks ahead, both Reimer and Scrivens (heck, maybe someone else, too) will get their share of crease time. As much as I like Reimer, I can live with either guy playing more than the other. If we find they can both play well under Carlyle’s defensively-oriented system, and with Rick St. Croix looking from above, all the better. If we begin to see that one or both is lacking in some way, then our expectations for this season (which almost never happened, anyway) were modest anyway, right?
This is a building year. But at least we may find out what we need to be a legitimate contender in the East, and whether that includes a makeover in goal down the road.