All athletes have their own way of getting “ready” for the next season. For some it’s staying away from the rink and just relaxing. For others it’s may be about eating right, losing weight and getting in better cardiovascular shape. For others still, it might be the old “getting bigger and stronger” and actually putting on some weight (young Colborne, perhaps?).
Finally, there are those who need to get quicker, or faster. And some who may need to get mentally tougher.
Some individuals are near the end of their career and are hoping to get one or two more years of that great NHL income. Younger guys might be “bubble” players, preparing to fight for survival. In the case of certain young, prospective Leafs, they may be ‘this close’ to being an NHL’er, but anything less than a stellar training camp will make them a Marlie again for perhaps another season. (I should add another category: that of guys typecast as career minor-leaguers who desperately want to break through that perception, like Kostka and Fraser did a season ago.)
Some face a make-or break point, others, like a Kessel, are in that sweet hockey ‘mid-life’ prime-time spot, when all is good. They are in their prime as they await that next huge contract.
Now, if you’re James Reimer, what might you be thinking as you try to get your thoughts together around the upcoming NHL season and how to best prepare for what lies ahead?
Well, I’ll start by saying I, of course, have no clue what he may be thinking. I can only try, like anyone else, to surmise what he might be thinking or feeling. Heck, I don’t even believe anything he says—not because he is untrustworthy, but simply because like the rest of us, he’s human. What he says publicly and what he may truly feel (isn’t that the same for all of us, especially if we have been surprised, hurt, caught off guard of whatever by a situation) are likely two very different things.
Those who visit VLM regularly already know I’m something of a Reimer guy. I’ve long appreciated how he has come across, as a seemingly genuine, down-to-earth young man. And he has done so in a pretty high-stress, high-profile market, especially for goaltenders.
I don’t pretend, as I have said here before, that he is Glenn Hall, Johnny Bower (right) or the reincarnation of Jacques Plante. I just like the kid, think he plays goal pretty well and has shown, in my mind, a lot of guts to get to this point in his career.
Are there flaws in his game? Of course. We all see them. Are they correctable? I have no idea. Are flaws in a golf swing correctable? For some guys yes, for others, no.
But for today, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not writing about whether he is an All-Star or not (I don’t think he is, not in the way I think of true “All-Star” goalies, at least), or whether he can improve (I think he can) or if he will never be any better than he is right now.
I’m not even questioning whether I look at him through Leaf-coloured glasses, as in, do I over-estimate how good he is because he plays for the Leafs, as opposed to some hockey hinterland like Columbus. (No offense to the fine folks in Columbus, a great town and a wonderful college football area. It’s just not a hockey town…)
No, what I’m talking about is, now a few weeks after the arrival (and signing) of Jonathan Bernier, what is James Reimer really and truly thinking and feeling about the Leafs, the organization, Dave Nonis, the Leaf brass?
Some fans have said (or will suggest) that Reimer is the ultimate team guy and will therefore almost automatically do whatever is best for the team. Others have claimed he will be spurred on by Bernier’s presence, and will be so motivated that he will fight to earn the number-one job at training camp. The claim is he will welcome Bernier with open arms and all will be good in Leafland.
Now even Reimer may tell himself that, and he will no doubt feel compelled to present himself publicly as though he is OK with all this, but I don’t think that’s how he really feels.
Let’s take a step back. Unless I am mis-remembering something, Reimer finished the 2010-’11 season as the clear-cut first-string goalie with the Leafs. He started the 2011-’12 season as the top guy. Injuries impacted that season, obviously, but he was still “the man” heading into last season. Leaf management said so, though they allowed publicly that they were always on the lookout to improve the roster, including in goal, if possible.
The 2012-’13 NHL mini-season saw Reimer not start Game 1 after a one-week training camp, but that had everything to do with Ben Scrivens being in game shape. Reimer was not.
Reimer, however, quickly established himself as the Leafs go-to guy. He showed not only flashes of his rookie season effectiveness, but demonstrated a fire-in-his-belly attitude that I really liked a lot. As much as I also liked Scrivens’ compete level too, for me, Reimer was the undisputed top guy in goal, and he cemented that with his playoff performance against the Bruins.
Now, some will focus on his late game “errors” against the Bruins in Game 7. (Do we forget that Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy “dropped” a puck for a crucial playoff goal/loss while minding the net for the Avalanche in their hey-day years ago. Even the best goaltenders make gaffes at crucial times…) For me, we would not even be talking about that if the Leafs could have simply scored into an empty net. If we do, it’s game over, series over, Reimer is a hero (at least until Round two) and the season, by any measure, is a screaming success.
But I digress. However, I only raise these points to provide context for why Reimer might well be thinking what I think he is thinking. (That’s a lot of “thinks” but let’s call it literary license or style or something…)
Since I can’t be in Reimer’s shoes, let me say what I might be thinking were I in his shoes. And here it is:
I’m a young guy. I admit I still have a lot to learn. And yes, I acknowledge that I have to bust my tail to keep proving to the organization that I deserve to be the guy in goal. In a sense I’ve proven nothing yet. I haven’t “won” anything just yet.
All that said, I’ve saved this team’s bacon on more than one occasion over the past three seasons. I love my teammates, really like playing here and am happy to go with the public claim that we keep shots to the outside and all that, but who’s kidding who? No one gives up the puck more than we do, at least not among teams who advance to the playoffs. We do give up a ___-load of shots. I’m far from perfect but I also, in fairness, have not exactly been playing behind the 1977 Montreal Canadiens defense the past three seasons.
I’ve played with and through serious injuries. I have fought my way back through every challenge. I’ve taken on all other goaltenders in the system and have come out on top. I was within a empty net goal of helping my team beat the Bruins.
Now, when I really could use a pat on the back, a genuine show of support and a real demonstration of the organization’s confidence in me, they bring in another goalie. And not just another older goalie like a Luongo or Kiprusoff, but a guy my age that obviously wants to be here as well—and plans to be the number-one goalie here.
We traded three significant assets for him, and just gave him, the new guy, a new contract. They now tell me I’m not the first-string goalie but yet again that I have to “prove” I’m good enough. I’m supposed to embrace that idea.
Hey, I love to compete. But this playing field feels tilted. The new guy has a new contract. We gave up players to get him, including a starter off our roster. They gave up nothing to get me. I was not drafted by this management team. In fact, everything I have ever read about their supposed faith in me has always seemed to come with an “if” or a “but” at the end of every comment, as in “we have faith in Reimer but if we can improve ourselves we will…”.
At some point, I guess they could not take “yes” for an answer from me. I’ve given everything I could. And I will keep doing exactly that. But it’s hard to feel—and believe—that the jury has not already…if not made up their mind exactly, that they already, deep down, hope the other guy will be great, will be “better” than me, in order to make their decision easier and to make their off-season moves look better.
Could any of that be what Reimer is thinking? None of it? A bit of it? Again, I have no idea. But while I do not believe he is Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek or Patrick Roy, guys who established themselves as the unquestioned best goalie on their teams and never had to worry going into training camp, I still can’t shake the view that Reimer has somehow deserved better.
The notion that the Leafs are better because they now have two good young goalies instead of one is a nice thought. Unfortunately, it dismisses Scrivens (who played some good hockey here) too readily and it assumes that Bernier will be satisfied "sharing" time with Reimer. I don't, by the way, accept the idea that Bernier is necessarily better than Reimer. (People can say what they want, but I’d rather play goal behind the LA team than the Leafs; c’mon, it’s not even close, whatever ‘stats’ people might try to pull out to compare the two rosters and styles of play.)
Playing in Toronto always sounds fantastic from the outside looking in. But do we need to count the number of guys who could not make it here in the past decade, including a number of goaltenders—all of whom were thought to be an improvement on what we already had? It always seemed like a “good idea” at the time.
And let’s be honest: it’s one thing to have a netminding tandem with a veteran and an emerging young guy. Even that is not always ideal, but the youngster can at least tell himself the job will be his someday, because he’s younger, costs the team less, or he will improve enough to supplant the old guy eventually.
But two guys, the same age? This is not going to work. Not over time, anyway. It just won’t.
And I’ll say it again: if you want to be a championship team, “win and you’re in” with goaltenders (Carlyle’s philosophy…and I’ve supported the coach a lot here in certain areas, as some readers will know) is just plain, well, dumb. That’s fine for teams with no identity, and no solid goaltenders, teams that are going nowhere.
Is that how we see the Leafs?
This will not work. Bernier knows it. Reimer knows it. We fans can look a the “ideal” scenario and want to believe this is great for the team, but I’ve seen too many quarterback “controversies’ absolutely kill professional football teams. I have no interest in that happening here.
It’s true that you can never have too many good defensemen in the NHL. But even there, there has to be a pecking order. Not everyone can play 25 minutes a night and be happy. And if you have unhappy players, the outcome is rarely good.
So what is Reimer really thinking on these beautiful, lazy, hazy (and where I am, often rainy lately) days of summer?
You tell me…