This is hardly a shock.
In fact, while I won’t come out and say it’s a done deal (I can’t prove Tim Leiweke has guaranteed him the job, since Leiweke doesn’t make those decisions yet, hopefully) but the writing has been on the wall since the day the former LA King back-up was dealt to the blue and white. Bernier’s arrival coincided, timing-wise, with Leiweke taking over as the new top guy at MLSE after his time running a number of sports team in Los Angeles. He clearly liked Bernier as a King and obviously wants to see him mind the Leaf net this fall—and well beyond that.
I know many Leaf supporters believe that there will be a fair competition for the goaltending job. Sadly, I don’t really see that happening. Now, I have no doubt that, if James Reimer is not traded before training camp, Randy Carlyle will go out of his way to say publicly that both guys will be granted a fair and equal shot at the position. We will be told that the best man will win out. Or at the very least, Carlyle will go back to his previously-stated “win and you’re in” goalkeeper carousel philosophy. It’s not an approach I endorse, but it is what it is.
That all said, my contention is this: even if Reimer played better than Bernier in training camp, and even if he continued to outplay Bernier through the beginning of the season, the Leaf brass—Leiweke, Nonis and Carlyle—will privately be waiting for the moment that Reimer slips and Bernier makes his way to the top spot.
Now, before you say, “c’mon Michael, no coach or management group ever pulls for their players to fail…that makes no sense”, let me say this: while I of course agree with that statement, there are factors at play here that may trump conventional thinking.
Of course coaches coach to win. They’ll play the guys they feel will achieve that—every time. (Carlyle is about as competitive a coach as you will find, though he's hardly alone in that regard.) And ownership and management obviously want to win. They want to ice the best and most competitive team that they possibly can. If guy “y” is better than player “x”, all things being equal, “y” will play.
But from where I sit, this goaltending 'situation' is quite transparent. For Nonis to make the move he did to acquire Bernier, he was either heavily pressured by Leiweke, or he himself felt dissatisfied with Reimer’s performance last season- including (and if this is the indeed case, Nonis was obviously seeing different games than I was) in Toronto’s 7-game loss in the first round of the playoffs against the somewhat mighty Bruins.
So that’s a strike against Reimer right there. He did not, in the minds of the decision-makers within MLSE, close the door against the Bruins. (That’s not how I see it, by the way, but how Leaf management and maybe even Carlyle felt, it seems. Some fans, too.) And he still has flaws in his game (glove hand, rebound control, being supposedly injury-prone, etc.). That doesn’t help.
But the dagger was/is Leiweke’s recent comment about Reimer being “the guy we inherited”. I mean, the more I think about that statement, you can’t realty be more obvious about how you feel than that, eh? Leiweke is a Bernier supporter; he has convinced ownership Bernier is the man for the job.
Does that matter? Yes, it does.
Does that matter? Yes, it does.
For his part, Nonis has basically put his reputation on the line (long-term contract extension aside) with the bold move to deal for Bernier. He gave up several assets for Bernier. (In fairness, it's not like Nonis has not made bold goaltending moves before...acquiring Luongo in Vancouver was huge, obviously...)
Leiweke wants a different culture around the ACC. He thinks he is a “builder” who will make it happen. One of “his” center-piece moves was to, along with his General Manager, trade for his own guy.
All of which leads us to now, and Bernier saying he wants the job.
He has it. Who’s kidding whom?
Sure, Reimer is a battler and will fight for his ice, but we should make no mistake, this is not a level playing field. He can’t really win, unless Bernier is injured. Ownership, Leiweke, Nonis and Carlyle all want the new guy to be the man in goal. No one will come out and admit that or say it publicly, but it’s all so transparent.
Just knowing that (believe me, Reimer heard what Leiweke said about being “the guy we inherited”…) puts Reimer behind the 8-ball.
No matter how mentally strong Reimer is, no matter how hard he works this off-season, no matter how well he plays this fall, there is a goaltending plan in place, and it does not include two 26 year-old guys fighting for the same job for the next several years. Successful, non-dysfunctional hockey teams never operate that way. No team, especially one that has been as fragile as this one has been for years—and operates in this market—could survive that scenario for very long.
So at some point, sooner than later, the Leafs will have to trade Reimer. In fact, I think they should. They owe it to him to send him somewhere (if there is a team that wants him badly enough) where he will be the new guy, the goalie that management and ownership wants and will invest in as their netminder for the future.
I’m not happy about it, as I’m a Reimer guy. He is a likeable individual in an organization that has had (and now still has) a few too many management/coach personalities in recent years that presented as bigger than the team, too bombastic or too self-impressed and condescending. In the same breath, there have been a few players here who I sense obviously could not care less that they wore the Leaf crest. Or at least it makes no difference to them whether they play here or in Columbus or Arizona.
I believe James Reimer has loved being a Leaf and even though he is still a young man, somehow understood some of what it means to represent this team in the community. He has fought through serious injuries (and the many critics and doubters) and played well here over parts of the past three NHL seasons. And I know this: he has worn the crest proudly, and been a model Maple Leaf off the ice.
I’m not worried about his injury “issues”. I think he can have a good, long career ahead of him.
So I say, set Reimer free. Oh, I recognize that this can only occur on the Maple Leaf timetable. They’re not in the ‘feelings’ business. They’re not a charity. They will make cold-hearted business decisions, as do players nowadays. Both sides in sports have long admitted that “this is business”. Fair enough.
But while I wouldn’t suggest Reimer is like a 15-year Leaf veteran (in the mold of a Dave Keon or Mats Sundin) who the organization maybe could be seen to “owe” something to, I do feel some respect should be shown to him.
Having him battle for a job that realistically he cannot really win (c’mon, they just gave the other guy a new contract…), while maybe not unfair in the highly competitive world of professional sports, is also disingenuous on the part of the Leafs. They know what they want. They want the new guy in goal.
So make a hockey deal. Find a team that needs a front-line, top-10 NHL goalie (I think Reimer is that; hey, some think he deserved to be on the Team Canada Olympic invitation list, though I don’t think he’s in that category just yet…) and see what we can get back.
But more importantly, don’t leave him hanging. Do the right thing by a player who has been a proud Maple Leaf.