I admit I've kept one eye on the World Hockey Championships just concluded in Belarus because of the Maple Leaf connection that included Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and James Reimer (Canada) and Jake Gardiner on the U.S. squad. I also monitored, though not as closely as I would have liked, the progress of longtime Leaf forward Nikolai Kulemin of the Russian side. I further admit that I was mildly aware of how ex-Leaf agitator Leo Komarov was doing while helping Finland to the Gold medal game. (The home Belarussian side, with former Leaf Mikhail Grabovski on board, hung in very well throughout the event; he concluded the event a plus 4 with 8 points in 6 games in front of tremendously supportive fans in Minsk…)
Canada probably deserved a better fate but lost in the quarter-final round against Finland, so we really did not get to see ‘our’ guys in action in many meaningful encounters. Kadri was a plus 2 in 7 games, making a modest offensive contribution with 3 assists. But given that the Canadian forwards had never played together before and were playing on a large ice surface, I’m not sure I expected anything more from the cagey 23 year-old Leaf pivot. That he suited up for Canada had to be a good experience in itself, regardless of outcome.
I saw enough of Morgan Rielly this past NHL season that I was not remotely concerned about what he did at the World Championships. I just enjoy watching him play. (He was one of the few Leafs on my “must keep” list at the end of the season.) For the record, he was a plus 3 with 3 points in the tournament.
Gardiner’s U.S. side, made up mostly of good but still second-tier NHL’ers (like the Canadian squad, many of the elite guys were still in the playoffs, or had been in the Olympics and declined an invite), also exited the tournament early, so we didn't get to see Jake in any high-level medal games. But he finished the tournament a plus 2 in 8 games, with 4 points in total. Like Kadri, the 23 year-old Gardiner can only be better for these kinds of international experiences.
As those following the tournament well know, Kulemin and Komarov met in the Gold medal matchup. Kulemin played in all 10 games for his National team, netting 7 points, including an assist on the clinching Russian goal in the Gold medal game. For his part, Komarov (might he still sign with the Leafs, I wonder?) played his usual tenacious game, with 3 points in 10 games as the Fins earned a silver medal.
But I guess the real question I had—and a central reason I was trying to follow the tournament—is this: where “is” James Reimer these days? More than a month after the Leafs finished their year with a whimper, with Reimer having struggled down the stretch when Jonathan Bernier was injured, I was keen to know if he would be looking to “prove” something. (These proud, competitive individuals will rarely admit that sort of thing.)
From what I saw and as best I could tell, Reimer played pretty well in the games he started. His basic stats were hardly startling. His goals against average was 2.20 with a save percentage just above .910 but I thought he generally played well, albeit in a relatively small sample size against middlish opposition.
I was interested to see who Canadian head coach Dave Tippett would chose to start the elimination game against Finland—and it turned out that he went with another former Leaf, Ben Scrivens. The decision seemed to reinforce the kind of year it had been for Reimer: when he was good, he wasn’t quite good enough. And at the end of the day, the coaching staff did not have the confidence in him to be “the man” when it mattered most, as had been the case with the Leafs.
While Reimer has never proven himself an All-Star by any means, and has never played a full NHL season as an injury-free “number-one”, I still believe he is a goaltender with a future who could well become a solid netminder on a contending team. This year had to be a challenge for him mentally and certainly in terms of his confidence. I’ve written here about the train of events that got us to this point, starting with the acquisition of Bernier when it looked as though Reimer had finally established himself as the top guy in Toronto a year ago. When incoming Leaf CEO Tim Leiweke spoke of Reimer as “the guy we inherited”, you knew Reimer was not in the team’s long-term plans.
So here we are: Reimer is a restricted free-agent, but surely won’t want to spend another season looking at Randy Carlyle from the end of the Leaf bench. Bernier will play 60 games next season, and justifiably so. While some Leaf observers like myself will claim the deck was stacked against Reimer from the get-go and that it was an uneven playing field in terms of his supposed competition with Bernier, the former LA King did grab the job and deserves to be the undisputed number-one goaltender next season.
But what about Reimer?
While some will say the Leafs should keep him as insurance, I think having Bernier and Reimer together for another season would not be good for team harmony. The Leafs need a number-one and someone who embraces their role as a back-up. That doesn’t mean the back-up can’t aspire to be the top guy, but he can’t be unhappy and thinking he deserves to be in goal ahead of Bernier.
My sense is Reimer does get moved this summer. The Leafs may not get much, but they didn’t exactly sell high when they had a chance last summer. At the time, Reimer was coming off a pretty strong season and playoff series as a number-one goalie behind a team that had many of the same flaws they exhibited this past season (being out-chanced, etc.) and he had held them in nicely. But they missed the opportunity to cash in.
In any event, I have no idea where he ends up, but it can’t be here. Winnipeg, maybe?