Prior to and throughout the 2013-’14 NHL season, I spent considerable time sharing my thoughts on what I saw as the untenable nature of the then proposed Maple Leaf goaltending tandem of Jonathan Bernier and incumbent James Reimer.
My concern was not that I believed Bernier to be a less than stellar netminder, but rather that I didn’t believe that it would be a workable situation overall—especially for Reimer. Having two relatively young (now 26) goalies that both wanted to play a lot was not, to me, a viable plan. The notion of them pushing one another was great on the one hand, but I saw it as inevitable that Reimer would find his new situation unacceptable.
I still believe there was logic in my view, especially given comments made by Tim Leiweke in the summer of 2013 about Reimer being “the guy we inherited”. It was clear from the get go that Bernier, with a new contract in hand, was not coming here to be a back-up, or even to share time. He was here to be the guy in goal, which had to be unsettling for Reimer.
Early on last season, the Bernier-Reimer combination looked promising indeed, as both played very well for the most part. But before long, Reimer had a couple of tough outings, Carlyle pulled him a few times and Reimer’s confidence was seemingly not what it needed to be for him to play his best.
Also, as the season wore on, Reimer went long stretches without seeing the net, and while he played quite well at first (the game in LA comes to mind) when Bernier was hurt late in the season, he faltered a bit and the Leafs fell out of the playoff picture—through there were plenty of other issues beyond goaltending at the time.
Fast forward to the present: Reimer signed a modest contract extension this past summer. Bernier is still the undisputed number-one here, but I wonder if Reimer is more at peace with his role this time around. While in his own mind he is perhaps still fighting to be number one, it’s clear the brass sees Bernier in that role.
Yet most nights this season when he has had an opportunity to play, Reimer has stepped in and played pretty darn well. While mostly solid, he did not have to be especially eye-popping through most of his earlier starts. But things turned for him as the ice tilted in the third period against the Blackhawks at the ACC on Saturday night. Reimer was the “good” Reimer of old, making tough saves, keeping his team in the game and getting better as the game went on.
Rather than fighting the puck, he seemed confident. He battled to find the puck and played with authority. And while he still gave up some juicy rebounds to the hungry Chicago forwards (and they did seem to have more guys on the ice than us through most of the final twenty minutes), he handled things awfully well. He made all the saves you expect your goalie to make in a close game, but he also provided a few heart-stoppers in there as well.
So now I’m left to wonder: was I in fact wrong about the concerns I expressed last season, and throughout this past summer? Was I off base to suggest that Reimer needed a fresh start somewhere else (e.g. Winnipeg?), that he would benefit from going to a team where the organization would appreciate what he was, rather than criticize what he wasn’t?
I still am not sure I know the answer, in part because exactly a year ago, many Leaf supporters also believed that the tandem approach would work just fine because it did seem to be working pretty well for a while. But that line of thinking still assumes one of these guys can accept not being in goal anywhere near as much as he’d like to be.
The Leafs have only played eleven games this season. Bernier was a little less than his standard self during his early games this season, but other than the game against Detroit last Saturday when his teammates struggled as well, he has been very strong in his last several starts.
As for Reimer, his performance against the Hawks may (emphasis on may) be the exact catalyst he needs to remind himself—as well as Carlyle, Leaf management and those Leaf fans who have precious little confidence in him—that he can still be a fine NHL goaltender. He showed that against some of the best shooters in the league Saturday night, in a game where, if Toronto had lost, we fans and media may well have shrugged and said, “same old Leafs”.
Maybe they are the same old Leafs. But just like a couple of losses trigger comments from most of us about all the flaws on the roster and behind the bench, a couple of wins—including one on the road and another against a Cup-caliber squad—may suggest the team is capable of doing something this season if everyone does their job…and, well, if the goalies stand on their head.
Will Bernier-Reimer be a winning combination long term? I still don’t know, but at least for now, it’s uplifting to see the Leafs with two guys in goal who can steal a game—because goodness knows, we still have some challenges that will be a season-long project to deal with, I sense.
- While I did not expect Carrick to be in the lineup, he brought some energy. Carlyle went with his regulars down the stretch, but it was good to see Carrick get a chance, albeit with very little ice time.
- Komarov blocked what could have been a dangerous shot in the dying seconds. A lot of us missed what he brought last season and that was just one example of what he can deliver at key moments.
- My guess is a lot of Leaf fans were happy to see Kadri and Kessel together still. Whether that will work over the long haul in terms of the overall balance of the forward lines, we’ll see.
- I said during training camp I wanted to believe Clarkson would be a contributor this season—and he continues to be. That was an untimely penalty he took late in the third period on Saturday night but it strikes me that he is closer to his old New Jersey self these days. Comfort and familiarity can make a difference.
- Winnik continues to do little things that will help this roster over time. A plus 7 so far, his Anaheim experience should pay dividends and hopefully rub off on some teammates.
- Holland scored what turned out to be the winning goal—that should be encouraging for the young Leaf forward who is working to earn his regular spot. (Over 16 minutes of ice time Saturday is a good sign, too…)
- Lupul's absence is an opportunity for other Leafs to make an impression and push for ice time.
- We still will need more from the fourth line. The Leafs looked gassed in the third period and were mostly holding on. I know they played on the road Friday night, but all the more reason Carlyle has to find guys for that line that he can put out there with confidence.
I guess the question now is, short term: can the Leafs build on this during a brief road trip through Colorado and Arizona?