As we have discussed here many times before, there is nothing like the scent of fall and a new season to bring back our “hope” when it comes to the Maple Leafs. We’re all well aware of the travails of this organization since they/we last won a playoff round more than ten years ago. There is no real need to rehash the history. We can simply say there have been some nice moments, some talented players, and yes, many times when it looked as though the team was in fact turning a corner.
For a host of reasons, it just never quite happened.
But here we sit, as the Leafs kick off their exhibition season tonight (the league can call them pre-season games; they will always be exhibition games for me…), and, well, hope is rekindled yet again.
There is hope because maybe, just maybe, Shanahan’s plan unfolding. There is hope because of Babcock, because someone who has actually built championship teams (Lamoriello) is also on hand.
Hope around the actual roster itself? Maybe not, but we know Babcock will create an atmosphere that will push this squad to win on nights when they probably shouldn’t. And there are prospects on the way, eh?
We also know this: there will always be surprises, positive ones. There always are at this time of year. Now, I will add that we should not get our heads turned (though we will) by the performance of players in pre-season who show better than we anticipated, or that we didn't know much about beforehand. This happens every autumn, and it’s a good thing.
That said, it’s often the case that these training camp impressions don’t last. They are nice, but fleeting.
There are really several seasons within the NHL schedule: training camp, exhibition games, early season, the January/February stretch, the late winter/early spring run to the playoffs and finally, the playoffs.
The players who are really helping their team when it counts the most typically show up best during those last two parts of the season. But that’s not to discount that every game is important, and the “pre-season” is as well, in terms of sometimes setting a tone.
So where will this particular Leaf squad draw their hope from (besides Babcock), when things get tough during the 2015-’16 NHL season?
For a possible answer I look at the goal crease, and choose to believe that the Leafs have guys who can carry them (if healthy) through whatever hockey storms will inevitably arise.
I’ve come to appreciate Jonathan Bernier here in his time in Toronto. But I remain someone who still admires what James Reimer brings to the table.
I recognize that I have been very clear here in the past that I was not especially thrilled with Reimer’s role (and how we was perceived within the organization and utilized by the coaching staff) from the time the Leafs traded for Bernier more than two years ago. I often suggested it would be best to trade him—at least get something of substance in return for a still young netminder who could vie for the top job elsewhere. It would also have allowed him to start fresh and hopefully boost his confidence.
I still believe that may have been best for both parties, but given that it never happened, Reimer is here; still the dutiful back-up, still fighting, no doubt, to try and prove himself to yet another new coaching staff.
It’s a bit hard to believe Reimer is now 27 and first played with the Leafs during the 2010-’11 season. That seems like ages ago, and in Leaf years, I guess it is. I’m thinking he may be one of the more veteran Leafs, if not in age then certainly in terms of seniority and how long he has been with the organization (drafted in 2006).
Reimer has struggled at times during his years in Toronto, for sure. And he may have been unhappy with Bernier essentially (in my view) being handed the number one job two years ago. But I also think he has played some very good hockey and has handled himself with a lot of class during his time here. He has been available to the media in good times and bad, has always presented himself as a guy who would face his critics (And we know he has indeed faced his share of caustic commentary as the team struggled around him.)
When he first came here he was, from a fan’s perspective, a breath of fresh air. He was young, hopeful, eager, hard working and seemingly always smiling. And he played awfully well at times.
Time, years and life wear on all of us. But I’m glad Reimer is still here. And I believe that whether he is “number one” or “number two”, he can be a guy that makes a solid contribution in goal—and in the dressing room as well. He has seen the highs and lows of being a Leaf in this market. He knows how the media operates and how the fan base can react. He has seen countless teammates go and go.
He also knows this can be the best hockey city in the world to play in, if this organization, and this team, ever gets it all going.
Bottom line? I’d be happy if Reimer was part of any turnaround that lies ahead for the blue and white.