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Leafs still want Reimer to be the guy

It was a (customary?) slow start for the Leafs on the road in Philly Thursday night.  To their credit, they kept bouncing back from deficits all night and just came up a bit short in the end.  Both goalies (Reimer and Bobrovsky) maybe allowed some "questionable" goals but also made some sterling saves at various points throughout the game.

I may be in the minority, but I didn't see it as a particularly poor game for individual Leaf players.  That said I'm not sure many stood out, either, though Bozak was certainly opportunistic in  scoring twice from around the net and Kessel picked up two assists. Lupul added his 22nd on the season (wonder what the over-under was on Lupul this season?) and Phaneuf was involved, engaging in an old-time battle with Hartnell almost all evening long.

The Schenn brothers went head to head, Schenn the younger scoring for the Flyers, Luke playing pretty well and now a plus 10 on the season, tops on the team.  (For all the angst, he is still leading the team in hits and maintaining that plus/minus...)

I do have one thought to share:  there are three guys on the current Leaf roster, all good NHL'ers and in the line-up Thursday night, who I sense may struggle when the hockey turns gritty in the playoffs.

Can you guess who they might be?

I'll answer at the end of the your comments on this post, likely Friday night sometime.


Brian Burke was maybe the happiest guy in the hockey world a few weeks back, when James Reimer was still not quite himself (after the early-season injury) and Jonas Gustavsson filled the void in the Maple Leaf net rather nicely.

But the GM’s public reaction (something along the lines of "he saved our season...") while a compliment, seemed to be as much one of shock and relief than something he expected.

Wasn’t it Burke who, earlier this season, suggested Monster may be more comfortable sort of coming off the bench as a back-up, that (and correct me if my memory is off here) Gustavsson may indeed be better suited to that role, and not have to face the pressure of being a “number-one”?

Whatever the precise words were, the message was clear.  Gustavsson was maybe lacking whatever you need to have the mentality (and the ability) to grab the net - and keep it -  at this level.

However, Gus did pretty much precisely that.  After some fits and starts during Reimer’s somewhat prolonged absence, (and watching Scrivens from a seat on the bench a few nights) Gustavsson went on a mini-run that, in some ways, was every bit as good as what Reimer pulled off in a shocker a year ago—albeit not for as long as Reimer did his thing last season.

But Reimer eventually fought his way back to what I can only believe is the number-one slot in the Leaf cage, with a couple of nicely played shutout wins (once he shed some light rust) and overall, three wins in succession.  Gustavsson losing In Winnipeg—and allowing what many consider a “soft” one—no doubt further sealed what I am about to say again:  despite the loss in Philly, Reimer is the guy.  He’s the goalie that Burke “believes” in, that Wilson believes in, that they both want to carry the team to the playoffs.

Back in November, I posted on this subject, and also asked that, if the Leafs had no confidence in The Monster, that they should do him a favor and set him free, so he could find a home and a goalie coach, perhaps, who would help him play the way I sense he can, with his own “style”—and most importantly, restore his confidence.

Now, that all said, I sense Gus was pretty darn confident there for a time, when he was playing well, winning games, and seeing his save percentage jump to a quite respectable number.  Of course, we all understand that confidence can be a fragile—and often fleeting—thing for an athlete at just about any age.  This includes professional athletes, and it certainly is the case for even some of the best NHL goaltenders.  They can say what they feel they have to publicly, but I’ve been following this sport closely for over fifty years, and I can cite any number of guys in net who I’ve seen losing their confidence and have eventually admitted, often after the fact, that they had in fact lost their confidence and had to work like heck to re-gain it.

It’s always hard to know what comes first:  does a goalie feed off what he senses from his teammates (that they trust him to deliver—or not), or do the teammates feel confident (or not) in their goalie based on what they see and how he is playing?  Chicken or the egg?  I’m not quite sure.

But I continue to believe that, back in the fall, Gustavsson felt, if not quite un-appreciated or under-valued here, then at least that the organization really did not believe in him.  (Quick aside:  I found it a bit odd the other night when Greg Millen, the former NHL goalie turned TV analyst, gave the Leaf brass kudos for “believing” in Gustavsson when it would have been easy not to.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  I like Millen and all that, and he knows the game and the position a heck of a lot better than I do, clearly.  But it’s a joke, in my mind, to even suggest the organization believed in Gus.  Heck, Scrivens had the number-one job for a while, when Reimer was out.  Eventually Wilson/Burke had no choice but to keep trying Gustavsson, especially when Reimer returned and struggled himself.  So yes, applaud the Leafs if you want, but Gustavsson’s success was the result of necessity and his eventually stealing the show for a few short weeks, not because they showered him with support and “belief”.  They needed him and no doubt Allaire and the staff encouraged him, and yes, Monster played some good hockey.  It’s called self-preservation, all the way around…)

In any event, here we are now.  Reimer is the number-one goalie. (Funny, eh?  A couple of weeks ago so many people were talking as though Reimer had lost the net, and Monster had won the job.  It was like, “gee, let Reims play one once in a while, or he’ll get really rusty”.  Just shows how quickly things change—and could change again—also based on necessity.)  But what I am really saying today is simply this:  Reimer is the guy, still, that the honchos want to to see take the ball and run with it.  Not just that he’s younger than Gus, or under contract for an extra couple of seasons (that’s true, right?).  But Reimer was the fellow that saved their bacon a year ago and gave Leaf fans a much-needed summer of hope.

This is not to suggest that management, as with virtually any player, will be forever “loyal” to him, or wouldn’t throw the guy on the nearest rail out of town in a trade if they thought they could help the hockey club.  But that applies to pretty much every player, right?  No, Reimer is the man they want to be the flagship goalie.  They’d dearly love, in my estimation, to see Reimer imprint the number “1” on his chest and run with it next season, playing 60+ games. (Remember when that was (pre-injury and pre-struggles) the plan for the current season?

Not long ago I posted here that the Leaf goaltending situation was in good hands, just not at that precise moment.  And I said that because that’s what I was observing and what I believed.  Both of these guys can play.  Both are still finding their ceiling, whatever it may be.  But both, at that particular time, were not quite setting the league on fire.

And this is one of the great things about the NHL, for me.  The power-play for some team that stunk six weeks ago could be the best in the league now.  (Look at the Leaf penalty-kill.)  Yesterday’s hot team is suddenly cold now.  November’s “Player of the Month” could be struggling badly now, with say, one goal in a dozen games. 

What happened?  Was that team, or player, great then and a bum now?  Maybe.  But more likely water finds its proper level in the NHL over the marathon endurance-test that is the 82-game regular-season.

The Leaf goaltending picture, while huge for us, is but one of the many twisting and turning sub-plots that make this great sport so fascinating every season.


  1. I thought the game was a little slow by leaf standards tonight. I know there were few whistles and the game was relatively quick but to me it seemed like there was no real flow. That is contradictory I know but, it seemed like most of the play were from broken plays and lots of skating but no action.

    Maybe it was because the Leafs got involved physicaly with the Flyers, nice to see but not really what this group of players is about. To me this team is all about speed, speed, speed. They are at thier best when they go end to end and trade chances as in the Edmonton game. They don't engage after whistles they just invite the other team to try and skate with them. This is how this team is built. It won't win playoff hockey but as of right now it is the only way they can play and hope to win on a consistent basis.

    I know I am one of the guys who wish the Leafs played tougher but with the personal they have on the roster as of right now they can't succeed playing that way.

    My three picks for guys who might struggle in the playoffs.
    1. Kessel: while much better this year I have noticed a tendancy to fall back on the perimeter play in really tight , tough checking games. I know he has one pretty decent playoff with Boston but this year (and yes the Leafs will make it) he will be the number one guy, something he hasn't faced yet.

    2.MacArthur: Nothing I have seen from him suggests he will pick his game up when the playoffs start and things get much much harder. What you see is what you get and I am not optimistic that it will be enough.

    3.Connolly: Another perimeter player who I don't think is willing to fight for every inch of ice. Something that has to be done if you want to score in the playoffs.

  2. Outside of anything else, who's #1, who's not, I respect Gustavsson for reaching deep and gutting it out to find his game when possibly no one in the organization would really back him up, and that on top of becoming an orphan at what is still a very young age. I don't understand why he's been denied the treatment his day to day commitment has earned if Michael's impressions are on, and I would neither be surprised or blame him if he actually sought out another opportunity by quietly asking Burke for a new chance somewhere else.
    Yes, we gave him the opportunity, but there were other suitors and he chose to play for the Leafs, along with never once saying a negative word in public regarding his experiences or the organization. My hat is off to him, and I think that inner strength is going to serve him well for a long time.
    As for Reimer, I hope his career as a Leaf is long and illustrious and he reaches his full potential with us. Ultimately, there's no getting around the fact (?) that there can be only one rooster in the hen-house, so to speak, when it comes to NHL goaltending.
    The weird thing is that Jonas is purely Burke's goaltender, and Reimer was drafted by JFJ. It appears that is a very rare occurrence when Burke doesn't stick with his own guy.

  3. philly was skating circles around the leafs in their own zone, especially in the first... and then in the third, the leafs couldn't penetrate the philly defense.... who do i think will struggle in a playoff run? geez... you can count on one-hand the leafs players with any significant post-season experience... i don't know if i could narrow it down to three! let's hear'em mike!

    the leafs are apparently pretty 'deep' in goalies (as you write about above... reimer, gus, scrivens, rynnas, swedish-guy) and defensemen... i wonder what burke is collecting these gents for... to swing a trade over the next couple of weeks? to trade over the summer-time? or just to hoard-away in some twisted personal collection of human-beings?

  4. Fantastic article Michael, enjoyed every bit of it.

    I'm very comfortable going forward with Reimer IF he's healthy. That's the big caveat because I believe he's a solid, consistent, unspectacular .910 sv% goaltender when he's all there physically.

    He's a confident guy (divinely inspired?) and his blocking and positional style doesn't lend itself to the greater highs and lows that athletic/reflex dependent goaltenders tend to experience.

    I think Reimer's steady, unspectacular presence has been fantastic in mitigating the inevitable peaks and valleys inherent in a developing, young hockey team. That said I'd be happy to bring back Gustavsson as a back up with the same cap hit, especially if Burke is going to eat up all that cap with Grabovski in the near future (which he should!)

  5. I do think the players, coaches, mgmt, and even Reimer believe that he's the guy. If it weren't for the Gionta hit, I really don't feel we'd be fighting for the 8th spot at this point. We would be 'up' there. That said, Monster is a class act and I think will play more than his share as I don't think Reimer can handle 65-70 games yet.

    That was a bad loss last night in a not very entertaining game. The Leafs got pushed around by a team that's not traditional Philly "big" - they are a skill/speed team like us, so that does not bode well for playoffs, if we make it.

    I may be going out on a limb here, but I'd say guys we might think of as physical (since the Leafs aren't a 'physical' team, per se) might struggle - so I'm saying Dion--because he may try to do too much and isn't the physical threat he was in junior or Calgary; Steckel--for a big guy,he seems to disappear in physical situations; and finally, any of Kessel, MacArthur, Connolly, Liles. Although Kessel has shown some grit and determination to play through tight checking.


  6. Connolly/Gardiner/Liles

  7. It will be interesting to see what happens with Gustavsson at year's end. While he's performed well in fits and spurts, he certainly hasn't established himself as a number-1 goalie, in my estimation.

    Would he re-sign with the Leafs knowing Reimer's injury history? Or would a team with an aging goaltender (such as NJ) be his target? Either way, I think he'll have to take his chances on being a backup somewhere -- the question is where?

  8. Not true, Alex C.
    Lupul, Phaneuf, Connolly, Liles, Kessel, Steckel, Lombardi all have solid playoff experience. Armstrong, Brown and Komisarek follow with limited gigs. Unless you have 10 fingers on each hand, that is.
    I think we'll be fine if we make the playoffs- not a severe threat yet, but those 7 I mentioned with good experience all put up good points as well.
    The 3 I think might fade would be Connolly, Komisarek and.........Reimer, but he would struggle due to need for goalie reaction speed, being good right around the net and swift reflexes in the playoffs, along with no experience there yet. The notion that Kessel isn't a fierce post-season competitor is just false, unless you call PPG in playoffs "soft".

  9. I had to laugh at alex c.’s funny assertion that Brian Burke could be on some crazed mission to collect human beings in the form of goaltenders. Was not his recent best advice to business students to emulate a psychopath? Of course, I must have that all wrong. I have to admit, I did not have enough patience to get through Steve Jobs seemingly endless biography. In the absence of a medical degree I will just call Jobs “intensely driven”. And, you would have been there in the classroom to get Burke’s context. So, let’s call Steve Jobs “intense” Brian Burke “driven” and whatever bodies lie in their wake “collateral damage”. It is not for me to judge, after all. I have no idea what it feels like to smell fresh cut flowers in corporate boardrooms. I do remember, however, how I felt when I heard on the radio that JFJ had traded Tukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. My heart fell through the floor and I have been looking for it ever since. Enter the Burke regime and free agent signings of François Allaire, Jonas Gustavsson, Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and Mark Owuya. Wow!

    I remember Burke once saying in an off-handed way something like: “Isn’t five the right number of goaltenders to have in your system?” No, collecting an A list of goaltending talent is not part of some diabolical plan. This seemingly mad plan is really a lucid one. Why collect middling talent if you can get exceptional talent? What you do with them all is another question. One hopes, for their sake, that they do not become collateral damage. Consequently, I hope that Burke gives them a fair shake, if not here, then the chance to succeed somewhere else. These are human beings and there really should be fairness and ethics to stocking and developing talent. To liberally paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentson on Dan Quayle: "Mr. Burke, we knew Steve Jobs and, you're no Steve Jobs". Then again, bring us a Stanley Cup and we will be thinking in our own demented Leaf logic: “Nice little product Mr. Jobs, but you are no Brian Burke”.

    We all get it, to bring the Cup home is the business plan. However, several among us hope that there is room in the business model for this objective to be achieved with as little collateral damage to these elite young athletes as possible.

  10. Sorry for the delay today n responding, everyone....I'll "declare" the names of the three Leafs I had in mind later tonight...

    Thanks Wilbur. I appreciate your observations on the Philly contest. Wasn't the Leafs' "best", for sure. I keep thinking, though, that everyone in the East is vulnerable on any given night. Playoffs are usually different, of course. Weaknesses shine through....

  11. KidK, on your first post re Gus/Reimer, well said.

    With regard to your later add-on....I hear what you;re saying, though I can appreciate exactly what Alex C. is thinking. I'll discuss my own views on where I see the Leafs fitting as a playoff-"type" team soon.

  12. Alex C....Thanks, as always for your assessment. Bobby C. has a great comment upcoming in regards to your post....should make you smile....

  13. Ben. B....great post re Reimer. (And thanks for your kind comment.) I think the kid can be special, and be a "face" of the Leafs for years to come because he has the skill/make-up and is a decent young man. Perfect fit, here- level-headed in a tough market....

  14. Caedmon, I think you raise a very worthwhile point: the Flyers are far from the "Broad Street Bullies" and in fact removed from the style of some more recent-vintage Flyer "tough" teams. But they will fight for the puck, like the Rangers and Bruins, something the Leafs will need to be ready for, obviously, come April.....Thanks.

  15. Curt S...The Gus "decision" (his and the organization's) will indeed be one of the off-season story lines for those of us who enjoy following Leaf fortunes....Well said.

  16. Bobby C...I never do justice to your great posts here. I loved today's, as well. Thanks.

  17. KidK, I stil think Kessel might struggle in the playoffs. I know he had one really good playoff with Boston, but he was also benched one year in Boston. He has never been "the guy" in a playoff series where he has to go up against the best shutdown guys the other team has to offer every shift. As a support player in Boston he has a good playoff, whether he can do it as the number one offensive threat remains to be seen. Being benched in the playoffs doesn't exactly scream fierce playoff competitor.

  18. Thanks Wilbur. You raise, in my view, valid and very fair points. I think Kessel is unproven, by my rather un-scientific definition, in terms of what he can do in the playoffs. I think your reference to his being the "key" guy is important here. He won't be the current-time Seguin, a less pivotal piece in the overall chess board...He will be THE GUY that other teams will aim to shut down. And, if they are successful, well, we know what the outcome will likely be come spring....(KidK...I will leave it to you and Wilbur to discuss this one respectfully, two long-time Leaf observers with perhaps different views on that particular question....)

  19. bobby craig! terrific`, witty, well-written comment! kidk, i stand corrected on the playoff-experience.

  20. Connolly, Lombardi & Steckel are my choices. Look forward to your selection Michael.

  21. As promised, the three players who I alluded to in the above post are Lombardi, Kulemin and Connolly.

    They are not alone on the Leafs when it comes to whether or not they will be able to -for a variety of reasons- contribute the way the Leafs would need them to, to achieve some degree of success in the playoffs. (As Wilbur pointed out above, Kessel will be in a far different circumstance this time around as the player opposing teams can and will aim to shut down. Can he handle that kind of tight-checking and constant attention?) Gardiner may find the playoffs far more physical than anything he has seen before. Bozak? Grabovski? Skilled, smart players, and that's important. But how will they fare under the heavy slogging that is playoff hockey?

    There are questions galore, but my thought in the above post was simply this: Connolly is a player with sweet skills. Given time and space, he can make plays. But setting aside his current struggles, can we count on him as a player performer? His playoff track record, going back to when he was younger and healthy, is mixed, at best.

    Kulemin, under normal circumstances, should be built for the playoff- a two-way forward who can score timely goals. But his early-season struggles have turned into a legitimate season-long slump. Earlier "break out" games have in fact turned out to be "one-offs". Right now, he could be more liability than producer come playoff time. That can change, but I'm a bit skeptical just now.

    Lombardi has that elite speed. But I don't see him as a player who will necessarily be able to handle the physically demanding part of playoff hockey after many serious injuries. I see him as a Cammalleri without the finishing skill or toughness. Is that fair?

  22. Ed, I posted just before your comment arrived....Thanks....