Reimer: Leafs Goalie of the Future or Past?

Truth be told, with all apologies to his supporters, I was never that much of a James Reimer fan. Not the person, per say. I’m quite certain he has always been a stand-up guy and stellar teammate. As a player, this couch scout viewed him as a mid-round pick without any real hype or junior resume to fawn over. A “C-grade” prospect, spending the majority of his first pro season in the ECHL, who took advantage of an opportunity and ran with it. “Good for him,” I thought, and I was of the belief Reimer would come back to Earth, so to speak, and settle in as maybe a serviceable NHL back-up.

Even his general manager back then didn’t know a whole bunch about him. I recall Brian Burke talking about Reimer not being on his radar until Francois Beauchemin told him during a training camp, while Reimer was a relative unknown, the goalie would be a bonafide No. 1 someday. With all due respect to Francois, I just wasn’t feeling the love. It turned out a couple years later, I wasn’t alone in my opinion of Reimer. This is in no way an upvote for me or an “I told you so,” but it seemed Dave Nonis and company agreed when they acquired Jonathan Bernier via trade with the Los Angeles Kings.

Choosing to go with polish and pedigree in Bernier, claiming 1A and 1B of course, Toronto made a bold decision after Reimer led the organization to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. We all know what happened after that in Boston, no need to rehash. All I will say is I can’t help but wonder if Game 7 didn’t make the trade an easier one to pull the trigger on. I didn’t blame him at all, though I didn’t argue with the idea of upgrading. Or a perceived upgrade I should say.

What I’ve always respected about “Optimus Reim,” as he’s affectionately known, is no matter how big the blow, he’s eventually getting back up.

I was in full favor of the deal at the time, knowing Bernier from his QMJHL days and seeing his work with Manchester and L.A., I thought the trade was a steal. Many didn’t see it the same, as the importance of addressing the goaltending position was well down their line of priorities. I understood the sentiment, some believed Reimer had shown us all he was the starter of the future. Despite his exceptional play and general likability, a massive fan favourite, there was aspects of his game I couldn’t get past.

Rebound control and a weakish glove hand were the root of my early disapproval. Maybe fair, maybe not, the fact remained I was rarely comfortable with him in the net. At his peak and with victories piling up I still didn’t envision Reimer as the answer. I couldn’t put my finger on it, aside from the above and possibly his propensity for looking behind him with regularity after a shot on goal. Or, it could have been that he seemed to struggle with handling the puck after it hit him. It was always a scramble, and knowing the toll that takes on an already questionable defense core then, I wanted somebody with more assertion and natural ability.

Watching Bernier early on, you saw the difference in comfort with oncoming shots. I don’t want to keep going back to Bernier, he’s not the topic today. That said, it’s hard not to link the two despite the fact most of us are tired of the debate. And I’ve been down that road before last season when I wrote a piece comparing their battle for the No. 1 position to Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed. The role of Rocky obviously played by Reimer, the lovable battler taking on the technically sound Creed in Bernier. Unfortunately neither goalie reached Champion status and both have taken their blows. What I’ve always respected about “Optimus Reim,” as he’s affectionately known, is no matter how big the blow, he’s eventually getting back up. Don’t get me wrong, not thinking Reimer was the goalie of the future is a far cry from not admiring his competitive spirit. And whether I was a fan of his style or not, it’s hard to argue when James Reimer is on he can win you a lot of games. That’s not to say he hasn’t spent his fair share of time on the canvas either.

Scrapping for the net with JB isn’t the only battle Reimer has faced. Injuries have plagued the netminder, even this year. Going back to the Brian Gionta hit, concussions have been a serious issue for him and his career. We all remember fondly Dave Feschuk seeking out Reimer’s mother to obtain her thoughts on the matter. Along with the head trauma, there have been groin problems to go with it. Another red flag for goaltenders, the fear being they will always persist. Yet here we are, knockdown after knockdown, look who is still in the ring no worse for wear. Well, a few scars, perhaps. Pulling himself off the mat, written off time and time again, Reimer continues to answer the bell. Despite the setbacks he is still to this day fighting to be the Maple Leafs No. 1 guy. A fight according to the judges scorecard, he’s winning unanimously.

Sporting a ridiculous 2.10 GAA and an even more impressive .932 save percentage, “Reim Time” has shown once more to never underestimate this guy’s heart. It could be noted maybe we shouldn’t shortchange his talent anymore either. Stopping pucks is the name of the game after all. One thing is for sure, nothing has been handed to him. He’s had to prove himself every step of the way. So with February 29th and the NHL trade deadline approaching, here’s where the plot gets interesting. An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, is Reimer in his last rounds as a Maple Leaf or has the bout only just begun?

…the Manitoba-raised “Gee Golly Gosh” Reimer is doing everything possible to prove not only he should be the No. 1 this season, he’s showing he wants and possibly deserves to stay on a new contract.

Darren Dreger of TSN recently reported that there is a belief among general managers throughout the league Reimer will put pen to paper on a contract resembling $4.5-5 million over a term of five to seven years. A starting point for negotiations, nevertheless, is this a contract Lou Lamoriello and the Maple Leafs brass are willing to entertain? With the deadline looming, a history of inconsistent play in the past and the seemingly constant black cloud of possible injury, what does the future hold for Reimer and the Leafs. That my friends, that is the downside. The upside? James Reimer is perhaps playing better or as well as any goaltender in hockey right now. From my own personal perspective, I don’t seem to have the same concerns I had previously. The uneasiness, the second guessing, the cringing as he searches the crease for the puck, I don’t feel any of that. The only thing I feel when I see James Reimer in net in 2016 is confident.

I would have to imagine I’m not the only one who feels good with James in the net. Reimer himself must feel as good as ever about his play. A new goalie coach, bench boss, and management team, the Manitoba-raised “Gee Golly Gosh” Reimer is doing everything possible to prove not only he should be the No. 1 this season, he’s showing he wants and possibly deserves to stay on a new contract.

As I stated at the top, I was never all that high on James Reimer. When he was the toast of the town, I didn’t raise a glass. Nor did I salute any of his falls from grace along the way. I still wanted him to be successful, I couldn’t picture him here long term. As you can tell, I had strong views on Reimer. So what’s changed for me since he broke through in Toronto and now?

I would argue this is not the same goaltender I had a tough time embracing, up until recently. After some consideration, I’m a “born again” fan of Reimer and I think I can pinpoint why. The difference is something I overlooked his first few seasons, only now has it come to light. The big revelation? It’s not anything technical, that’s for sure. I’m no goalie guru, I have no insight on angles or the butterfly. I couldn’t catch one with a soccer net, nevermind explain it in goalie jargon. My reasoning as to why my nerves were shot when he bust on the scene as opposed to the present, where I’m cool as cucumber when I watch him, is profoundly easy. Here it is, if you are ready for something deep? He was young. There you have it, the astounding discovery. He was a young goalkeeper, almost boyish in many ways, finding his way. Today, I see a man who has found it.

We forget that Reimer has been a fairly inexperienced goalie during his time in the Toronto crease. He jumped right in there for the most part. Now, at 27, I look at Reimer as somebody becoming a veteran in this league. His play and demeanour only echos such. Considering all he’s been through, the amount of adversity and what he’s learned along the way, is it now when we send him packing for a draft pick or two? I’m not convinced it is.

Development is the buzzword in Leafs land, and isn’t it entirely possible this is what we are witnessing with our starting goaltender? A goalie who has developed? I know a lot is being made these days about “prime years” and this and that. When you look at goaltenders, isn’t James Reimer entering that stage of his career you would expect to be his best? The growing pains are over, and maybe with it are the ups and downs. Will Reimer always play at this level? Likely not, though seeing him in the net in 2015/16 I think it’s fair to say he’s settling in as a true starter in the NHL. Like I’ve said, I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect this play or for Reims to still be standing. He may be winning me over, but nothing is set in stone. Let us be clear, while at the top of the NHL in the most important goaltending categories, it’s still no slam dunk that the job in Toronto is Reimer’s going forward.

Prior to conclusions being made based on the reading material at in front of you, we’ve fell victim to this before. Especially when it comes to some of the core members of this group of Maple Leafs. I myself have been warned several times within the website walls to not fall for ‘fool’s gold.’ The advice is warranted, though this case is unique. I don’t see a rotten core here anymore. Mike Babcock’s hiring and Phil Kessel’s trade put an end to all that for me. Now I merely see individuals trying to be a part of something great down the road. Who stays, who goes, nobody is really sure yet and obvious changes will come. But names like Kadri, JVR, Gardiner, these are examples of players who I think can help this team when they are contenders. Not as the core, as solid parts. Can we now add James Reimer to that list? His role in the march to Stanley (I know, 49 years of marching, I know) could turn out to be as big or bigger than any of the those I just mentioned. Then we have another option, in where his role in the rebuild is to acquire futures at the deadline.

The question of durability must be asked when it comes to Reimer before anointing him the franchise’s netminder of the foreseeable future. Never managing to start 40 games, aside from the lockout shortened season he’s never really carried the mail for an entire year. Prior to making a commitment in term and dollars, it would be foolish not to have concerns. Coach Mike Babcock himself has already expressed frustration with Reimer and his uncertainty on whether he was ready to play or not. Saying more or less he’s got to get back in there and test it or go on the IR. Far more controversial a stance than saying the goalie was “just okay,” to the benefit of being Mike Babcock, but I digress. In fairness to the uber competitive Babcock, it’s probable he just wanted his guy back. The guy who won the job between the pipes after Bernier once again was handed the ball out of the gate.

Every bit as much as he’s earned my vote of confidence, James Reimer has assuredly earned the confidence of his teammates, his coach, and management. And with it the he’s earned right to start for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now and beyond.

On the last Blue & White Tonight podcast, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet had some interesting points to make when it comes to Reimer and his future in the ‘Big Smoke.’ In addressing Toronto’s options in net, it was his comment which got me thinking more about the whole situation. Of his words, what made the most sense to me was simply the poor market for goaltenders via trade. With Reimer approaching UFA status, what would a team like Calgary or say the Islanders be actually willing to give up? A 1st or top organizational prospect is doubtful. There’s no Vesa Toskala deals out there. A 2nd, maybe a 3rd as well? Picks are wonderful, the more the merrier, but are a couple picks with low percentage chance of ever playing a considerable role on the team really worth trading currently one of the top performing goaltenders in the NHL for? It very well could be, but coupled with another statement of Johnston’s, that Reimer has endeared himself to the new regime through his solid play and off-ice character, a contract extension becomes more and more plausible. It’s not easy to find reliable goaltending. Maple Leafs fans know this all too well. With Reimer, in essence we’ve seen the tale of two cities.

So I guess the question in the end, after you strip it down and weigh every angle, becomes rather simple. Is Reimer the guy to build with? It’s the answer that’s hard. And just like you I’ve been tricked too many times by some of the members of this roster. Fool me once, they say. Well, if that’s how I intend on going about analyzing these current Leafs from now on, then the same theory reciprocally holds true, does it not? Never have I put my faith in James Reimer. When he was standing on his head (often literally), he didn’t win me over. Ironically, when he could be at last moved for a decent return, it’s now that I’m willing to believe in him.

Do I worry about him getting hurt and not holding up to a 65-70 game workload? Of course I do. Do I worry his play will level off or dip after he’s signed for several years to come? Sure. But you know what? It’s about time I put some belief in this guy after counting him out over and over again. I don’t fear being wrong about James Reimer. Reason being, I’ve been wrong about him right from the start. Every bit as much as he’s earned my vote of confidence, James Reimer has assuredly earned the confidence of his teammates, his coach, and management. And with it the he’s earned right to start for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now and beyond.

This decision is not an easy one, and it will grow increasingly difficult when the phone calls start rolling in. Don’t think for a second inquiries haven’t been made already. What would you do come February 29th? Ink an extension, or pull the trigger and move on? I’m comfortable in knowing what I would do, and that and a nickel will get you a nickel. The question is, what will Lou Lamoriello, Brendan Shanahan, and company do?

I have a feeling I know the answer, but I’ve been wrong before.

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