No one can predict when the Toronto Maple Leafs will begin their season.
Everyone knows what the topic of conversation will be when they do: goaltending.
The Leafs netminding scenario is perfect talk-show fodder. You see what you want to see.
“If this is the group we start with and we think it’s going to be,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said of a tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, “we’re comfortable with that.”
“James Reimer is a guy who started off great and then got hit from the side and struggled. We believe James Reimer can be the guy.”
As Reimer put it: “the awesome thing about having a crappy season is that you learn so much. It’s only a disaster if we don’t learn something from it. ”
Leave it to the irrepressible Reimer to find something awesome in a disheartening season but I have to call Balderdash on this one.
The more you think about the Leafs goaltending, the further away you feel from any answer.
Let’s take a run at this with some measure of objectivity.
Team X has a 24-year-old goalie who skyrocketed through the organization, put in an excellent half season as a rookie, started his sophomore year with no losses, four wins and an overtime tie, and then nosedived after an injury that was either a concussion or a neck injury depending on who and when you asked.
Team X has two more years of this guy with a cap of $1.6 million per. His salary, when the game returns, will sit 33rdamong NHL goalies. He says he is in perfect health and was shut down in March just in case.
“Obviously I got cleared at the end of the year and everything has been good all summer,” Reimer said. “I feel strong and have had absolutely no setbacks.”
Remember also that goalie conundrums come in various denominations. It will take more shrewd work from Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to do something with the eight more years at $5.6 million in cap space commanded by Ilya Bryzgalov. The Islanders Rick DiPietro, owner of an eight-game 2010-2011season, has nine more years on the books at a $4.5 million dollar annual hit. Jinkies.
Yes, the Leafs would welcome Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price at their present pricetag but the idea of the bargain basement goalie has some traction. Phoenix netminder Mike Smith took a team with less talent than the Leafs and lifted them into the third round of the playoffs. Smith has one more year at $2 million. The Senators traded one goalie, Brian Elliott, about to break out for another, Craig Anderson, who did likewise.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock is the lucky beneficiary of two more years of Jaroslav Halak at a $3.75 million cap hit and two more seasons of Elliott at $1.8 million. Both are just 27-years-old. Either one of those two amounts to a far more tempting proposition than would 33-year-old Roberto Luongo, who, perhaps you’ve heard, has nine more years left on his deal.
Scrivens, two years older than Reimer and the subject of a much slower transcendence is coming off a remarkable season with the Marlies. Scrivens actually bettered the AHL’s best goalie numbers (.926 goals save percentage and a 2.04 goals per game mark) when things got hot in the post-season. That said Scrivens was only middling (3.13 GAA, .902 save percentage) in a dozen Leaf games.
The jury is still out on Reimer the goalie but not Reimer the guy. He and Burke have maintained a steady correspondence through the summer and he knows the Leafs are looking at a more weathered hand.
“That’s fine with me,” he said. “My job is to be the best I can and make him confident that I am the guy. There are no ill terms or anything like that.”
So here is what you have. Team X has a starter who has had some NHL success but whose career has been derailed by injury. They are paying him less than what a lot of teams are paying their backups. They have a promising player graduating from the minors.
Are Jimmy Howard (Detroit), Semyon Varlamov (Colorado), Steve Mason (Columbus), Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) Antti Niemi (San Jose), Tomas Vokoun (Pittsburgh), Evgeny Nabokov (Islanders), and Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton) a demonstrably better bet than James Reimer?
The real issue here – stop me if this sounds familiar – is with history.
Jonas Gustavsson was only the latest in a string of Leaf goalies grounded by injuries and poor play. Ed Belfour’s departure in 2006 brought forth the deluge that was Justin Pogge, Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the kind-hearted Gustavsson whose heart woes gave the world the Ablation Nation headline that would stand alone were it not for the work of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Phil Sheridan, the author of the Bi-Polar Goaler moniker that trailed Flyers netminder Roman Cechmanek to his retirement in the Czech Republic. But I digress.
You can’t win without good goaltending. The Leafs haven’t won and they haven’t had a protracted string of good goaltending since Belfour. What they have had came from Reimer.
The awesome thing, as Reimer would say, is that the truth will make itself known. The lousy thing is that no one knows when.