Are the Leafs Showcasing Reimer?

Are the Leafs Showcasing Reimer?

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It should come as no surprise that James Reimer received an opportunity to start in the NHL, during his re-call to fill in for the injured Jean-Sebastien Giguere. What is somewhat of a surprise is the amount Reimer has played (3 starts in the past 4 games) during a time where Jonas Gustavsson was expected to seize the opportunity to prove himself the Maple Leafs‘ netminder of the future.

The question is, to what degree has Reimer’s performance  influenced the decision to use him as the de-facto starter, rather than the incumbent? Is Reimer receiving an extended look as part of an evaluation toward his future in Toronto — or are the Leafs showcasing him to other teams?

Update: Reimer gets the start tonight … his fourth in the past five games.

Reimer’s first appearance for the Maple Leafs came in the late stages of 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on December 20th.  It was a rather unheralded appearance — four saves in fourteen minutes of relief action, without allowing a goal — one in which he did not face a serious challenge from an opponent which had already switched to “protect the lead” mode prior to his entering the game.

With Jonas Gustavsson struggling throughout the month of December, Reimer was given the start on New Year’s Day against the Ottawa Senators.  He allowed one goal in 60 minutes, and although not consistently challenged throughout the game, he more than held his own during a few intense offensive bursts at the hands of the Senators’ specialty teams.

Most expected, at that point, to see Gustavsson return to the net for the next game against the Bruins. After all, he was considered the team’s starter in the wake of the latest injury to Giguere.  However, head coach Ron Wilson decided to go with the hot hand, and reward his young netminder for his performance versus the Senators with the follow-up start.  Reimer responded by making 31 saves in a 2-1 loss, and was especially impressive turning aside 16 of 17 shots behind a flat-footed defense corps in the second period.

With two solid performances by Reimer in the books, the stage was set for Gustavsson to ensure his own playing time would not be diminished. Against the offensively-challenged St. Louis Blues (who are tied for 24th overall in goals scored) on Thursday night, the Monster experienced early struggles with position and rebound control, but carried the Leafs to a 5-2 third period lead until a series of defensive lapses (forwards uncovered, rebounds not cleared, ill-advised def.zone passes) allowed the Blues to roar back and tie the game. In the resulting shootout, Gustavsson’s key save on Matt D’Agostini with the teams tied at 2 apiece set the stage for Tyler Bozak’s winning goal.

Despite the win, Gustavsson found himself back on the bench Friday night, as Reimer faced the NHL’s surprise team, the Atlanta Thrashers. He stopped 41 of 44 shots — 20 of which came in the third period — as the Leafs cruised to a shocking 9-3 victory.

In four appearances thus far (three starts), Reimer has posted a 2-1-0 record with a 1.87 GAA and a .947 SV%.  While no rational minds would expect such numbers to hold over time, few can argue the early returns haven’t provided an encouraging glimpse toward his NHL future.

In contrast, Gustavsson has posted a 3.13 GAA and .896 SV% in 22 appearances (20 starts) this season … including a troubling .867 SV% during the month of December.

Mind you, those numbers must be tempered with a reminder that a goaltender’s GAA and SV% are both largely a byproduct of overall team play, and that prior to Thursday Gustavsson’s 5-on-5 SV% when the team is holding a lead was a stirling .972 (whereas his PK SV% was a horrifying .802). Further, in his 20 starts the Leafs have scored 53 goals for a 2.65 GF/S average … hardly the sort of offensive output a goaltender needs to have a chance at consistently winning.

In other words, one could quite easily make the case that Gustavsson’s rather uninspiring stat line is more the byproduct of the team in front of him, than a reflection of his true abilities.  One could take that a step further and suggest that had Gustavsson played any or all of the Ottawa, Boston and Atlanta games, the end result would have been similar (the Senators and Bruins cannot score, Atlanta was simply wretched on Friday).  The only real cause for concern has been a recent trend in giving up early leads (St.Louis on Thursday, Columbus last week) … one for which the responsibility must be shared by all six players on the ice; there are, after all, only so many odd-man rushes and opposition forwards left uncovered in the slot that a goaltender can face before a the puck finds its way past him.

What’s interesting is that during Reimer’s first two re-calls to the club (a six-game span from Nov 17th to Dec 1st and a two-game span from Dec 5th to 8th), he did not play; Gustavsson received all of the game action.  Yet, here in January, in his third stint with the club, Reimer has suddenly found himself the beneficiary of the majority of the action.

Is this entirely due to performance? There is no doubt he has given the Leafs a chance to win in each of his starts to date …but that said, neither the Bruins nor Senators are teams with a high-flying offense. By the time the Thrashers got their offense untracked, they were down 9-1 in the third and the game was all but over.

While Reimer’s performance has been encouraging, one could suggest, with much merit, that the sample size is simply too small at this point to offer an accurate evaluation of his overall game. Which, in and of itself, is quite logical reasoning for his sudden increase in opportunity: the Leafs need to find out what they have in him.

But is that the only reason? Or to put it another way, are they finding out for their own future, or for someone else’s? It is interesting to note how during both Reimer’s previous call-ups, the Leafs played Gustavsson exclusively with an eye toward him as their starter next season.  And few would be more intimitely familiar with the advanced statistical measures — those which reveal outstanding numbers when playing with the lead, and above-average 5-on-5 success – than the Leafs’ own brass.  And yet Reimer has started three of the past four, as opposed to the occasional spot start most expected to provide Gustavsson a breather.

The easy answer — and no doubt, the current party line — is the team has had success with Reimer in net. It’s a fair point, albeit one which comes with an equally-valid counterpoint: even the most casual observer who watched his starts against Ottawa, Boston and Atlanta could tell you the goaltender was not the primary factor for the Leafs in any of those games.  Not to take anything away from Reimer, who has done a terrific job, but when a goaltender’s team scores 16 goals for him over a three-start span, odds are he is going to win at least two of those games.

Assuming individual performance is not the primary factor behind the shift in start-load, one has to wonder if it is the calendar instead. While it’s easy to suggest the Leafs are simply gauging their future by balancing the starts toward Reimer, the conventional wisdom is that sort of thing is typically done in March or April, not midway through the season.

However, January does tend to mark the beginning of “trade season” in the NHL, and a quick look down the Leafs’ depth chart offers little in the way of moveable assets that could return immediate roster help … with the notable exception of the goaltending depth. Reimer, Jussi Rynnas, and Ben Scrivens have all had excellent showings this season and are without a doubt of interest to clubs around the league.  With Reimer being the most experienced of the three, and in need of a new contract for next season, it is by no means a stretch for one to wonder if his recent string of starts is solely a reward for playing well in a pair of wins dominated by the Leafs’ offense, or if he is in fact being showcased as a trading chip.

After all, who do the Leafs really have that is tradeable for the sort of immediate help Brian Burke is interested in acquiring?  Kris Versteeg isn’t likely to depart; aside from recording 28 points in his last 30 games and being one of the few consistent special teams players on the team, the Leafs aren’t going to be keen on moving a guy they just traded three prospects for in the offseason. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Phil Kessel moving anywhere after the assets given away to acquire his services. Trading Mikhail Grabovski would be a lateral move at best, one which fills one scoring void while creating another. Giguere has had a number of injury woes, not to mention the dreaded NTC. And we all know the story with Tomas Kaberle.  Beyond those, options to improve the club are few and far between … unless the Maple Leafs are willing to include some of their prospects in a deal.

And prospect depth is perhaps the one area where the Leafs do have some flexibility to make a deal for the sort of immediate roster upgrade Burke seeks. The goaltending depth of Reimer, Rynnas and Scrivens is one of his few bargaining chips of real value, and beneath an overstocked – and contractually-committed – NHL blueline rests a number of intriguing prospects including Keith Aulie, Simon Gysbers, and Korbinian Holzer.  A deal to be made for immediate help will almost surely have to involve a player or players from those two groups, for as mentioned above the players on the active roster who would be of most interest to NHL clubs would represent lateral moves only.

At the end of the day, the additional playing time Reimer has received is by no means a bad thing, even if a trade does not come to pass.  His play has been encouraging, and if nothing else he has certainly proven that he can compete at the NHL level. That’s no small thing; should he and Gustavsson turn out to be the Leafs’ netminding tandem next season, few fans will have reason to complain.

There are more than enough possibilities to make one pause and wonder. At the end of the day, an attempt to drum up interest or showcase a player is indicative only of a team exploring its options, and by no means definitive or an absolute. That said, fans should not be at all surprised if Reimer’s name begins to crop up in trade rumours over the next couple of weeks. After all, he is a young prospect who has played well at the NHL level, occupying a position stocked with other young prospects who are also playing quite well at their respective levels.  Amidst all the ongoing trade speculation surrounding the Leafs, the notion that the club may be showcasing a prospect such as Reimer with an eye toward sparking interest in a deal is one possibility that actually would make a fair degree of sense.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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