There is no doubt many Leafs fans are disappointed that the off-season has passed without the “elite first line center” void filled. Despite an uncharacteristically quiet first day of free agency, however, Maple Leafsâ€™ General Manager Brian Burke has not been silent this off-season; having added depth at both defence, already a team strength, and at center, where the Leafs had been notably anaemic. Though Burke did not succeed in filling the teamâ€™s single greatest need, he has â€“ as a result of the many moves he has made during the course of his leadership in Toronto â€“ managed to supply the team with extraordinary depth at almost every position; creating an atmosphere of fierce internal competition for NHL, and even AHL, spots. Since Burkeâ€™s model builds from the goalie out, this analysis will evaluate the team in the same order.
When the Leafs recently signed Swedish phenom goalie Mark Owuya, it clearly signaled two things. The first is Burkeâ€™s unyielding commitment to securing the right talent and depth in the gameâ€™s most important position. Burke has spoken at length regarding his feelings toward goaltending; having been quoted on several occasions saying – following the Canucksâ€™ shortfalls in the area – that he would never be caught short at that position again. The second signal was that there were going to be at least one or two goalie moves within the organization this off-season. J.S. Giguere turned out to be the only goaltending casualty of the off-season, so the current depth chart reads as follows: James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Ryannas, Mark Owuya and Grant Rollheiser.
The two players to watch in terms of goaltending battles will be Gustavsson and Scrivens. Each has found themselves locked in a two front competition; attempting to push their way up the depth-chart while fending off stiff competition from behind.
Though Reimer is the highly favoured incumbent for the starting job, he is by no means untouchable. An exceptionally strong start from Gustavsson could push the coaching staff to consider the pair as a platoon tandem, rather than a 1-2 punch, particularly if Reimer struggles to regain his dominant 2010-11 form. Reimer has never played a schedule anywhere near as rigorous as the NHLâ€™s and the coaching staff will be looking to â€˜The Monsterâ€™ to provide Reimer with the rest he needs to fend off late season fatigue.
Meanwhile, Scrivens, having recently stepped over Rynnas for the starting Marlies job, will be looking at Gustavssonâ€™s weak NHL level play from last season as an invitation to challenge for the back-up job on the big club. Heâ€™s got a hard climb ahead to do so, however, as Gustavsson is still the Leafsâ€™ goalie with the most NHL experience under his belt; not to mention â€˜The Monsterâ€™ having out-played both Scrivens and Rynnas at the AHL level during a short conditioning stint with the Marlies last season. Scrivens must also be aware of Rynnas, who is coming off a roller coaster season, during which he was both seemingly impenetrable (at the beginning of the season) and embarrassingly porous (as the season concluded).
J.S. Giguere was as good as gone long before he signed elsewhere. Even if the Leafs had packaged one of their young goalies in a deal for a center, there were still too many young goalies who would have needed playing time against quality opposition to sustain an aging backup who wasnâ€™t stopping pucks. Reimer will hold onto the top spot and Gustavsson should get a fair amount of playing time lining up as Reimerâ€™s backup. Watch for the Monster to have a breakout season as Reimerâ€™s backup. His rebound control is still suspect but heâ€™s a talented and driven man with one last chance to prove he belongs. In my opinion he will.
This leaves Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens to battle for top spot on the Marlies. The book on Scrivens is that heâ€™s as consistent as taxes; an assertion that bears out in a comparison of his statistics for the three leagues heâ€™s played in over the last couple of years. Scrivens is intelligent, dedicated, coachable and ideally built for the Allaire style of goaltending. Though Rynnas was spectacular out of the gate in 2010-11, at his best he played at about the same level as Scrivens managed to deliver consistently over the season. Scrivens propelled the ECHL Reading Royals to first place in their league (was named as a starting ECHL All-Star goalie), before being promoted to the Marlies and stepping ahead of Rynnas by seasonâ€™s end. Rynnas will need to bring a consistent â€˜Aâ€™ game to challenge for the Marliesâ€™ starting job, with a platoon situation likely being the best he can hope for unless Scrivens seriously falters. Should nothing happen with respect to trades or injuries, Owuya will land with the ECHL Royals; not so desperate a fate as it would seem, given that the Leafs #1 goalie today played there just two years ago.
The next installment of MLHS‘ training camp battles series will address the defence.