Entering this hockey season, the idea of talking about James Reimer as a backup plan by January would have seemed odd. The only way I could have thought up such a scenario would’ve been to include the Leafs signing or trading for a veteran netminder to settle things down. It didn’t happen, and the team is tied for a playoff spot regardless due to some timely performances by Jonas Gustavsson to kick off 2012.

The Leafs have the luxury (I guess) of not being constrained by a large goalie contract. There’s no true “number one.”

When teams throw around huge cash to goaltenders, it goes without saying that there’s risk involved. By paying Ryan Miller or Ilya Bryzgalov upwards of 5-6 million per season, the Sabres and Flyers, respectively, are basically saying “that’s our guy.” And in the case of both, this season has been a lot of wasted money.

Toronto may not have a permanent starter, but they can flick back and forth between goalies without too much of a fuss and a bunch of articles saying “they blew all that money on him!?”

Gustavsson has taken advantage of an opportunity sprung about by a concussed Reimer who returned to the Leafs‘ net to be shelled on the penalty-kill, eventually seeing his numbers take a massive hit, and ultimately having hand the net over. While “Goose” has taken his game to a high level in the past few weeks, I still try to approach the idea of him being the go-to guy in the long term with caution. Don’t look at this as a slight, I’ll be the first to give him full marks for what he’s done, but he simply hasn’t played enough games. Nor has Reimer for that matter.

After climbing the goalie ranks to get his save percentage at a somewhat respectable .910, it seems Gustavsson is on his way to bringing the Leafs to as close as they’ve been to a playoff spot since the lockout – whether they get over the hump and actually get in is still up in the air. But I still think it depends on Reimer as much as Gustavsson as to whether any postseason games are going gplayed this spring.

At some point, Gustavsson is going to lose the net for at least a game or two at a time, it will happen – you don’t expect the Leafs to avoid a losing streak for the rest of the season, do you? Reimer will have to step in and attempt to take back the net eventually, and there’s no real reason to believe that he can’t.

I hope you’ve heard by now that Reimer still holds a solid even-strength save percentage, at .931. His .771 save percentage on the penalty-kill is what ultimately did him in, but if someone wants to bet that it won’t go up (pretty substantially) with more starts, I’ll gladly take your cash.

Essentially what the Leafs now have is a backup plan. If Gustavsson goes on ripping it up and notching shutouts, the club will obviously be in good shape. Whether you consider that likely is up to you as a reader, fan, blogger, whatever. Regardless, if I’m looking at this whole thing as an optimist (I am), I see Reimer as a fine safety net should things start to go awry.

Reimer’s stats after 18 starts are what they are, and we obviously can’t just let him completely off the hook for his poor work on the penalty-kill. But I’m quite confident that if given the chance to log upward of 30 starts on the year, we should see his numbers go north. It’s up to Gustavsson to hold on to his current job as the Leafs starter, or pass off to Reimer.

If Reimer ends up back between the pipes to lead in the late season stretch, I trust him. And if he never gets back there, then that would mean Goose has done his job well enough to keep the club playoff-worthy.

I guess it’s possible that both could go on to fail miserably, these things happen. But in a sense, I think it’s fairly reasonable to look at the situation as somewhat of a win-win.

Email and follow on twitter @rfancey3

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