Goaltending and the Toronto Maple Leafs

Published by Mark on Saturday, January 15, 2011 — View Comments

During the first period of hockey while I was ...
Image via Wikipedia

Since the decline of Eddie Belfour, there’s been some turmoil in the corded cottage of the Maple Leafs. They looked like they may have set themselves up well, drafting Justin Pogge (future Canadian Major Junior Goalie of the Year) in 2004 and Tuukka Rask in the first round in 2005. Of course, we know how things did not work out as they should have. John Ferguson Jr. and the braintrust decided Pogge was the better prospect, and traded Rask to acquire Andrew Raycroft, hoping he could jumpstart his career again. JFJ spent draft picks to get Vesa Toskala. In between, appearances by JS Aubin, Mikael Tellqvist, Curtis Joseph, Martin Gerber, Scott Clemmensen and Justin Pogge had done no better to solidify the position.

Brian Burke made some moves, winning the Jonas Gustavsson sweepstakes and then offloading Toskala for a veteran with a decent resume in J.S. Giguere. The moves were to get a highly thought of international goalie and give him a solid veteran to help push him. This season, it hasn’t quite worked out as hoped.  Despite some very good play early, when the Leafs were having trouble scoring, both Giguere and Gustavsson have seen their play diminish. Some would say that in recent months, neither has even been adequate in the net. JSG has been plagued by groin issues, and Jonas seems to have lost his confidence. Enter James Reimer.

Drafted #99 in 2006, Reimer has played in the AHL and ECHL before getting the call to come up to the Leafs. He mopped up in a loss to Atlanta before Christmas, but got his chance to start on January 1. And Leafs fans loved his work, as he went 4-2-0 in 6 starts, making more than 30 saves in 5 of those games, and posting up a 2.27 GAA and a .933 save percentage. Say it plainly, the kid played well. He saw his opportunity and he ran with the ball.

Which has sparked a controversy in Leaf Nation, all over on blogs and forums. Why, with Reimer playing so well, with JSG injured, possibly retiring, and almost certainly not a Leaf next season, would management send Reimer back to the Marlies? Simple… it was the only option.

Because of his contract, or maybe because he is not the long term solution, the fans suggest Giguere should sit. His numbers are not stellar, his play has been spotty at times. I did say once I didn’t think he should lose his job due to injury. But really, the fact is that a GM is not going to ask a veteran, with whom he’s had a professional relationship in the past, to fake an injury and sit out the last half a season. Not if he wishes to keep any credibility. Further, in a trade Giguere may not fetch very much, but as a part of a package, he could be an important piece. Coming off groin problems, he needs to play some to show he’s healed and ready to resume playing in the NHL. Lastly, Giguere’s contract is large, and you just can’t tie $3M in remaining cap hit up in the press box. Giguere may not be the best option as a number 1 goalie right now, but the economics and logistics of contracts in the NHL means he most certainly has to be on the active roster.

Gustavsson’s play has regressed this season. He had a shot to really take over that number 1 job with Giggy out, and for whatever reason was unable to elevate his play. But again, on a one-way contract, and being an option as a future number 1 goalie for this team, there’s not much to do but platoon Jonas and Giggy. In fact, Jonas has to get playing time if the Leafs are ever going to find out if he can regain his confidence and challenge for the starting job.

Reimer can’t be  happy about being sent back. He’s 22. He did not make the team coming out of camp, but he’s made a strong case with his play this month. People have to remember that if Giggy doesn’t get hurt, Reimer doesn’t even get called up. If Jonas was playing well, Reimer doesn’t likely even get more than a start with the Leafs. But he’s a pro, I am sure he realizes the facts about contracts, about veterans, and about moves that can and can’t be made.

I would like to have seen Reimer stay up. I would think Burke is looking at his options to make a deal involving Giguere. If one can’t be made, I am also sure he has an idea to shut down Giggy after the deadline sometime. At that point, Giguere will likely be contemplating whether he will retire, or rest his groin and make another attempt at a contract at the NHL level. Gustavsson and Reimer will be given their chances to show what they can do, and I think James Reimer can feel good that right now, and going into the off season, he has the inside track on Scrivens and Rynnas to make the Leafs next fall, and may even have an edge on Jonas for the starter’s job.

Though Leaf Nation will lament what may have been, how Reimer’s hot play might have carried the team up the standings, sending him back to the AHL was really the only move the Maple Leafs could have made. And fans will have to sit tight and be content that for once in a long while, it seems that the future in net might once again be solid.