One of the most dramatic battles for playing time in the NHL this season should come in the Toronto net.
In 25-year-olds James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, the Leafs have two plausible starting goalies. While they may use a platoon system for a time, eventually the team will have to choose which netminder it prefers for the No. 1 job.
The mere fact that there is a question may indicate which way the team is leaning right now.
Reimer is the incumbent. He played 33 of the Maple Leafs’ 48 games last season and all seven of their playoff contests. He has now played more than 100 games for Toronto, and if Leafs management was confident that he could get the job done, it would not have bothered trading for Bernier in the offseason.
Bernier, after all, was not a cheap acquisition. He cost Toronto backup goalie Ben Scrivens, young winger Matt Frattin and a second-round draft choice.
More than that, he cost the team cap space—the Leafs retained $500,000 in salary when they dealt those two players and upgrading Scrivens to Bernier meant spending $2.35 million more in net than they would have had they maintained the status quo.
With CapGeek.com indicating that the Leafs have just under $4.9 million in cap space and the team knowing it has to re-sign key restricted free agents Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson, it’s a safe bet Toronto felt very strongly about improving between the pipes.
The really odd thing is that there is little evidence that Bernier is the superior goalie.
Bernier was more highly regarded when both were still in junior, going 11th overall in the 2006 draft while Reimer just barely cracked the top 100 (99th overall). However, their professional results are striking in their similarity.
Reimer has played more games and recorded a slightly better save percentage than Bernier both last season and over the course of the two men’s NHL careers.
The advantage flips to Bernier at the AHL level—he played more games in the high minors and had a better save percentage.
It’s difficult to see the argument that Bernier is a superior goalie to Reimer.
More than that, once special teams data is filtered out, Reimer's lead over Bernier increases. According to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, Reimer has posted a career .926 save percentage at even strength. Bernier sits well back with a .920 career save percentage in five-on-five situations.
It may not sound like a lot, but for a goalie playing 60 games and seeing roughly 1,700 shots against, that save percentage margin amounts to an eight-goal difference.
The obvious conclusion is twofold.
Firstly, the evidence indicates that James Reimer is the better goaltender and should be the starter.
Secondly, the fact that Toronto went out and acquired Bernier suggests that it undervalues the incumbent and will give the new guy the first crack at the starting job.