The idea that the Toronto Maple Leafs might be willing to demote the player who did more to help them win games in 2013-14 than any other seems ridiculous—unless, of course, you’re James Reimer.
"I was told there's a definite opportunity," Reimer told Toronto’s Fan 590 radio station (via NHL.com). "That's the mindset I'm coming in with, to really take advantage of the opportunity that's been given and earn the No. 1 spot."
Is Reimer being overly optimistic here? Is this the kind of thing teams tell disgruntled No. 1B goalies all the time in the hopes that they become more, uh, gruntled? Probably and definitely, but given that the current state of predicting goalies has some similarities with looking for oil with a divining rod, let’s not dismiss the idea out of hand.
To begin with, it’s important to note that there is some significant evidence that Reimer is actually a pretty good goalie. If we limit ourselves to goaltenders who have played at least 4,000 minutes at even strength over Reimer’s four-year career, he ranks 19th in save percentage. It’s a figure that puts him ahead of some NHL notables:
That’s a list that includes four recent Cup winners, a recent Vezina winner, an all-time great and also ostensible NHL starter Ondrej Pavelec. Reimer was slightly better than his career numbers the last time he played postseason hockey, too, posting a 0.927 save percentage at even strength in the 2013 playoffs.
Based on the numbers we have, Reimer is a starter-calibre goalie, even a championship-calibre goalie with the right team.
The problem for Reimer is that one of the 18 guys ahead of him on our list of goalies from the last four years is teammate Jonathan Bernier.
While Reimer was a late pick who made good, Bernier was touted all down the line by scouts as a goaltender with exceptional potential, even a player of destiny. In the hours following the trade of Bernier to Toronto, Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi sounded deflated.
“It’s very difficult to get market value for a guy who is going to be a No. 1,” Lombardi was quoted as saying by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “You do the best you can and this was the best deal. Toronto was certainly aggressive. If you get a No. 1 goalie you can’t put a price on that.”
Back in 2006, when Lombardi drafted Bernier for L.A., the team’s official website quoted an NHL Central Scouting report on the goalie; anyone who doubted where the outlet stood on the player needed only to count the number of times the word “very” was used in the report:
A very strong skater with excellent balance...has both quick reactions and recovery...has very quick feet and pads with excellent, controlled lateral movements...very good post-to-post...does a good job of blocking a pass from behind the net...very good angles and net coverage...challenges at the top of the crease and square to the shooter...good rebound control deflecting shots out of danger with his stick and blocker...uses paddle down technique on wrap around attempts...goes behind the net well to stop the puck on dump ins and is smart at moving it...communicates well with his defense...does a very good job of reading and reacting to the play...has an excellent well balanced butterfly stance...shows excellent determination...very solid and strong in the crease...battles hard for any loose pucks and holds his ground when players cut hard to the net...very quick recovery to get set for a rebound opportunity...very aggressive and competes hard...very confident and doesn't get rattled...capable of making big saves to keep his team in the game or to hold a lead.
Bernier delivered on his tremendous potential in 2013-14, and at 25 years of age seems a good bet to continue delivering for the foreseeable future. The numbers gap between him and Reimer is not massive—an up year for Reimer or a down year for Bernier would make the net a very competitive place—but Bernier has earned the trust of the Maple Leafs’ management group, while even at his best Reimer struggled to gain their confidence.
That makes it a tall order for Reimer to win back the starting job in Toronto. He’s facing an opponent who is likely a better player, an opponent who is going to get the benefit of the doubt from the team’s decision-makers. If everything comes together exactly right it could happen, but it isn’t probable.
That’s why, in some respects, it would be baffling if a team like Winnipeg hadn’t made a significant push to acquire Reimer. On the other hand, we need only to look back at what Lombardi said following the Bernier trade to know the difficulty that Leafs GM Dave Nonis faces. It’s hard to get value in trade for Reimer, and if the worst happens it’s the kind of move that can look absolutely terrible in retrospect.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.