Goaltending. For most NHL teams, goaltender is the single most important position, and, in many respects, has the biggest impact on a team's success, both pro and con.
While many Toronto Maple Leafs fans are looking to Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn to be the cornerstones of the Buds' rebirth, it says here the most important player for the blue and white is none other than rookie goaltender James Reimer.
Heading into Thursday night's action against the hated Montreal Canadiens, Reimer had earned a record of 9-4-2 to go along with his .934 save percentage, 2.12 goals against average and two shutouts.
As impressive as Reimer’s early success has been, his impact goes far beyond the numbers.
When a goaltender is hot, the entire team feeds off of his success. Forwards and defensemen alike have more confidence, passes seem crisper and teamwork seems to come easy.
Without a solid goaltender, every team's weakness seems to come out. No longer does the team play with cohesion, no longer do the passes feel crisp, and clearing the front of the net feels like an impossibility.
Putting the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs squarely on the shoulders of a rookie goaltender who was completely off the radar at the beginning of the season would seem asinine to some.
That said, the reality is that if Reimer falters, the Maple Leafs are in all kinds of trouble.
Want proof? Just look at the blue and white’s record when they are playing in front of an incapable goaltender. With Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes, the Maple Leafs earned a record of 6-13-2. Some of that had to due with key injuries to Dion Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong, some of that had to do with a team trying to find itself, but most of the losing had to do with Gustavsson’s subpar numbers.
With all due respect to Jonas Gustavsson, a save percentage of .890 and a goals against average of 3.29 will not win you many games at the NHL level—those type of numbers will not instill much confidence from your teammates, either.
Reimer is a restricted free agent this summer. While I respect everyone’s worry over re-signing Clarke MacArthur, Brian Burke’s first priority should be getting Reimer to sign an extension, without which this team is in big trouble.
Sure, Burke could try to land an Ilya Bryzgalov, Tomas Vokoun or a journeyman like Ty Conklin via free agency, but with Reimer showing so much poise and with the team playing with so much confidence in front of him, none of those signings makes any sense (well, maybe Conklin does, but only as a backup).
Of the eight current Eastern Conference playoff teams, five of them have All-Star quality goaltenders between the pipes: Tim Thomas in Boston, Carey Price in Montreal, Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers, Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh and Cam Ward in Carolina.
In the Western Conference, no less than seven of the current playoff teams employ an All-Star caliber goaltender, including Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, Jimmy Howard in Detroit, Ilya Bryzgalov in Phoenix, Pekka Rinne in Nashville, Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary, Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota and the ever-rising Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles.
Getting a No. 1 centre, signing a top-four defenseman, finding a diamond in the rough at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft—all of these things would enhance the Maple Leafs’ chances of making the playoffs next season. That said, in the end, the Maple Leafs will live and die with their goaltending. It’s really that simple.
Until next time,
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