With the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes looking slimmer and slimmer with every day that passes, the focus for many Maple Leaf fans has been next season.
In order to avoid a similar fate (likely missing the playoffs this season), the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to have to do a couple of things differently in 2011-12.
First, as I pointed out in an article last week, the Maple Leafs must avoid extended losing streaks. The Buds got off to a great start this season winning four straight, giving Maple Leafs fans hope that maybe this was the year the Buds would make the playoffs.
Unfortunately, an eight game losing streak in late October and early November put the Blue and White behind the eight ball, from which they will likely not recover from.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has done a tremendous job of building the Maple Leafs into a decent team with a talent pool in the minors that is no longer the laughing stock of the NHL.
As great as Burke’s progress has been, there are still a few holes left to address, including bolstering the teams’ top six forwards, finding another puck moving defenseman, bringing in a penalty kill specialist and perhaps even addressing the goaltending position.
After giving both veteran J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson a chance at the No. 1 job between the pipes, the Maple Leafs hung their hopes on 23-year-old rookie James Reimer, who, until recently, was a virtual unknown in NHL circles.
Through 24 starts Reimer has registered a record of 13-7-4 while posting a 2.68 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.
As impressive as the numbers look on the surface, Reimer has struggled of late, accumulating just four wins in his past 10 games.
Over that span, it is felt that many NHL teams have clued into the fact that Reimer has a weak glove hand, a source of more than a few goals over the past 10 games.
As quick as Reimer was a hero, he has fallen from grace of late, leading many Leaf fans to wonder about Reimer’s future with the Maple Leafs.
To be fair, Reimer has been thrust into the starter’s position quickly and perhaps unfairly.
With veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere struggling to get through a nagging groin injury and Jonas Gustavsson on the shelf nursing a heart ailment (although he has had a few starts with the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies), head coach Ron Wilson has few options but to play Reimer, especially in light of the teams' perceived playoff aspirations.
While there are no sure things where free agency is concerned, it appears as if Brian Burke will turn his back on Giguere this summer, choosing instead to go with a duo of Reimer and Gustavsson or look to another free agent goaltender to fill the void.
Burke has always said that he believes an NHL team should be built from the goaltender out. With so many question marks between the pipes, it appears as if Burke will need to address his goaltending with a huge upgrade, or at least a capable backup.
While Reimer and Gustavsson still look to be capable goaltenders with tremendous upside, neither one has proven they can be a legitimate No. 1 NHL goaltender.
Whether Burke decides to roll the dice with a duo of Reimer and Gustavsson next season remains to be seen, but if he does, he may have huge regrets, especially if both Reimer and Gustavsson fall short of expectations.
One of the best options available via free agency is soon to be unrestricted free agent Ilya Bryzgalov, who is currently honing his skills with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Bryzgalov was once employed by Burke when he was general manager of the Anaheim Ducks organization.
Salary cap issues forced Burke to place Bryzgalov on waivers, where he was picked up by the Coyotes.
Burke could have elected to send Bryzgalov to the minors, but in an effort to do what was right for the player, he chose to let Bryzgalov go to the Coyotes—a fact that is likely not forgotten by Bryzgalov.
If Bryzgalov does hit the free agent market, he is expected to garner a lot of attention. Many NHL clubs are in need of an all-star caliber goaltender, especially one with Bryzgalov’s good character on and off the ice.
While there is no guarantee that Burke will go after Bryzgalov or that the talented netminder would chose the Maple Leafs, it certainly would address the Maple Leafs' need for a legitimate goaltender, both now and for the foreseeable future.
At just 30 years old, Bryzgalov has plenty of hockey left in him. Through 55 starts, Bryzgalov has earned a record of 30-17-8. Bryzgalov is ranked fourth in games played (57), sixth in wins (30), fourth in goals against (145), third in shots against (1,637), 11th in save percentage (9.19), 18th in goals against average (2.57), fourth in minutes played (3,388) and fourth in shutouts (6).
Needless to say, when it comes to NHL goaltenders, Bryzgalov is just about as good as it gets. The acquisition of a goaltender of Bryzgalov’s caliber would almost certainly give the Maple Leafs their best chance in seven years to make the playoffs and solidify the position for the next three to five seasons (or however long Burke would have to sign him).
A top notch center is likely also on Burke’s wish list, with Dallas Stars forward Brad Richards being the apple of his eye. That said, without consistent goaltending, the signing of Richards or any other forward may be all for not.
Until next time,