Toronto Maple Leafs: Why They'll Be Contenders with James Reimer Back in the Mix

Steve WolosewichContributor IIIDecember 14, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs keeps his eye on the puck as Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals bears down on him in the second period at the Verizon Center on December 9, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on Tuesday, December 13,  James Reimer's comeback is officially complete.

Although he faced only 19 shots on net from a struggling Carolina team, Leaf fans hope this is a turning point that marks Reimer's return to full form.

Since his 18 game hiatus, Reimer had to battle through tough losses to the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals—looking a bit as though he was still shaking the rust off between flashes of brilliance.

There is no rest for the wicked in Maple Leafs land, as it would seem, fans were already getting their knickers in a bunch over a winless Reimer since returning as Toronto's No. 1 goaltender.

What Reimer needs to do now to ensure future success with the Maple Leafs, is to simplify his game. His dexterity, athleticism, and strong positional play will do the rest as the team looks past 2011 into the new year.

Looking back at his performance last season, in 37 appearances Reimer limited the opposition to two or fewer goals against on 20 occasions. Of those 20 games, 12 of those were wins and four were overtime losses.  

As evidence of his potential as a bona fide NHL star, the stats seem to work in his favor the more he's bombarded with shots. His record last year, when faced with 30 or more shots against was 13-5-4—impressive numbers to say the least.

In comparison, this season is trending in a similar direction. When Reimer has faced 30 or more shots against, he is 3-1-0. There is still plenty of hockey to play this season that could prove this theory wrong, but for the time being at least, Reimer seems to thrive when the pressure is on.

Perhaps not since Ed Belfour wore the Blue and White for Toronto have the Maple Leafs, had the calibre netminder who seems to play his best hockey under a heavy workload. Belfour also achieved more success as a Maple Leaf the busier he was—or so the stats seem to suggest.

Should this be the case, it would certainly bode well for this Toronto team ripe with anticipation of their first playoff appearance since the 2003-04 season.

The character traits Reimer possesses are another huge component of his game and success at the NHL level. His demeanor is cool and collected—the sign of a consummate professional.

His calming presence also seems to have historically settled the team when the opposition starts pressing hard—putting them back on their heels late in the game. Reimer has stood strong on numerous occasions for the Maple Leafs to protect the win.   

Ultimately, if the Maple Leafs are to continue to play the kind of "run and gun" style of hockey that has brought them this far into the 2011-12 season, they will need Reimer committed to bring the same passion and work ethic that he has showcased thus far.

Now that Jonas Gustavsson has proven he can be a viable alternate—showing great consistency and maintaining a winning record in Reimer's absence—the Leafs seem to have the one-two punch they need to maintain a top eight position in the Eastern Conference.

Will he make enough of an impact to give them a legitimate shot to contend? As is the case with any speculation, only time will tell.

However, if the Maple Leafs can correct their ghastly penalty killing and continue to generate balanced scoring, there isn't any reason to believe he won't make them very dangerous playoff contenders for years to come.