Crease Controversy: The Maple Leafs and their Goalies

By: Dan Grant

On Tuesday night, James Reimer stopped 37 of 38 Minnesota Wild shots to steal a victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs managed only 14 shots of their own, cashing in four times, including one empty net goal. The team is now 6-1, first in the conference.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, on the Fan 590 here in Toronto, reporter/pundit/windbag Jeff Blair sought to perpetuate a debate with no correct answer. One might argue that this is his job, and that’s fine and dandy; the man has to fill three hours of solo talk radio every morning. He’s by no means the only talking head beating this drum, but in this case, I have to say, enough is enough. His topic for a prolonged segment was one that has been the hot topic in Toronto sports media for the past four weeks or so, namely, who is the Toronto Maple Leafs #1 goaltender?  Is it James Reimer, who led the Leafs back to the playoffs last season after a prolonged absence? Or is in the newly acquired Jonathan Bernier, former first round draft pick and top off-season acquisition?

Reimer or Bernier. Bernier or Reimer.

Reimer or Bernier. Bernier or Reimer.

Blair, on Tuesday, planted himself firmly in the Bernier camp, which many of the media seem to be doing, apparently based on the fact that Bernier has played more games so far. He’s quick to say that he’s not writing off Reimer, but that because Bernier ‘won’ a game in which he played poorly (Sunday’s 6-5 win over Edmonton) he deserved another shot on Tuesday night against the Wild. Blair and the media cite Bernier’s better technical skills, rebound control and ability to play the puck as selling points on a long term basis and to his play so far as proof. They also point to his pedigree, in that he was the 11th overall pick in 2006. Bernier has dazzled at times so far this season, whereas Reimer was simply solid in the season opener against Montreal and had to be pulled in the home opener against Ottawa.

Before I come to Reimer’s defense, and make no mistake, that is coming, let me state that I love Jonathan Bernier’s performance so far. I think he was a steal for the Leafs exactly because of all the reasons I mentioned previously and that have been mentioned ad nauseam whenever the two goalies are discussed.

That said, James Reimer got the start Tuesday night versus Minnesota and he undisputedly deserved it, regardless of the outcome. The fact that the outcome was as spectacular as it was, only helps prove this to be true.

Reimer allowed 3 goals in the season opener against Montreal, one of which was later shown to be at least a couple feet off-side. So knock that down to 2 goals; that’s a rock solid performance against the team that came first in the Eastern Conference last year. In the home opener against Ottawa, Reimer struggled. However, he was hung out to dry by a porous defense that has been exposed at various points during the year, including last night. Bernier was outstanding in relief in that Ottawa game, but he only had to play half the time; against Edmonton, 5 pucks got by him, including 2 during a wild third period. Bernier was also in net for the Leafs only loss of the season, a 2-1 defeat to the Colorado Avalanche.

Blair pointed out that Bernier had a 3-1 record against Minnesota in his career as well as dishing out some otherworldly goals against average and save percentage. I checked into it and these numbers are indeed accurate. However two of these games were in 2010-11 and another was in 2011-12. The Minnesota Wild carried exactly five total players on their roster from those three games into Air Canada Center on Tuesday, one of which being injured starting goaltender Nicklas Backstrom.

Guest Glenn Healy came on Blair’s show to share some further ‘wisdom’ stating that Bernier managed to make a huge save in the Edmonton game, despite having struggled and that that was a characteristic to look for in a true number one goaltender. Healy, having been a sieve starter or a decent backup for the majority of his 15 NHL seasons, apparently has enough experience with getting lit up to recognize what one should or shouldn’t be doing after letting pucks fly past you. He also stated as opposed to Bernier, Reimer tends to ‘really come off the rails’ when he allows more than a couple goals.

Glenn Healy, probably watching a puck go in the net.

Glenn Healy, probably watching a puck go in the net.

I did some looking into that and Healy might be on to something there. In 106 games, Reimer has a .915 Save Percentage a 2.74 GAA and 10 shutouts for his career, which sounds fantastic.

He’s also allowed 3 or more goals in a game 61 times. 37 of those times, he allowed more than 3, while 24 times he stopped the bleeding at 3 exactly. So in roughly 35% of his career starts, Reimer has allowed at least 4 goals. Even in today’s free-wheeling NHL, that’s not a strong number. A lot of those bad games came with the 2011-12 version of the Leafs, who were abysmal, but still. It can be a telling stat when a goalie can’t plug the dam.

I seem to be tearing these goalies down, which really isn’t my point; in the spirit of fairness, I should mention that Bernier did shut out the 2012-13 Minnesota squad, one which at least bears some resemblance to the team the Leafs took on Tuesday night, and that Reimer put up a shutout in his only career start against the Wild as well. When was that? Back in 2010-11, before Bernier had ever faced them. Another meaningless stat. Numbers can be misleading.

The numbers that actually matter are this:

  • Both goaltenders are just 25 years old and have never been ‘the man’ for an NHL team that played in a full season.
  • James Reimer’s career high in games played is 37, back in that 2010-11 season, when he was just 22. He’s played 30 plus games twice more since then but his career workload is still quite light given that he’s been around for four full seasons.
  • Jonathan Bernier has never played more than 25 games in a season, back in that same 2010-11 season, playing only 16 games in 2011-12 and 14 in 2012-13. He also started three games in a row for the first time in career this season with the Leafs.

And that’s it. Nothing else matters. The two goalies themselves have said there is no controversy, that they root for one another and that they both want to win. These goaltenders are both completely unproven on a grand scale and to try to pigeon hole one or the other into the starting job at this point in the season is completely asinine.

After Tuesday night’s win, Reimer, when asked about the goaltending controversy, just smiled and said ‘Is that still the story? There’s still a controversy? I just want to go out and give the boys a chance’.

What did the smile on his face suggest? Did it say that Reimer thinks this performance has earned him another start on Thursday against Carolina? Did it say that he knows Bernier is now going to ultimately get more work? Did it suggest that he thinks the whole thing is completely ridiculous?

We don’t know. We can’t know. That’s the point.

Randy Carlyle knows the score.

Randy Carlyle knows the score.

Randy Carlyle has stated since the beginning of the off-season that he was going to play both goaltenders. He said in a recent interview ‘I really believe competition makes players better. You might disagree, but that’s what I believe’.  So of course Reimer got the start against Minnesota. Since Reimer last played Bernier has put up a shutout, a loss and a bad game that he happened to win, in his three straight starts. It’s Reimer’s turn, nothing more, nothing less. When Carlyle won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, he had two capable goaltenders in Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov. In that situation, Giguere was the entrenched starter, having played 60 games the previous season. That season, he played 56 games, with Bryzgalov playing 27, meaning there was only one game where they both played. Still, 27 games is a decent load for a backup in the NHL, especially when a workhorse like a young Giguere is the incumbent.

My point is that Carlyle has done this before. He likes having capable goaltending, and lots of it. He likes to have fresh goalies.

Both of the Leafs’ goaltenders, barring injury, are going to play 35 games this regular season. How the load will be distributed remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that these Toronto Maple Leafs, with their current shaky defense core, are going to need top flight goaltending each night. The best way to guarantee that is for these two fantastic young players to share the load.

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