Playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs can either be a breeze or a challenge, all contingent on what expectations have been set. For a player like Mark Fraser, wearing the blue and white isn’t all that difficult. As a call-up at the beginning of the season from the Toronto Marlies, Fraser has played a respectable amount of minutes against diminished competition, along with a full-time role on the penalty kill. As he a rugged defenseman who drops the gloves and had no pressure on him, he is beloved by the majority of Leafs’ fans.
However, the same does not hold true for some of the most instrumental Leafs players. Skaters like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf have had to battle through criticism ever since they were acquired in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Kessel has always been measured to the performances and potential of Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, while Dion Phaneuf has had to live up to his large contract and the capital “C” on his chest.
Amidst these two categories, only one has truly seen both sides of playing in Toronto. That player is none other than #34, James Reimer. Reimer’s short career in the National Hockey League has certainly had his fair share of both highlights and lowlights. In the 2010-2011 season, Reimer was brought up to the big club in the latter half of the year and posted a 20-10-5 record in 37 appearances, including a .921 sv%. This magical run which nearly saw the Leafs hit the postseason anointed Reimer as “the next one”. “Optimus Reim”, as he was called, was the first goaltender to give the city of Toronto a glimmer of hope in regards to goaltending since the 2004-05 lockout.
Reimer’s 2011-12 campaign started the way his last one ended, until an ugly collision with Brian Gionta sidelined him with a concussion and affected his play all year. With a few bad appearances, Toronto’s golden goalie went from universally loved to universally criticized. He went from consistent to streaky. His glove hand was moved from solid to weak. The man who lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a near-playoff birth was suddenly deemed the one that would ruin it. In 2013, there are still critics who are insistent that James Reimer is not a good goaltender, and deserves very little credit for the Leafs’ high-standing in the Eastern Conference.
Anybody who thinks that should change their opinion, and change it quick. Because through abysmal play and poor defense from the Toronto Maple Leafs all season, James Reimer has stood tall. If (and in all likelihood, when), the Toronto Maple Leafs reach the postseason this season, it will all be thanks for the down-to-earth goaltender from Manitoba.
Some teams are good possession teams. Others are not. The Leafs fall in the latter of those two groups. In fact, it isn’t a far reach to say that the Leafs are the worst. Not one player who has played for the Buds this season has a positive Corsi rating, meaning that every player has had more shots directed to their goaltender than to the opponent’s goaltender this season. Toronto is also in the bottom 5 for shots against per game and shots for per game. Simply put, this team spends an astronomical amount of time hampered in their own zone, depending on the defensive side of play to keep the team alive. This means that Reimer, in his 26 starts, faces over 31 shots a game on average, the majority of which are solid scoring chances. The dependence on Reimer, given these statistics, is similar to Columbus Blue Jackets’ goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. However, one of these players is a candidate for the Vezina while the other has no vote of confidence from either the organization or some of his fans.
On Monday, April 15th, the Leafs played a game that was essentially a microcosm for their entire season, recording 13 shots on goal (one of which was an empty net shot). The Leafs would win the game 2-0, scoring both of their goals with less than seven minutes left in regulation. However through it all was James Reimer, who almost literally stood on his head to preserve a victory. He was the Leafs’ best player on a night that they managed to preserve a two point night. While this instance was more dramatic than others, Reimer’s being doing that all season long. When the Leafs failed to record a shot in 24 minutes against the Rangers, he stood strong. When Boston came into town and lost despite giving up only 13 shots, Reimer played stellar. When Toronto headed to Ottawa and Kadri recorded a hattrick, number 34 made clutch saves in the first and second to preserve a victory. Every game he’s played, he’s truly made a difference.
With different talent levels, contracts, and entrances into the league, every player will be measured by their expectations. A stellar 85 point season from Teddy Purcell would be considered adequate from Sidney Crosby, and somewhat expected from Claude Giroux. But sometimes, expectations are not needed to measure a player’s success. It doesn’t matter if he is being expected by fans to play like Brodeur, Dryden, Lundqvist, or Hasek. What should truly matter in Toronto is that James Reimer is playing well enough to give the offence a chance to win games, and consequently advance to the postseason for the first time in nine years. Regardless of his expectations, Reimer has pushed his team onto the brink of playoffs, and that is all that truly matters in Toronto.