It’s been some time since the Maple Leafs had what you’d call solid goaltending. The decline of Ed Belfour and stop-gaps such as JS Aubin, Mikael Tellqvist, Curtis Joseph, Martin Gerber and Scott Clemmensen left the organization scrambling to find stability in the stringed sanctuary. he Raycroft, Toskala and Pogge experiments that followed were essentially failures.
Brian Burke came to town preaching he’d build from the net out. And, while his defense corps has let him down, maybe things are going to be ok in the nets. He won the bidding war for Jonas Gustavsson, regarded by some at the time as the best goalie outside the NHL. He offloaded Toskala for a veteran with a decent resume in JS Giguere. With highly regarded coach Francois Allaire in the fold, the last 2+ months of the 2009-10 season showed reason for optimism. Further, Burke managed to sign free agent Jussi Rynnas (now 22 years old) out of the Finnish league, as well as Hobey Baker finalist Ben Scrivens (now 24) out of Cornell.
This season, things have not quite worked as hoped. It’s fair to say that Giguere and Gustavsson played well early, and were most often let down by untimely giveaways and lack of strong defensive play by the team overall. Over time, however, even the goalies began to break down, unable to shoulder the load as Toronto struggled both to score and to solidify the defensive game. JSG has been shelved a couple times by groin and hip issues, and Jonas seems to have lost his confidence. Enter James Reimer.
Reimer was drafted #99 in 2006. Unable to make the Leafs out of camp, he’d played in the AHL and ECHL before getting the call with Giguere sidelined again. He mopped up in a loss before Christmas, but got the start on January 1. The 22-year old has played well, his last few games notwithstanding, and given the organization something to think about.
It’s caused something of a goalie controversy in Leaf Nation. With 30 games remaining this season, who should play? It seems James Reimer’s play has created more questions than answers.
In Giguere, the Leafs have a veteran who’s numbers have declined recently, who lost his starting job in Anaheim, and has been working through nagging injuries. He carries a big contract, expiring this season. There’s talk that he’s done. But, at 33, Giggy has returned from his latest rehab and played well. On December 2, he was 8-7-3, with a 2.90 GAA and 0.890 save percentage. He is now 10-9-3, while lowering his GAA to 2.82 and raising his save percentage to 0.897. Not stellar, but it shows he’s regaining his form after being laid off a few weeks.
Reimer has been a surprise. He’s cooled after a hot start, but the kid is 5-4-0, with a 2.38 GAA and 0.929 percentage. And that’s after allowing 5 goals in 2 periods against Buffalo. He’s young, and the team in front of him has not improved dramatically on the defensive side. There is a danger in asking Reimer to carry the load on a poor team. One recalls Leaf history with Allan Bester and Ken Wregget in the 1980s, 2 young ‘tenders who never developed as they might have. But, Reimer shows a ton of promise, and despite 4 losses, he’s routinely faced 30+ shots and still kept that percentage well above .900.
The odd man out is Jonas Gustavsson right now. On December 2, he was 3-6-2, with a 2.66 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Things have turned ugly since; the Monster went 3-7-0 in 11 appearances, and saw his GAA balloon to 3.28 while his percentage plummeted to just .890. He’s developed a reputation for losing his cool, smashing his stick against the iron after a bad goal, and struggling badly with rebound control. He was unable to make a strong case for himself during Giguere’s time off, and has started only 2 games since the new year. Toronto carried 3 goalies for a time, but finally loaned Gustavsson to the AHL Marlies for a 14 day conditioning stint. As of this writing, Gustavsson’s first AHL start resulted in a 3-1 win for the Marlies over Rochester, where Jonas posted a .960 save percentage.
Speaking of the AHL, Jussi Rynnas has struggled somewhat, going 9-13-1, 1 shutout, 2.79 GAA, .909 save percentage. Ben Scrivens has split time between Reading of the ECHL, where he is 10-3-0 with a 2.23 GAA and .938 save percentage, and the Marlies where he was 5-2-3 with 1 shutout, 2.25 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
So, what does it all mean? Well, it’s complicated.
Giggy is a veteran with an expiring contract, a former Conn Smythe winner. Coming off injury, the Leafs needed to play him to see if he’d healed, to showcase him for a possible trade, and because they could not afford to keep his big cap hit sitting in the press box. JSG has responded. James Reimer played his way into getting starts with the NHL club. For a team desperate to move up the standings, playing a hot goalie is an easy choice, except this goalie is the only one they could option back to the AHL. Jonas Gustavsson has lost his confidence, and his position as the likely future #1 goalie of the Toronto Maple Leafs. With JSG and Reimer playing better, Toronto needed to find a way to get him some playing time, and his one-way contract meant waivers if he was to simply be sent down. A conditioning stint was the only way to see if he will bounce back and be able to compete at the pro level, but that will only last 2 weeks before he is back with the NHL club.
Burke will do his best to move JS Giguere to a contender. If a deal can be made, Burke will try to bolster his own team while giving one of his guys another shot at a Cup. From there… decisions need to be made. Reimer is an RFA, and will likely be signed and go into training camp in the fall of 2011 as the odds on favorite for the starters job. Gustavsson will have to make some noise to be considered. He is signed for another season, but he will have to show he’s returned to form and can handle the NHL game. Should Scrivens maintain his sparkling numbers (and be re-signed as an RFA), he may well bump Gustavsson for a chance at the back up role. And with some cap room available, Burke may also decide to sign an NHL veteran goalie, perhaps even Giguere, who will not command anything near his previous $6.5M per season.
Things can change dramatically in a short time. But for the Leafs, having 4 goalies in the system, all 27 or younger, there is finally some depth at the crucial goal position. These guys will take time to develop, and the team they backstop will need to improve to help them along. But, it may finally mean that Toronto will be able to have confidence in the guy wearing the pads each night.