You think things are trending one way, and then things change.
Not so long ago, Jonas Gustavsson was playing some of his best hockey in Toronto. James Reimer, the guy who almost dragged his team into the 2011 playoffs, was about to return. Things looked pretty good for a Leaf team holding down a playoff position, at least between the pipes. I even defended the signing of Ron Wilson as a good move, citing that the team seemed headed in the right direction, and that with some work, he could coach them into the playoffs. And in the space of about a week, the team now sits 10th in their conference, having gone 4-6-3 in December. The penalty kill gets worse by the game. Wilson is insistent that Reimer is the starter, giving him the last 6 starts, despite what appears to be tentative and unsure play from the netminder.
There’s a rift developing in LeafNation. The lines are easy to see. There are those who are Reimer fans, who want him in net as much as possible, and who, in some cases, feel he is unfairly being criticised, when much of the Leafs’ problem stems from the overall defensive play of the team. In the other camp, those who feel Gustavsson has done enough to show he is generally playing well, and he deserves at least a few more starts than he has been getting, especially since Reimer has not been stellar. And Reimer has not been stellar. He’s started 11 of the last 13 games. He’s 3-4-3 in that stretch, allowed 34 goals, and seen his 2.58GAA and .912sv% become a 3.01GAA and .900sv%. Gustavsson, over his last 11 appearances, has gone 6-4-0, allowed 29 goals, and seen his 3.61GAA and .886sv% become 3.27GAA and .898sv%.
As Michael Langlois quite correctly points out in his blog, Reimer is the choice of the Leaf brass. He got the contract over the summer, he played his way into the starter’s job last season, and for the most part, he’s a great guy with a great attitude who works hard and wants to win. That’s not in contrast to Gustavsson, who also works hard and wants to win. But, Jonas has been in town longer, had some health issues, and has been unable to establish himself as the top guy.
The thing is, maybe it’s just the wrong choice right now. As Langlois again correctly points out, “Most organizations don’t believe that a guy should lose their job because of an injury.” That seems to make sense logically. If your best goalie is designated the number 1, then when he returns healed after injury, he should still be your best goalie, and therefore still your number 1. But, Reimer’s numbers have not been very good. As we see above, since his return he’s only won 3 games, and added almost half a goal per game to his average. Meanwhile, Gustavsson’s numbers got better while he filled in during Reimer’s injury. Furthermore, if we look back to 2010-11, the truth is injury to the number 1 goalie is exactly how Reimer got the job in the first place. Had JS Giguere not been injured, and Jonas Gustavsson played better, Reimer likely would not have been given nearly as many starts as he got in the run to try to make the playoffs. In fact, Giguere was available for 35 games following Reimer’s first start that season, yet he only got 9 decisions over those remaining 35 games.
At the time, Reimer gave his team the best chance to win. As such, he got the bulk of the work, despite that the original number 1 goalie, Giguere, had returned from injury. It seems the Leaf brass have decided that for 2011-12, Reimer will be the guy, and pretty much the only guy, despite play from Gustavsson that could be called better by comparison.
It’s not that Reimer hasn’t had very good games. Or that Gustavsson hasn’t also had very bad games. But, James Reimer circa Dec. 2011 is not the same goalie as James Reimer circa Jan. 2011. He seems tentative. He’s deep in his crease. His glove hand is inconsistent. His rebound control is lacking. He’s down early, but coming away from his post early also, or closing his 5-hole late. Perhaps he is still suffering some lingering effects of concussion, but he’s just not sharp. Jonas Gustavsson has also struggled, giving up early goals. But, he’s been sharper, especially late in tight games.
It’s not about not liking Reimer, or preferring Gustavsson. It’s not about blaming one goalie, or making assessments that one will have the better career in the long run. And it’s not about ignoring that the team defense and penalty kill have a large part in why the team is not winning games. It is about questioning why Ron Wilson seems insistent on leaning on Reimer while Gustavsson sits. One has to wonder, while his team has been losing, he goes back to the goalie whose performance seems to be lacking compared to the other goalie. Shouldn’t Gustavsson’s performance so far warrant better than 2 starts in 13 games? Would 4 or 5 have been so unreasonable, espeially if it meant an extra 3 or 4 points in the standings?
Never mind ‘number 1’ and ‘back up’. If the Leafs are going to find themselves in the playoffs this season, and if Ron Wilson is going to be the man to coach this team, then the only thing to be worried about is which goalie gives you the best chance to win. At the least, why not take advantage of using Gustavsson more while he is playing well, while easing a struggling Reimer back into the starter’s role. The bottom line is the Leafs need to string together wins. That’s always been the best way to smooth any rift in LeafNation.