It’s about that time of year again. The NHL season is nearing it’s halfway mark and the actual quality of each team is finally becoming known. Expectedly, teams like Chicago, Boston, and Detroit are among 2011-2012’s elite. Among the league’s surprises are teams such as Minnesota, Florida and St. Louis who find themselves holding some of the league’s most premium positions; the third climbing up the rankings after making an early season coaching change, bringing in NHL legend Ken Hitchcock. The year’s underachievers to this point include Washington, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay.
Another team disappointing fans as of late are the Toronto Maple Leafs. After beginning the season on a tear, even managing to hold the NHL’s top spot for a brief period of time, the Leafs‘ record of late has been mediocre at best. Their record during the last 10 games has been 5-4-1, respectable, but not the type of numbers to be expected from a team which has the services of two of the leagues top point getters in Phil Kessel, 37 points (second in the league only to the recently concussed Claude Giroux), and Joffrey Lupul, 35 points. The Leafs also have the fortune of employing two defensemen among the league’s top twenty point getters in Dion Phaneuf, 19 points, John-Michael Liles, 18 points. With all this productivity, the Leafs sit in the NHL’s top 6 teams in terms of Goals per Game, at 3.03 G/G.
The mediocre record the Leafs boast, despite the prolific scoring they have managed so far this season point to one thing: a deficiency in net. The Leafs’ goalies can’t stop the puck. The Leafs sit 26th in the league in terms of Goals Against per Game with 3.19, sandwiching them in between a number of the leagues basement dwellers such as Anaheim, Columbus, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay. Yes, some may argue that the Leafs were left with the services of a rookie Ben Scrivens and highly anticipated but highly disappointing Jonas Gustavsson for a healthy portion of the season which contributed plentifully to the GAA, but Leafs savior James Reimer hasn’t been nearly the stud be was last season.
After achieving an incredible .921 save percentage and 2.60 GAA during 37 games last year, so far this season the numbers are .892 and a 2.97 GAA, both numbers hovering around the realm of unacceptable and surely not the numbers a Stanley Cup or even playoff contender hopes for. Yes, he started the year off swimmingly before getting his bucket knocked around by Brian Gionta, going 4-0-1, but even then his save percentage was iffy at best, most games’ Save Percentages were less than .900. Since coming back from his injury Reimer has gone 1-3-1, with Save Percentages hovering around the .850 mark.
I’ll admit, I was one of the people that jumped aboard the "Optimus Reim" bandwagon last year, but I had good reason to. Reimer came in and played like an animal. For the first time in years it seemed like the Leafs had a legitimate tender. No longer did Leafs’ fans have to watch nervous and uncomfortably as lame-duck goaltenders such as Raycroft, Pogge and, of course, Toskala took to the ice. In almost every aspect, he looked solid.
This season has been different however. Those nervous feelings that plagued my past but ceased during last season have begun to reappear when Reimer gets the start. I know he is still getting over a bad head injury, but that is besides the point. For the first time after years of incompetency, the Leafs look like a legitimate team. If they are going to take advantage of the abundance of talent they currently possess, the team needs solid goaltending. A team that scores over 3 Goals per Game should be winning on a regular basis.
I am not trying to knock Reimer, but maybe he is just not ready yet. He might be suffering from a bout of "Sophomore Slump" or is still beaten up from his head injury, but until he looks like he did last season he should be "Goalie 1B" or backup at best. Reimer needs time to sit more, recover his old form and be relieved of the massive burden of starting goaltender that was placed on him at the beginning of the season. The Leafs have plenty of depth with their minor league systems and prospects, so perhaps Brian Burke would be able to entice someone into trading their goaltender for someone a few draft picks and guys like Nazem Kadri; maybe Burke could even relocate one of his current underachieving goaltenders while he’s at it.
Perhaps Carolina GM Jim Rutherford might feel inclined to part ways with Cam Ward as he begins to disassemble the miserable Carolina Hurricanes team? I’m not sure what this scale of trade would mean in terms of salary cap, but it would be the type of trade that might launch the Leafs from a mid-pack team back to one of the better. Whatever it has to be, hopefully it can be done soon, or else a Leafs season that was once filled with so much hope and promise will go to waste.