What happens to the Leafs’ season if ‘Optimus Reim’ and the ‘Monster’ turn out to be far better nicknames than players? Brian Burke has put his faith into James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson, leaving his two young netminders without much in terms of a safety net.
Reimer enters the season firmly entrenched as the No. 1 option between the pipes, but Leaf fans could be forgiven for their wary approach to the 23-year old’s sophomore campaign one year after seeing another breakout goalie (Gustavsson) stagger under the weight of second-season expectations.
When Gustavsson struggled, it was Jean-Sebastien Giguere and, eventually, Reimer who picked up the slack. If Reimer can’t follow up an impressive rookie campaign, then things get murky. Gustavsson would be given the first shot, but would hardly hold a great deal of trust within Leafs Nation and certainly doesn’t boast the veteran stability that the current Av Giguere held. After that, there is a deep but unprepared laundry list of goaltending prospects in the system that includes Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas and Mark “DJ Mark in Da Park” Owuya.
Let’s start with Reimer.
The Manitoba native learned quickly last season of the pros associated with playing in a hockey-mad city like Toronto. He was an instant celebrity, replete with a ready-made nickname and ever-present grin, and experienced fan adulation en route to an unexpected 20-10-5 season in which his .921 save percentage ranked 11th among NHL goaltenders. Reimer wasn’t necessarily impenetrable (he did allow 4+ goals on eight occasions over 37 appearances), but no one could’ve expected more of a fourth rounder (99th over-all, 2006) in his relative infancy at a position where most peak in their late 20’s / early 30’s.
But pro sports are nothing if not a cutthroat, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ culture, particularly when you’re a franchise absolutely famished for a taste of the postseason. Now comes the other side of the fishbowl frenzy, as Reimer has to answer questions about whether he’s ready to take on the No. 1 responsibilities over a full season for a club with playoff aspirations.
If he buckles, Gustavsson gets a chance to pick up the pieces and put last season behind him. After showing so much emotional stability in what was a roller coaster 2009-10 season, the 26-year old Swede got untracked early in the season and couldn’t find any kind of groove, seeing significant drops in his save percentage and goals against average. On top of that, the visible signs of frustration and anger hinted at the pressure getting to him.
Now, if Reimer can shoulder the load of 50-60 starts in net, Gustavsson can fly somewhat under the radar and regain his bearings in a back-up role. If he can’t, or if Reimer has any similar setbacks, the Leafs will have to hope for yet another goalkeeper breakthrough or look outside the organization for help.
Among the other options within the organization, there isn’t much ready-made help to be found. Scrivens is the closest thing to being ready for the spotlight, having amassed a 13-12-5 record with the Marlies to go along with a .924 save percentage and 2.33 GAA, but the former Cornell standout still is without a single minute of NHL experience to his name. The banged-up Rynnas split duties with Scrivens at Ricoh Coliseum last year, but his underwhelming stats suggested that the adjustment to North American hockey could be a considerable one for the 24-year old Finn. Owuya, meanwhile, has his own share of pro experience, but only 32 games of it even come in the Swedish Elite League, with the 22-year old still a long-term project at best. Finally, 2011 draft pick Garrett Sparks gained an invite to camp, but the opportunity appears to be little more than a chance for the 18-year old OHL’er to get a short taste of life at the NHL level.
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Written by Ben Fisher