From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
It’s the question coach Mike Babcock gets the day before every Toronto Maple Leafs game – although of late, there has been a different name involved.
“Do you stick with James tomorrow night?” a media member will say.
“Yep,” Babcock replies.
James Reimer will indeed start again on Thursday against New Jersey. It will be his eighth go in goal in the past 10 games – one of the longer stretches of confidence from a Leafs coach in his years in the league – and yet another signal that he has become Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender.
The playing time has been well deserved. Other than an injury that kept Reimer out for a month, he has had a dream season, posting a .932 save percentage that is tied for first in the NHL (with Detroit’s Petr Mrazek) among goalies with 20-plus starts.
Reimer has also given Leafs management a real conundrum. As an unrestricted free agent, he can walk away for nothing in the summer, and he is due a sizable raise – in term and dollars – from the two-year, $4.6-million (U.S.) contract he signed two years ago.
But, without any seasons of 50-plus games in his career, what is he worth? What will he get on the open market? And what other options do the Leafs have in goal?
Those are all questions the front office is wrestling with right now.
There is some urgency to make a decision, after all, if they want to have the option of dealing Reimer before the Feb. 29 trade deadline for a pick or a prospect.
It’s believed there is some interest at the management level in keeping Reimer and moving Jonathan Bernier.
There is also a third option on the table where they could go with a different goaltender entirely for 2016-17.
Part of what could work in Reimer’s favour is that a few of the more advanced statistics speak favourably to his play. According to Christopher Boucher from Montreal-based analytics firm Sportlogiq, Reimer’s “red-zone” save percentage – the percentage of shots he has stopped right in front of the goal – is .835, which is second only in the NHL to Washington’s Braden Holtby.
Bernier’s red-zone save percentage (.663) is well below the league average (.755).
Half the goals in the NHL this season have been scored from this area, Boucher explained.
The Leafs analytics department is well aware of these types of numbers – and others that are more advanced and outside the public domain. There is a theory in the organization that their best bet is to find a goaltender who will excel under Babcock by being able to save the types of chances his teams typically give up.
Reimer appears to score well by those metrics, not just this season – in which his technique appears improved, thanks in part to the adoption of a methodology known as head trajectory – but in his career.
That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing he stays. An extension certainly doesn’t sound imminent. As is the norm under GM Lou Lamoriello, contract talks have been kept extremely quiet, and Reimer’s agent, Ray Petkau, declined to comment on the looming deadline.
As much as the Leafs and Babcock like Reimer, there remains the issue of what they are comfortable paying him. Reimer has earned at least the equivalent of Bernier’s $4.15-million-a-season salary and can make the case he will receive term on the open market from a team that needs a goalie, such as Calgary or Carolina.
Reimer also has comparable career numbers (albeit in fewer games) to Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, who landed a six-year deal in the $4.33-million range last June after a career year.
Somewhere between Bernier’s deal and Dubnyk’s deal is something that feels as though it may work for the Leafs and Reimer.
He has shown this season that he is a good fit for a rebuilding team.
It’s plausible, too, that he is willing to offer a hometown discount, given his obvious love for the city.
The risk for the Leafs here is in the unknown. Even in a rebuild, they need a dependable option in goal, and there are no surefire starters available in free agency.
The options out there via trade have less experience as a No. 1 than Reimer, and the Leafs would have to give up an asset to acquire a goalie in a deal.
The risk for Reimer is that there aren’t many buyers in free agency, and the long-term offers don’t materialize on July 1.
A compromise makes sense, if there’s as much mutual interest here as there seems to be. But time is running out to get there.