James Reimer’s future with Maple Leafs far from certain

Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer tells Brady & Walker that this is the best he’s played in his career, and credits coach Babcock for instilling the compete and confidence in him to do so.

TORONTO — Ninety-one different men have tended goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the years, but only a handful have done so as long as James Reimer.

Whether that continues is far from certain.

Even with the 27-year-old in the midst of a renaissance season and now owning the team’s No. 1 job, there’s uncertainty hanging over his strong performance. Unrestricted free agency looms this summer and questions remain about how Toronto plans to handle its crease going forward.

“I was drafted here and my heart’s definitely here, so I’d like to play here,” Reimer told Sportsnet on Wednesday.

At this point, all he really has is hope and the solid body of work he's compiled in recent months. While that obviously beats the alternative — the conversation would be completely different if it was Reimer, not Jonathan Bernier, currently in a down period — it's clear in speaking with the player that he's not sure how this is going to shake out.

Reimer looks to be in line for a healthy raise from the $2.3-million cap hit his current deal carries. The going rate for a UFA-eligible goalie with his level of performance is north of $4-million per, judging by the recent contracts given to Edmonton's Cam Talbot (three years, $4.167-million AAV) and Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk (six years, $4.33-million AAV), among others.

Term will obviously be a central point of any negotiation, and should those discussions happen with the Leafs they'll impact Bernier's future as well. He has one more season remaining on his deal.

In the short term, Reimer has controlled all that he can this season — posting the NHL's second-best save percentage (.934) over 21 appearances. Mike Babcock almost made it sound like a silly questions while confirming to reporters that Reimer would get the start on Thursday against Carolina.

Reimer has made some technical adjustments but believes the biggest reason for his personal success is the structured way the Leafs are now playing in front of him. He's seeing a lot less rubber than in years past.

"I think as a team we're playing a lot differently," he said. "We're giving up less Grade A chances — or Grade A-plus, I should say — and so that always helps. I mean it's percentages: If you give up less (shots) you're going to let less goals in, right?"

This is backed up in some ways by the analysis of my colleague Steven Burtch, who has often noted that Reimer is consistently strong at handling high-danger scoring chances. His current .882 save percentage on those type of shots is the best of his career and suggests that he is an above-average performer at the position.

The one thing Reimer objects to is any notion that his performance is tied to the fact he's playing for a new contract — either here or somewhere else.

"What happens in other years?" he said, rhetorically. "You're not trying as hard? You're not as motivated? So you're only motivated to get a contract?"

If anything, he's had to work to keep the business side of the game far from his mind.

"If things go wrong, then all of a sudden it's a source of huge fear," Reimer explained. "If things go well, then you're happy. It's one of those things that makes you go up and down too much. That's why you try and block it out.

"Every once in a while if you need a little superficial motivation at certain points — let's say you go into a game and the last thing you want to be doing is playing hockey — maybe you can lean on that a little bit."

Those occasions are pretty rare for a guy who always seems to be sporting a mile-wide smile around the rink.

Reimer has become a fixture here. His tenure with the organization stretches all the way back to the Ron Wilson Era and he has a chance to become just the sixth goalie to play at least seven seasons for the Maple Leafs if he returns next fall.

But even he can't be sure if that will happen.

"That's a good question," said Reimer. "You should ask the guys upstairs. I mean I love this place, I think I've said that over the years. I'd love to stay here my whole career and win a bunch of Cups here, but I mean free agency, she's a strange thing.

"I've never been a part of it before so we'll see what transpires."