TORONTO – The looming decision is not very far off on the horizon.
As James Reimer returned to practice with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday afternoon, it served as a reminder that it will only be a matter of time before coach Randy Carlyle has to again decide which goaltender gives the team the best opportunity to win on a nightly basis.
The answer to that question has become a little less clear since Reimer went down with a left knee strain on Jan. 11. Ben Scrivens hasn’t missed a beat in his absence while getting his longest stretch of games ever in the NHL (he’ll start his sixth straight when the Leafs visit Ottawa on Saturday).
But with Reimer looking like he could make a return in the coming week, who will get the call when both are available?
“(They’re) 1a and 1b – that’s basically the way we’ll deal with it,” Carlyle said Friday. “If one guy gets hot, he’s going to get a chance to run with it.”
At this point, it would probably be tough to operate any other way. Reimer and Scrivens have essentially had the exact same opportunity through 18 games this season and the numbers they’ve put up are remarkably similar.
Take a look:
Carlyle has made a point of trying to reward his top performers with more ice time and opportunity this season, no matter the outside circumstances. The policy has seen highly paid veterans like Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles sent to the press box in favour of players with less profile and much smaller pay cheques.
It also resulted in Scrivens getting the first two starts of the season – a just reward after performing well in the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout and looking sharper than his counterpart in training camp.
However, Reimer soon regained the No. 1 role, at least until he went down with the knee injury. Since then, he’s only been able to watch as Scrivens posted two shutouts and a .948 save percentage – numbers that will make it tougher for him to get time in the crease once he’s returned to full health.
“I think he’s played incredible,” Reimer said of Scrivens. “That’s the great thing about having two good goalies or having a great goalie counterpart like Scrivs, is that you continue to set the bar high. Whenever you go in there you want to play your best and be your best and push the other guy.”
One of the trepidations Carlyle expressed about the 26-year-old Scrivens earlier in the year was that he’s still relatively inexperienced with just 22 NHL appearances under his belt. By comparison, the 24-year-old Reimer has played 81 games at this level.
Scrivens acknowledged Friday that he’s starting to feel better in his role, likening it to how a young driver needs time and experience before truly feeling comfortable behind the wheel.
“That’s just natural adaptation as a person,” he said.
After becoming one of the best goalies in the AHL the last couple seasons, he’s consistently expressed confidence that he could perform to a high level in the NHL if given the opportunity. Despite some good performances over the last week or two, it’s still something he’s out to prove over the long term.
“I’ve exceeded expectations at times and I’ve fallen short of expectations at times,” said Scrivens. “It’s a learning experience, a learning curve. Obviously, I’m trying to get better each and every day.
“It’s a never-ending work in progress and you’ve just got to keep at it.”
No single factor has contributed more to Toronto’s decent 11-7-0 record this season than solid goaltending. Entering play Friday, the team sat tied for third in the NHL in save percentage – a level not achieved in these parts since playoff games were last played at the Air Canada Centre.
Consider where the Leafs ranked in the category during their run of seven straight seasons out of the post-season: 28th, 20th, 30th, 30th, 29th, 27th and 19th.
Or, put another way, not nearly good enough.
There were plenty of skeptics when the organization elected to start this season with a tandem of Reimer and Scrivens – some no doubt remain – but those two players have shown that they’re more than capable of handling the job so far.
While that promises to make for some tough decisions ahead for Carlyle, the Leaf coach views it as a good problem to have.
“That’s healthy when you can create that competition,” he said. “That’s what you’d like to do with your goaltending. You want them to be pushing one another to be No. 1.”