DETROIT – It won’t be long now before we’re talking about freeing James Reimer. At least that’s how it looks from here.
The man who is currently carrying the playoff hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs – and, let’s face it, who knows when Jonathan Bernier will return from a groin strain? – can’t be faulted for feeling like he doesn’t have the full support of those around him.
How else can Randy Carlyle’s comments following Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings be viewed? Reimer had just been beaten on two breakaways and a 2-on-1 and the coach didn’t have his goaltender’s back when he was asked quite innocently about his play in the game.
“I thought he was OK, you know? Just OK,” said Carlyle.
Viewed on its own, that is far from a scathing indictment. But we have the benefit of a lot more context with which to examine the answer.
It is no secret that the relationship between the two men isn’t particularly strong, something that was evident when Reimer was caught giving Carlyle a death stare after being pulled against the Red Wings back on Dec. 21. In fact, he barely played much at all after that – at least until Bernier went down with his injury in Los Angeles last week.
That thrust Reimer right back into the middle of a playoff race that has tightened up considerably following two straight losses to end a tough five-game road trip. He clearly wasn’t pleased when told of Carlyle’s assessment of his performance at Joe Louis Arena.
“So he said ‘I was just OK?’ I thought I was good,” said Reimer. “You know, I don’t know if I was great and I would like to be great. I thought I made some good saves when I needed to and unfortunately at the end, especially that third one, you want to come and make a big save for your team there.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case tonight.”
So now the Leafs return home and can count on being greeted by a little controversy when they host Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. After an eventful road trip, that looks like a tall task.
What made Carlyle’s comments about Reimer particularly notable is how good a job the coach has done of steering clear of this kind of controversy during his two-year tenure in Toronto. He was clearly in an ornery mood after this loss, first taking issue with the lack of interference calls in the game – a rare complaint about officiating by Carlyle – and later bemoaning the schedule.
The question about Reimer was the last one he fielded during a scrum that lasted a little over two minutes.
Carlyle’s tepid response drew immediate reaction on Twitter, including from Ray Petkau, Reimer’s agent and best friend. He tweeted out a quick rebuttal – “As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game you blame your goalie” – before later trying to backtrack from that sentiment.
A call to Petkau wasn’t immediately returned on Tuesday night.
The entire episode provided an interesting look into a situation that has been simmering below the surface. Early in the season, Reimer didn’t feel like he was given the same opportunity as Bernier to prove himself and he will soon head into a summer where he becomes a restricted free agent.
As much as the Leafs need two good goaltenders moving forward – Bernier’s groin injury only underlines that fact – it appears increasingly unlikely that Reimer will be the guy to play the No. 2 role next season. It’s fair to assume that he’ll be open to a change of scenery.
What’s even more pressing right now is the need for the Leafs to regroup and find a way to get some victories. In all likelihood, they’ll have to do that with Reimer in net for the forseeable future.
For what it’s worth, his teammates didn’t seem to have any trouble with how he played against the Red Wings. If anything, the defencemen seemed to feel bad about the pair of breakaways they allowed Gustav Nyquist and the late 2-on-1 that saw Daniel Alfredsson cash in the eventual winner.
“We gave up a few chances in the key areas,” said captain Dion Phaneuf.
“A half breakaway and one clean one,” added Carl Gunnarsson. “I thought Reims was good, but it doesn’t matter who you’ve got in net. If they get breakaways, it’s tough to stop it, right?”
If there is one thing Reimer has been known for during his career, it’s the ability to fight through adversity. Remember that he was once an unheralded fourth-round draft pick who still found a way to seize the Leafs No. 1 goaltending job by age 23.
Heck, he didn’t even play organized hockey until about age 12 and still found his way from the tiny town of Morweena, Man., to the NHL. A man who has overcome those type of hurdles won’t be dissuaded by very much in life.
And Reimer made it clear that he would be ready to start again on Wednesday night if needed.
“You get over it,” he said of the loss. “I mean, I thought I played good but obviously you’d like to make at least one of those saves in the third (period). You get motivated for tomorrow and honestly, mentally it should be no problem.
“You’ve just got to make sure you do the right things physically to have your legs ready to go.”
That’s assuming he gets the chance. Carlyle hasn’t started the same goalie in a back-to-back situation all season long, but he would surely create even bigger headlines if he turned to Drew MacIntyre against the Lightning.
The 30-year-old journeyman has had a good season in the American Hockey League, but boasts a resume that includes just four NHL appearances – all of them in relief. As he walked to the team bus on Tuesday night, he told Sportsnet that no plan had yet been communicated to him.
“You probably know more than I do,” said MacIntyre.