Heading into this season, there was rampant speculation the Toronto Maple Leafs would acquire goaltender Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks.
Indeed, those rumors stretched back to June, after it was revealed Luongo and the Canucks mutually agreed it would be best if he were traded.
Considering the Leafs faced entering this season with an inexperienced tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, the links to Luongo were understandable.
The duo had promise, especially Reimer, who made an impressive debut midway through 2010-11, but a whiplash injury limited him to only 34 games last season, raising concerns over its effect on his performance.
Expert opinion claimed Reimer had a bright future but lacked the experience necessary to carry the Maple Leafs into their first playoff appearance since 2004. Thus, it was expected the Leafs would add a veteran netminder capable of ending their playoff drought whilst mentoring young Reimer.
Rumors of Luongo coming to Toronto persisted into this season, especially when Reimer was sidelined by a sprained knee in mid-February.
That’s when Scrivens stepped up, holding the fort with four wins in eight games until Reimer’s return on February 28th.
From the date of Reimer’s through the end of March, he posted a 7-1-4 record, becoming a key reason the Maple Leafs became a serious playoff contender.
Heading toward the April 3 trade deadline, however, the Leafs not only remained linked to Luongo, they also received permission to speak with Calgary Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Despite Reimer’s efforts throughout March, it appears management lacked faith in him.
By deadline day, Kiprusoff had rebuffed the Leafs, while a deal for Luongo fell through when the Canucks refused to absorb part of his salary, leaving Toronto’s playoff hopes upon Reimer’s shoulders.
He responded by reaching mid-April with a 4-1-1 record, including stealing a win from the desperate New Jersey Devils with a 2-0 shutout.
The knock against Reimer was his lack of playoff experience. Barring an epic collapse over the Leafs final five regular season games, he’s about to get that experience.
Some critics still bemoan the Leafs failure to land Kiprusoff or Luongo, fearing Reimer will crumble under the heat of playoff action.
Maybe he will struggle. Then again, maybe he won’t. NHL history is replete with stories of goalies who were playoff neophytes rising to the challenge, some even carrying their teams to Stanley Cup glory.
That’s not to suggest Reimer is capable of that. He’ll be facing enough pressure without adding the weight of unrealistic expectations. Rather,this season is the perfect opportunity for Reimer to gain invaluable playoff experience.
Expectations this season are low for the Maple Leafs entering this year’s playoffs. Most Leafs fans are just thrilled their club is on the verge of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs after eight long years.
Sure, they want their club do well in the playoffs, but most aren’t expecting an end to their club’s long Stanley Cup drought this spring.
As a result, Reimer will face his first NHL post-season without facing unrealistic expectations, which should allow him to relax (following the Game One butterflies) and focus upon playing his game.
This is Reimer’s chance to silence his critics and prove himself to a management which still doubts his ability as an NHL starter. He’s carried the Leafs to the verge of clinching their first playoff berth in eight years. He’s earned this opportunity.
Here’s hoping he makes the most of it.