Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson didn't miss a beat today when he was asked what his expectations for James Reimer were coming into the season.
"I wouldn't have probably bet a plugged nickel that he would be one of our goalies this year, to be honest with you," Wilson said. "We wanted him to play in the minors and continue to get better, develop and try to stay healthy.
"Circumstances have allowed him an opportunity and he's taken advantage of it."
Has he ever.
With all of his first 17 NHL starts coming since Jan. 1, Reimer is among the league leaders in several categories. He has a 10-4-3 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, numbers that are the single biggest reason the Leafs have managed to mount a late-season playoff push.
Six weeks ago, the story in goal in Toronto was how Jonas Gustavsson had struggled mightily, and at the time, goaltending analyst Justin Goldman from The Goalie Guild offered some interesting thoughts on why things had taken a turn for the worse for the Swedish sophomore.
With Reimer playing so well heading into tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, I asked Goldman what he saw in the Leafs rookie and if this hot run is merely a mirage or a sign that Toronto had an overlooked gem in its system.
Has James Reimer been on your radar for a while? Where did you project his NHL career going before he was called up this season?
Reimer first appeared on my radar in the summer of 2009 after his ECHL Championship run with South Carolina. He was named the MVP of the Kelly Cup Finals after a big win in Game 7 and that kind of playoff success early in his pro career "officially" put him on my map.
Reimer was ranked 47th overall [among my top 100 goaltending prospects]in October of 2009. He has slightly risen and fallen over the past two years until he finally shot up the charts in January.
Before his recall, I considered Reimer a legitimate prospect that clearly had the upside and potential to be a starter in the NHL. But I never expected him to have this kind of success so quickly. I honestly considered him more of a "work in progress" that would be successful after another one to two full seasons in the AHL. So I always knew he was going to be an NHL goalie someday, just not this season. It's an awesome story of what can happen when a capable prospect gets a quality opportunity.
What is Reimer doing well?
I think what Reimer is doing so well is sustaining a high level of confidence and focus. Most skilled rookies will play extremely well in their first few games because they are so energized and alert - they work their whole lives for this kind of opportunity. But after a handful of games, they will start to lose that intense focus and slowly regress, or return to their more realistic level of play.
But when Reimer has suffered a loss or given up a bad goal, he has not allowed that to kill or weaken his confidence. His ability to "bounce back" has been very impressive as well. He has only lost two games in a row once this season, and I think that ability to shake off a bad game (or a bad goal) has been a major reason why he continues to play so well. On top of this, he has a very positive attitude and a very strong work ethic. He's composed, even-keeled and he rarely displays negative body language. Those are all key traits you want a rookie can display; they are all signs of strong mental toughness. So if something goes wrong or he has a bad outing, he has the work ethic and confidence to overcome it.
What does he still need to work on?
Technically speaking, Remier needs to improve his foot and hand speed. I've said numerous times that his weakness is glove side, as I notice that he bobbles a lot of glove-side shots. A few years back, Reimer also had an extremely wide stance, with his feet spread really far apart. Over time, however, he has narrowed his stance, and he needs to continue to do this as time goes on. The more he can narrow his stance, the taller he will appear in the net and the more space he will eliminate in those prime scoring areas (i.e. top corners), especially when he drops into the butterfly.
Reimer also needs to work on rebound control, especially on plays that develop quickly or in tight to his crease. That would include one-timers, stuff attempts from below the goal line and shots on odd-man rushes. The last area of improvement for Reimer would be tracking pucks through traffic and screens. This is clearly seen when on the penalty kill, as he only has a .867 save percentage (11 goals on 83 shots) in that situation.
But these are areas of the position that all rookie goalies need to work on.
The last thing I would say he needs to work on, without getting too technical, is knowing when to challenge shooters and be more aggressive, and when it is okay to stay deep in his net. Reading plays and having situational awareness is something that comes with experience, so I don't expect him to excel at this so soon. Over time, he'll get better at all of these things.
Is this run Reimer is on anomaly or can he actually keep this up long term?
I consider this run a "hot streak" right now for a few different reasons, but it's something that he can still sustain. For one, he's extremely confident right now. That's always the biggest key to a rookie's success. Secondly, shooters and teams are not familiar with him, so they simply don't know any of his tendencies.
Again, this happens with all rookies. In fact, one reason why goalies experience a "sophomore slump" is simply due to scouts and players doing their homework. Teams quickly learn a goalie's strengths and weaknesses and it can take a goalie anywhere from months to years to solve their issues.
So not only is Reimer a relatively unknown talent, but he's playing with an extremely high level of confidence. That confidence has also radiated outward through the entire team, pushing the Leafs to play much better in front of him, which is something I'm sure many fans are seeing. With the playoffs now in sight, hope and energy is high and every game is really intense. So there's no complacency to be found, the positive energy is flowing everywhere, the players are relaxed and everyone is having fun.
When Reimer stepped up and experienced early success, the coaching staff rewarded him with more minutes. As Reimer's role elevated, so did his confidence. He started to believe he was capable of being successful and his outlook changed. His goals went from, "just trying to stick in the NHL" to "continuing to play well enough to make the playoffs." As his mindset and goals have changed so has his confidence.
If this strong play continues, his rhythm and focus will reach what could be considered a point of no return. He'll be established as a full-time NHL goaltender and he'll gain more experience and confidence. From there, the key will be proving he can be consistent and less about proving he has the skills to be successful in the NHL.
In that regard, he is setting the bar very high for future seasons and that is where staying confident becomes such a huge aspect of long-term success. Just ask Craig Anderson how tough it can be to live up to really high expectations (2009-10 season compared to this year).
If teams are video scouting him for ways to beat Reimer, what are they telling their shooters?
- Shoot glove side, because Reimer sets his hands very low on his hips and tight to his body. His hands aren't the quickest, so a good release and well-placed shot will beat him glove side.
- Always try to shoot pucks into his feet on the rush and from bad angles because he doesn't have the quickest feet either.
- He also isn't strong at scrambling or making quick reflex saves since he's a "blocking" style goalie that relies more on positioning.
- Always try to elevate pucks in tight because he likes to stay deep in his crease and rely on a wide stance to eliminate space. You'll also see a lot of space above his shoulders because he hunches over in his ready stance, so get shots up in a hurry and you'll be more successful.
Does Reimer remind you of anyone else?
To be honest, he really doesn't. If anything, he reminds me of J-S Giguere because of the clearly-defined "blocking" positional style that they both play. As I've said before, I'm sure Francois Allaire is loving the opportunity to work with Reimer because there are very few "blocking" goalies around anymore.
I can't think of any current NHL goalie that plays a full-blown "blocking" style and stays deep in his crease on purpose in order to have more time to react. If I had to drop some names just for fun, I would say he's a combination of Giguere, Antti Niemi and Cam Ward ... and maybe a little Henrik Lundqvist since they both have a wider stance and play deep in their crease.
But Reimer is really unique, and to me, that's a good thing.