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Leafs’ James Reimer fights to regain form – and No. 1 job

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer (34) reacts after giving up the game winning goal to Winnipeg Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov (not pictured) at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Winnipeg defeated Toronto 4-2.

John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

James Reimer was looking for answers.

After two tough seasons in Toronto – primarily as the Maple Leafs' backup behind Jonathan Bernier – Reimer knew he needed to get better. So, with some help from his agent, he began meeting with goalie gurus who had a very specific set of skills.

These were specialists in puck tracking and, in one case, a new technique known as head trajectory, which was developed by Tri-City Americans goalie coach Lyle Mast and is catching on around the NHL.

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What exactly it is is somewhat of a state secret. But the theory centres on the idea that head positioning, movement and the related biomechanics are vital part of being an elite netminder.

The tactics have done wonders already for goalies such as Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk, who essentially saved his career last season and wound up with a six-year, $26-million (U.S.) deal as a result.

Dubnyk has since turned Reimer onto the technique, which is being used by about 10 goalies league-wide this season.

"We don't really want other people to know about it, that's all," Reimer explained of the secretiveness involved. "It's funny. It's goaltending – we're goalies, we're weird. I think eventually everybody will be doing it."

"He spent dozens – if not hundreds – of hours both on and off the ice working on it," added Ray Petkau, his long-time agent.

The Leafs lost again on Wednesday, falling to 2-8-2 on the year after the Winnipeg Jets scored a heartbreaking winner on a 2-on-1 with two minutes to play. Toronto hadn't deserved to hang in the game that long, but Reimer was terrific during a third-period barrage with the game tied, giving his team a chance despite the lopsided shot totals.

What set the 4-2 loss apart from so many for the Leafs this season was that dependable play in net, something they've lacked on many nights in the early going.

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Two of the goals against were of the no-hope variety, with the blame squarely on the Leafs' beleaguered defenders.

"He gave us a chance," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "You gotta give the kid credit."

This is a pivotal season for both Leafs goalies, but likely more so for Reimer, who doesn't have a contract next season and has posted backup-like numbers for two straight campaigns.

At 27, he is also closer to moving out of his peak than entering it – although it's not unheard of for goalies to find their game later in their careers. That said, NHL teams are showing an increased willingness to turn their crease over to younger goalies in recent years, and Reimer faces an uncertain future with a rebuilding organization and without a deal.

Teams can also be very fickle about spending on backups, and some dependable ones have found themselves out of work some Septembers.

Hence his push to learn and evolve over the off-season.

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Opportunity is certainly there right now. Bernier has struggled badly – both in the preseason and early this year. After back-to-back starts last weekend, he went down with a minor injury, adding to durability concerns that have plagued his brief time as an NHL starter.

Anointed the No. 1 from Day 1 by the Leafs' former management team, Bernier has hardly been a sacred cow under the new group. He was put through a gruelling arbitration process by Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello in the summer – one that ended with a two-year, $8.3-million deal – and has been challenged repeatedly by coach Mike Babcock in the first month of the season to be better.

The smart money in Vegas is likely on Bernier regaining his form at some point, but goaltending can be a strange, dark art. Good goalies routinely implode and have poor years. Bad ones – or unknowns – can shock the world and play like world beaters over sustained stretches.

The reality, too, is that Bernier's career save percentage is only marginally better than Reimer's – .915 to .913 – and word is he hasn't taken to the head trajectory methodology nearly as fervently.

If there's anything to it, perhaps the Reimer that posted two seasons with a better than a .920 save percentage – definitely the makings of a starter – can make an unexpected comeback.

Monday's win against Dallas – where Reimer made 43 saves and was named first star – was a first step on that path. The fact he had a sparkling .940 even strength save percentage going into Wednesday's game counts, too.

So while much of the hockey world has already deemed him a backup, Reimer feels he has more to give.

"It's definitely something I haven't perfected at all," he said of the new methods he has been working on. "But I'm getting better at it every day and improving on it. I think it's helped a ton."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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