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Leaf goaltending is in good hands, just not at the moment

Being a goalie in that NHL is a tough job, to state the obvious.  If you somehow get to that level, you are compensated for your skill and determination spectacularly well but there are, we can agree, less stressful ways to make a living.

When I comment on the performance of a goaltender, I don’t come from a position of expertise about the skills and intricacies of the position.  (I never played the position.)  Nor do I have detailed knowledge of modern-day statistical formulas that speak a different language than I do, but yes, can help paint the picture when we assess the performance of goaltenders.

I’ve seen hundreds of goalies, good and not so good for many, many years.  What I do know is that even “mediocre” NHL goalies can have improbably outstanding runs where it looks like they’ll never let in a goal.  I remember Bruce Gamble, a good pro goalie but a journeyman by NHL standards in the mid and late 1960s.  Gamble had an amazing streak for the Leafs during the 1965-’66 season, I think it was.  (See the great old Harold Barkley photo of Gamble at left, with teammate Mike Walton.)  He popped three or four shutouts in a row and looked phenomenal.  The bubble then burst and Gamble gave up 7 goals, I think it was, against the Habs one night.  He had a nice career with the Leafs before being traded with Walton during the 1970-’71 season, but never recaptured the stunning success he had in that shutout streak.  Who could?

Roger Crozier, the left-handed, very talented, acrobatic and then very young Red Wing goalie played two of the best games I’ve ever seen a goalie play in the spring of 1966.  Crozier, who was a Glenn Hall butterfly ‘keeper (he’d fit in with today’s drop-down style) flustered and frustrated the powerful Montreal Canadiens right in Montreal as Detroit won the first two games of the finals against the defending Stanley Cup champions.  It looked like the Wings had the series in the bag. (Crozier is shown at right looking back in the net after an Yvan Cournoyer marker...) But while he was good the rest of the series (while also fighting through an injury), he could not maintain his amazing earlier display.  The Wings lost in six games as the Habs steamrolled to their second consecutive Cup.

Heck, J.S. Giguere, a fine goalie but not a Hall-of-Famer, sure looked all-world during that incredible Ducks playoff run in 2003.  He was so “in the zone”, so focused, so on his game that he really and truly looked like he couldn’t be beat.  He was so consistently square to the shooters that only a fluke or an absolutely perfect shot could have beat him.  Giguere has had a good career, including a Cup, but no one can play like he did in those playoffs throughout their career.  It’s just not possible.

But my point is simply this:  all talented, NHL-level goalies are capable of really good streaks.  They are also capable of losing their confidence very quickly and looking not so good at all. 

The great ones generally have longer periods of excellence and shorter periods of being lousy.  But even some of the best will have entire seasons (look at Ryan Miller’s career…good year, OK year, great year, poor year, etc.) where they aren’t themselves, or what they generally can be.

So why do I mention all this?  Well, as we speak, the Leafs are without a game-stealing goaltender.  Oh, I know The Monster had some pretty solid games not long ago when the Leafs won four in a row, and off and on prior to that mini-run.  And Reimer was pretty good right out of the chute this season until he was hurt.  But if we’re honest, really honest, the Leaf brass clearly was not confident in Gustavsson early this season.  This was evident when Burke basically said Gus was probably better off and more comfortable not being a number-one.  (It’s been clear from the get-go, as I have said here many times, that they want Reimer to be the guy…)

Now, I realize Gustavsson has had some fine games.  And I like him a lot, as I’ve also posted here a number of times.  But the team also often scored a lot to give him nice cushions in some of those winning efforts.

I really like Reimer, too, who I believe is going to be a good NHL goaltender.

But it’s obvious Reimer, post-injury, is not yet the guy we saw most of the time in the second half of the 2010-’11 season.  He makes some big saves, but we expect that of NHL goaltenders.  What separates the goalies at that level is consistency and their ability to minimize the number of bad goals which can kill your team’s confidence.

Throw in the ability to make some timely saves when you are either a goal ahead of a goal behind and you’ve got a good NHL goalie, maybe even better than that.

That last point is something that Reimer did so well a year ago—he generally kept his team ahead when they held a lead late in the game, and gave the Leafs a chance to come back when they were behind by a goal or two.

But right now, Wilson is in an unenviable position.  To show just how quickly things can change, we have moved from what some were seeing as a goaltending controversy (because Wilson had to choose between two goaltenders playing pretty well), to a situation where he has to decide which of two guys who are just playing OK should be in net on Thursday night against the Wild.

I remember writing last season, before Reimer arrived, that one of the Leaf goalies would have to start stealing some games.  In the end, Reimer was the guy who stole some games, but we all remember that it wasn’t quite enough to save what had been an uneven first-half.

Now, we need to see that kind of goaltending again.  Doesn’t matter who—Reimer, Gustavsson, Scrivens, Johnny Bower.  The Leafs are an improving team, but an imperfect one.  They can score a flood of goals, but can also suddenly go cold.  They can play good defense, but still make a lot of coverage mistakes and turn the puck over in the neutral zone—like most every other team in the league. 

No team is perfect.  The Leafs fit in nicely.  So what do they need, given some inconsistency in other aspects of their game?

They need their goalies to not only win the games they should have won (like Tuesday night at home against the Sens) and, as importantly, steal games they maybe had no business winning.

If not, everyone’s collar is going to get a lot tighter in the days ahead, as other teams step up the pace—and the race for playoff spots in the East is even more heated.

Nothing is guaranteed.  Hey, Washington lost to the Islanders. But you don’t want to miss too many opportunities to jump in the standings.  You never get back the points you lost.


  1. We have a tendency to think of goal as an individual position. The goaltenders wear different equipment and do striking different tasks, therefore that perception is natural. However, I think it was Viktor Tikhonov who once commented: “our team played well in net”. In reality, the goaltender works in a kind of symbiotic way with the defense and forwards who have as much influence of the puck staying in or out of the net as the goaltender does. Of course, I am not saying that you might as well have Rob Zettler’s recycled all-season radials in the net as Jacques Plante, however the goaltender’s success or failure becomes magnified in the spectator’s mind, along with his credit or blame for victories and losses.

    The Burke Brain Trust has a stand pat attitude with regard to the Leafs’ net, and for good reason. Their goal is to make the playoffs and Gustavsson and Reimer are up to that task without breaking the bank. I can think of only two softies in several games. Imagine if we held the rest of the team to those standards? Yeah, we would be in first place now. As Burke himself noted, the only reason that they are still in the hunt is because of Monster. Their prospect depth with Scrivens, Owuya, and Rynnas is unprecedented. A trade is unlikely to change anything for the better. The only way to improve in goal at the moment is through coaching, which frankly (no pun intended) is as good as it gets.

    In my opinion, Reimer could be more aggressive with his angles. But here is the rub: How can you play aggressively if you are going to be blindsided and concussed? The real goaltending problem has to do with rules and enforcement. Yes, on the Turris goal, as Greg Millen was quick to observe, Reimer committed to the butterfly early. Reimer’s bad. However, on the first goal he resembled a bowling pin. On the second, Jason Spezza looked like he was using Reimer as a bar stool. I abhor these kinds of goals simply because the goaltender cannot do his job. In any vestige of fairness, these goals stink.

    My suggestion: Goaltender interference should be reviewable. In the case of goaltender interference being judged on review the faceoff should take place in the attacking team’s end and of course, no goal. Secondly, there should be a crease violation rule, as in international junior hockey: immediate whistle and faceoff in the attacking teams end. I think that these two Draconian changes would help to cut down on the BS goals and help protect the goaltenders from injury, because they are in an unreasonably vulnerable position as things stand.

  2. Reimer either lost a small but critical component of his skill set with the Gionta hit or......I don't even know. All I know is that inexcusable goal wiped the game out last night. No 1st tier NHL goalie blows one that bad, right when your team is in it. I also noted that he quits on the play pretty quickly when someone bumps, or in Spezza's case, sits on him, thereby indicating to other teams that if you want him off his game, just give him a little business, because it's for damn sure the refs are going to do nothing.

  3. I've watched games in the company of goalies, who are unanimous in saying Reimer does not play his angles well, and drops too early. The Sens' third goal last night was Toskala-worthy, meaning it killed us. Of course, so did their goalie. But where was the bump'n'grind traffic in front of him? For that matter, where were the guys who should've flattened Spezza for goalie interference, or gone right after Foligno for taking out our Captain at the knees, or given Alfredsson an after-the-whistle bump the way Kessel and Lupul were getting last night?
    More than goalie woes, that's what's missing as far as I'm concerned. We don't have that fire. We're striving for 8th, not first.

  4. I think the lessons of the past will help us understand exactly where this team is at now.
    I was born in 1969, but my understanding is the Leafs of the 1960s had really good goaltending and a really good defence (which supported what could be called an average offence) that led to Cups.
    The Leafs in the late 70s had an offence that was pretty good, a decent defence and got some good goaling from Palmateer before the team was blown up.
    Skip to the early 90s... Fuhr and Potvin gave some good goaltending, but that defence had the look of that 1960s corps. It helped a lot.
    Mid to late 90s and early 2000s, we had Joseph and Belfour to cover a lot of issues up, because the defence was not the league's best.
    This team has a defence that has its warts. Well, to be honest, is much better on paper than it has shown on the ice. Last spring, Reimer looked like he could be forged in the Joseph mold, but this year neither goalie is a consistent big save guy.
    Until the defence matures as a whole (combination upgrade through acquisition and fixing mistakes of younger defenders), and the goalies gain experience and more confidence, this team will struggle to be consistently make post-season.

  5. Great article and comments above guys – you can really read the “frustration” level in your comments. I agree with Mr Craig & O’Malley; “goaltending” is a team effort and from my perspective our defensive core is still the major weakness of this team. Where is the grit that Burke advocates all the time? Henrik Lundqvist is having a great year with the Rangers and a large portion of his success can be contributed to his team mates commitment to; a) making sure he can see the first shot b) clearing away his rebounds and c) successfully executing a proper transition from defence to offence. Areas of the Leaf’s game that I think are more inconsistent than the goaltending – if we can create a mental toughness that New York is currently displaying (like the Detroit of old) then I think we have a good chance come playoff time. I always comment when the discussion is on our goalies (probably because I played the position) and for me “stealing a game” starts with protecting the net and not necessarily having a superstar goalie.

  6. As usual here, all excellent comments today. Thanks. (I sometimes wonder why other sites seem to receive a lot more in the way of comments. There is a lot of "traffic" here as best I can detect, but not a lot in the way of feedback. I'm not really sure why, but those who do take part make a fantastic contribution to thoughtful discussion around hockey and the Leafs.

    Bobby always come up with something out of the ordinary. The Tikhonov reference is well-suited here. (I remember reading a book by his predecessor as the Russian national team coach...I think it was Road to Olympus or something like that. Anatoli Tarasov, I believe it was. Great read. I learned so much about hockey....)

    With regard to Leaf goaltending, I agree that these guys can play, but both at times are wobbly. When a team is going well, a "bad" goal isn't a killer. But when you're not winning easily (and it's rarely easy) it's tougher for the team to get it back.

    I think you raise a very valid point about whether goalie interference should be reviewable.

    KidK...I know you have mentioned here before, if I'm not mistaken, that Reimer may be just a smudge off his game, mentally and physically, since the collision with Gionta. He looks good, then is zapped by one he normally would have had. Long-term I think he'll be fine, but it's tough right now.

    Gerund O'...I think you are speaking for many when you wonder aloud about traffic in front of the opposition net, teammates not standing up for Reimer and the captain and Kessel, etc.

    Mark...I appreciate the historical context you provided here today. Well put. And I agree with your assessment that we are better "on paper" than on the ice. If we can be patient, these young defensemen like Schenn, Aulie, Franson may be outstanding when they hit the age when most defenders hit their peak years. Can we- and the organization- be that patient?

    Meantime you are correct, in my view. Much like Bobby C.'s point, it's partly a team thing, if we expect the goalies to play well consistently.

    David, that's a tremendous post. Thanks. I think your point about the Rangers is right on. On paper, I don't see why they are a first-place team. But when you see them play, and how they generally respond to the expectations of the coach (it's a high bar under Tortorella), you can see why they are in first place. They work their tails off (most nights), play hard, block shots, those little things that are the difference many nights between winning and losing. Not that Lundvqvist doesn't make great saves- he does, of course. But they are more than Lundvquist.

    One thing I will mention to fuel additional discussion at some point: while I agree with people on the notion of a goalie going down to "soon" (heck, that's what they are taught and have been for years, it seems) I sometimes wonder if it isn't an awfully fine line. What I mean is, we often see goaltenders do exactly the same thing, but if the puck hits them, the "analyst" says "great save" by the goalie. If the puck goes in perfectly over the shoulder, they say the goalie dropped too soon.

    I think when you play that modern-day style, you are going to get beat up high. A good shot under the crossbar is all that's needed. Just my two cents!

    Thanks everyone.

  7. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 18, 2012 at 7:19 PM

    No doubt about it the Leafs' biggest need is grit. The thing that seems to come back and haunt the Leafs is their very poor positional play in their own end. Case in point:

    1.Reimer's wrap around off the glass was way too hard and unnecessary.
    2. Bozak was a slow and soft in chancing the Sen point man.
    3. Aulie needed to get to the puck a little quicker and lean on Milan Michalek harder behind the net.
    4. Lupul was too soft on his man out front. He does this way too often.
    5. Kessel allowed his man Alfredsson to roam free and open to intercept a pass because he was too caught up in looking for the outlet pass.
    6. Dion gets himself into trouble by doing too much which leads to him being out of position.
    7. I understand Turris was checked into him, but he needs to be stronger in battling in those situations. Same goes with the Spezza goal. If it was Joseph or Hacking Eddie in the net, Spezza will still be "feeling the pain".

    So often the Leafs spend way too much time in their own end because the D-man makes a bad soft pass when the forward is out of position or they are too soft along the boards. They also need to cut down on the turnover in the neutral zone. They make way too many high risk passes. It also would help when playing in a game like last night that the goaltender does not allow a softy, and Riemer isn't the only guilty party on this one. Can anybody remember a game back in November when the Monster allowed a very soft winning goal against these same Sen?

  8. Remember that "Challenge a play or call" talk we heard about near the end of last season? We'll it looks like we had another example for the supporters of that addition.

  9. Nice break down, Long Suffering. Sometimes I think positional play and grit are's the willingness to do the job you have to do. Most guys know where they need to be, they may not have the will to do it.

    Skill2Envy- indeed.