It would seem that behind the ubiquitous smile and charming personality of James Reimer is a competitive drive that tends to get overlooked. And so while Reimer was "a little surprised" to learn of the trade which sent Jonathan Bernier to Toronto, the 25-year-old had no intention of backing down and surrendering the crease.
"I don't plan on giving up the net," Reimer told TSN.ca exclusively from his offseason home in B.C. "I don't plan on giving up that starters' spot right now, not to be a jerk about it obviously."
Coming off his first full season as the Leafs starter, an impressive year in which he placed seventh overall in save percentage, Reimer was not expecting any kind of trade. Yes, he'd heard the rumours, but was there definite surprise when word of the deal, which sent Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens to the Kings along with a second round pick, came his way? There was some natural frustration followed by a period of reflection, an evaluation of why the team might have made such a move and where he might improve upon moving forward.
"Obviously you had emotions when you first heard it," he explained of his initial reaction to the deal which also saw the Leafs absorb $500,000 in salary, "but at the same time when you take a step back and after a while you realize that it's going to push you, it's going to make you a better person and a better goalie and if that happens well then it's great for me, it's going to be great for Bernier and it's going to be, most importantly, great for the Leafs."
Despite setting a Leafs record for the highest individual save percentage in a season in 2013 (.924), doubts continue to linger as to Reimer's ability to be the guy in the Toronto crease over the long haul. At the trade deadline in April, Leafs general manager Dave Nonis was frank in his chase for Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, even offering the now-retired Finn additional years to remain with the club.
Some of the questions would to seem to lie in the limited body of work, especially as it pertains to an 82-game campaign. Reimer starred as a rookie for 37 games two years back, spent his sophomore damaged from injury before standing tall again this past season.
"I'm sure they have a few reasons why they traded for Bernier," he said, concurring with the absence of a full season to his name. "I'm sure if you play consistently over a full season and hopefully into playoffs then I think that would help erase maybe some of the doubts people have."
As for answering the lingering questions, Reimer looked to keep a steady approach. "Just keep going, keep plugging away," he declared of his mindset. "You can always gain experience and you can always get better and in some way that really hasn't changed. Bringing in Bernier, obviously we're both after the same thing here [and that's] trying to obtain that starting job I guess or in my instance trying to obviously keep it. You keep going. I think if you have a couple seasons like the first one I had and this third one, my third season, I think you start to answer those questions.
"I'm sure people have questions and the doubters and naysayers have things that maybe they think I need to work on, but I think you just keep playing and try and play well for a long period of time and I think then eventually you get that notoriety or whatever it is that you want to call it."
Nonis made clear in the hours after the trade that "Nothing is being guaranteed to anybody", inferring that Reimer, despite thriving as the starter last season, would be in immediate competition for the position with Bernier, who has just 62 games of NHL experience, having backed up Jonathan Quick the past three seasons.
The Leafs GM did offer confidence to Reimer during a conversation between the two earlier this week, hinting that if that weren't the case, then in all likelihood Reimer would be playing elsewhere.
"He said that they had faith in me and things could have gone differently if they didn't," Reimer recalled of his chat with Nonis. "They said they liked what I've done so far, but they just thought that this might help me just to get to that next level."
Nonis and the Leafs brass insist that competition from Bernier will only spur something greater from Reimer. They believe both goaltenders have the ability to start, gambling that the 24-year-old Bernier will thrive with further opportunity in Toronto.
Selected 88 picks after the Montreal native in the 2006 draft, Reimer messaged Bernier on the day of the trade, offering him a welcome to the team, "looking forward to the battle and just told him that if you need anything in town or getting settled in then you can give me a call". The two had met briefly at the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia, Bernier arriving late to the proceedings, however, making for a limited introduction.
Some in Reimer's situation might have been sour toward the new teammate, one so plainly after his job, but not Reimer. "You can see how guys would be like that," he said. "But when it boils down it we're teammates and teammates first. Not to get all cliché and everything. You want to be the best teammates and we'll both want the same thing as far as winning and giving the boys a chance. And so sure we both want the most amount of games that we can get because nobody likes to sit on the bench obviously – you want to be the one helping your team – but when it all boils down we're teammates and we're putting on the same jersey so obviously that's the most important thing."
While his mental toughness might be questioned, Reimer has hurdled over adversity in the past. There was his return to form and the starting job following concussion/neck-related issues of his second season, not to mention insistent Roberto Luongo speculation. And then there was his follow-up to the Kiprusoff brouhaha, Reimer posting a .930 save percentage in April after the deadline had passed.
"It definitely motivates you," he conceded of the trade. "It maybe gives you an extra shot of adrenaline. You realize coming in that you've got to be at your best and that's exciting hockey. Not to always relate it to playoffs, but that's exciting hockey because that's when it means the most. Kind of the same thing here. Every day you're going to have to be at your best. That's what I try and pride myself in doing is motivating myself and being the best that I can, but this is definitely there to push you.
"At the same time I'm sure Bernier's coming in wanting nothing but that starting job. And so that's the competition. It's going to push us."