TORONTO – Cody Franson crossed paths with James Reimer in Kelowna, B.C. on occasion this past summer and was struck by what he saw.
"You could just tell he was dedicated to getting back to where he wanted to be," Franson told TSN.ca, following a Sunday practice at MasterCard Centre. "You could just see with what he was doing through the gym, he was really focused on game-like situations and making himself prepared to be agile and quick and just feeling the way he knows he can. It's shown. He's played very well in the games he's played."
The 24-year-old Reimer posted a 37-save shutout in a 6-0 victory at the Bell Centre on Saturday, rising to eighth in the NHL with a cool .929 save percentage, topping the likes of Henrik Lundqvist (.907), Ryan Miller (.909), Marc-Andre Fleury (.906), Jonathan Quick (.891), and Carey Price, at the unlikely quarter-mark of the season.
Of most importance for the Leafs is the stability he has offered in goal. With hardly an exception in nine starts, Reimer has given his team an opportunity to win every night, the only mandate Randy Carlyle has demanded when it comes to the crease. Reimer had no blemishes in the perfect rollover of the Canadiens this past weekend, but earlier performances against the Rangers and Bruins were better indicators of the stability he's provided so far. The Leafs were overmatched and eventually lost both games to elite rivals in New York and Boston, but only because of Reimer did they have a real chance to win, each tilt kept close because of goaltending from the Manitoba native.
"He gave us a chance," said Carlyle after the victory in Montreal, which included a 20-save shutdown of the Habs in the middle frame.
Carlyle's presence behind the bench in Toronto can't be discounted in Reimer's turnaround this season.
During summer conversations with Rick St. Croix – the Leafs new goalie coach – Carlyle made clear that 'We're not here to change people, we're here to refine what they're doing', advocating a bit more aggressiveness from Reimer in the crease.
Additionally and of greater importance is the team-wide emphasis on defence. Under Ron Wilson, the Leafs employed an up-tempo, risk-inclined brand of hockey, a complete-180 from Carlyle, who places the utmost priority on a sound defensive effort. The results show; after 12 games, the club ranks 11th in goals against (2.58 per game) versus 29th a year ago (3.16). "It's not shutdown hockey as you would say," Carlyle said Saturday morning, noting the need to remain aggressive on the forecheck, "[but] we want to make sure that we kept as much of the quality offensive chances to the outside, no second and third opportunities."
While the Leafs have allowed on average the same amount of shots as last season (30.2 compared with 30.8 last year), most of the opportunities have leaned toward the perimeter, fewer from the danger zones in and around the net. As a result, Reimer has not been asked to be spectacular, only stable.
"He's done a very good job of controlling rebounds this year," Franson noted. "Last year we were a little spotty defensively and rebound situations we weren't necessarily able to tighten up for him … but he's done a very good job and made our jobs really easy this year in terms of trying to clear rebounds and clearing the front of the net."
Much of the focus for the organization this season should come down to evaluating question marks on the roster and their relative fit in the building process moving forward. No question looms greater than the one in goal. Reimer's nine starts are far from the requisite sample size for making such an evaluation, but steps are certainly being taken in the direction of clarifying that long-standing void.