04/29/2012 at 10:42pm EDT
There is no doubt that the goaltender is the single most influential player on any hockey team and rivals that of a quarterback in football for how much impact the position has on the game. Although having good goaltending does not guarantee success, not having it is a recipe for failure.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been a prime example of this over a seven year stretch in which they have not made the playoffs. Some will argue that the Maple Leafs just haven’t iced a good enough team to finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, which is a debatable point. What is not debatable is how inconsistent and below average their goaltending has been over that time period.
When James Reimer jumped into the Maple Leaf goal in the 2010-11 NHL season and posted an impressive 20-10-5 record with a 2.60 goals against average and a .921 save percentage it looked like the Maple Leafs finally had there answer in goal. Reimer looked so good in that he was rewarded with a 3 year deal at $1.8 million per season. Unfortunately Reimer suffered a concussion early in the season and never appeared to recover.
This off-season for Brian Burke is critical. With Jonas Gustavsson an unrestricted free agent and Reimer signed for two more seasons, Burke needs to decide if Reimer is his goalie of the present and future or if he needs to go in a completely different direction.
Last week, Roberto Luongo let it be known that he would be willing to waive his no trade clause if the Canucks approached him to do so. This has set off a flurry of rumours and predictions on where the perennial all-star will land. The Maple Leafs have been mentioned as a potential suitor and there are even mentions that Luongo would be willing to accept a move to Toronto. On the surface I would not be completely against this, as Luongo is an elite level goalie and will most likely deliver consistently good goaltending for the next 5-6 years. However, Luongo’s long term deal appears to be an issue for Maple Leaf management and I think there are some other options that might make more sense this off-season.
What this past season has shown us is that one team’s trash is another team’s gold. Goaltenders like Mike Smith and Brian Elliott came out of nowhere to have all-star caliber years while the big prize of free agency, Ilya Bryzgalov, has been less than impressive. Scouring the free agent market I think there are a couple goaltenders that might fit the mold of Smith and Elliott.
Josh Harding was once a highly regarded goaltending prospect playing behind Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota. Harding was hit by a serious injury to his ACL and MCL and had to miss the entire 2010-11 season. Coming off such a serious injury, Harding performed well this past season posting a goals against average of 2.62 and a save percentage of .917. Harding will be turning 28 in June and is entering the prime of his career. He can be a very affordable option this summer and could come in to challenge James Reimer for the starting job. At the very least he should be a competent backup for Reimer.
Scott Clemmensen is another interesting option for the Maple Leafs this summer. The veteran net minder has put together two solid seasons in a row as the back up in Florida. If the Maple Leafs believe Reimer can still be their starter, bringing in a goalie like Clemmensen could be the perfect compliment. Reimer excelled at the end of the 2010-11 season playing alongside veteran J.S. Giguere. Bringing in a veteran backup could give Reimer the support he needs to carry the ball as the starter.
I believe that Reimer is closer to the goalie that we saw near the end of 2010-11 rather than what we saw when he returned from injury this past season. And based on Brian Burke’s season ending press conference I think he feels this way as well. Given that sentiment, I think he will be looking for someone who can push Reimer for the starting position but will ultimately be a a veteran backup presence that can start 20-30 games. Both Harding and Clemmensen fit the bill and should be affordable options for a team that might have some salary cap issues. And since they are both unrestricted free agents the Maple Leafs will not have to give up any assets that they might need to get that big number one center they have been looking for…Jordan Staal anyone?