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Thursday, November 21, 2013
Leafs' goalie plan working out just fine

By Pierre LeBrun



TORONTO -- Isn't it sweet when a summer plan comes together as originally drawn up?

When the Maple Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier in June, it was with the hope that the competition with James Reimer would give Toronto the kind of one-two punch in net it hasn't had in years.

The NHL statistics Thursday morning listed Reimer sitting fourth among goalies with a .942 save percentage, Bernier just behind at .939, good for sixth overall.

Not bad.

"This is how we had envisioned it, that both guys would fight for the net, that they would get along, they'd be good teammates, they'd push themselves to different levels. So far, that's all occurred," Leafs GM Dave Nonis told ESPN.com on Thursday morning. "So we've been fortunate."

To have that kind of goaltending on a team that ranks 30th in shots against per game (35.9 per game), well, it tells you where the Leafs would be if not for the stellar netminding they've gotten.

"They both instill confidence in the whole team," Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said Thursday after the morning skate. "There have been games where we have been pretty badly outshot, and they've kept us in it until we got our game going. They've bailed us out quite a few times this year."

But just as important is that what had been billed as a potential goalie controversy before the season really hasn't played out that way in terms of any noticeable tension. It's been a battle without incident.

"They've been pushing each other," said van Riemsdyk. "You can take a relationship like that and it can go two ways. Sometimes it can be bitter, or you can work with it and go from there, and I think they've done a great job of supporting each other, and when their number has been called, they've gone in and done a really amazing job for us."

Don't confuse that with both goalies being happy that they're sharing the net. Both would much rather be carrying the load and playing a string of games. But they understand the situation.

Bernier doesn't talk on the morning of game days and was slated to start Thursday night, but in the conversations I've had with him this season, he's been thrilled with the opportunity in Toronto after years of backing up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. He's eager to be the No. 1 guy.

Both netminders deserve credit for how they've handled things. Bernier has come into a big hockey market with pressure on him to deliver as the new guy and has been sensational, living up to the billing. Reimer, meanwhile, has responded to the challenge by standing his turf as well as can be. Let's face it, after helping the Leafs get into the playoffs last spring for the first time in eight years, seeing his team trade for another starting-caliber goalie wasn't exactly what Reimer was expecting. But instead of moping around about it and letting it affect his play, he's responded well.

"Obviously, it hurts a little," Reimer said Thursday when asked about the offseason trade. "But it's the business. It's a challenge. My whole life, nothing has ever been given to me. [I've] always had to work for it. So this is a great opportunity. It's like playing the best teams in the league. You want that opportunity, you want that challenge. Now having a great goalie beside me, it's a great challenge for me to get better. It's been fun."

It's a one-two punch that's as good as almost any team's right now.

"You have two goalies that are the same age, went in the same draft and both have athletic ability," a Western Conference goalie coach said when asked about Toronto's goalkeeping. "Guaranteed they are competing against each other every day to see who is better, and neither wants to let the door open even a crack for the other to take the starting role. They're maybe teammates and friends, but don't kid yourself, these guys are going head-to-head every day, and it's making each of them get better and play well night after night. Internal competition makes guys accountable, and these two push each other. Someday, both will be starters playing 50-60 games each in the NHL."

"We're fortunate we have two guys that can play that our guys are remarkably comfortable playing in front of," said Nonis. "Both goalies are also at dollar amounts that makes that effective. At some point, that may change. If they both continue to play well, their salaries will go up. But both have bought into the program."

Bernier is in the first season of a two-year deal, which pays him $2.9 million per; Reimer is in the last year of his deal, which carries a $1.8 million cap hit.

With Reimer's deal up, it will force Toronto to likely make a decision in the offseason depending on his contract demands. When Edmonton was looking for a goalie earlier this season, it had been speculated by some that the Leafs should move Reimer, but that doesn't sound like an idea that appeals to Nonis for this season.

"It's possible, but unlikely," Nonis said. "They're both contributing. And you still don’t know if either one can play 60 games because they haven't been put in that situation. As this year plays out, it's a distinct possibility they'll both play a career-high number of games. That's a good opportunity for us to evaluate them as well. Never say never if ever something falls in your lap you'd have to say yes to, but it's something that I really don’t see happening at all."

Why not ride out the one-two punch as long as possible, while it's still feasible under the cap?

"What we try to do is create where you have a 1A and 1B," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Thursday morning. "Done it before. To say that we are the only coaching staff that's ever done it is crazy. Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower played together, didn't they? Right? ... Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog played pretty well, pretty good tandem in Edmonton in their dynasty years. So there are examples that you can go back to where there has been two goaltenders that have went in and played very well for their hockey club. I think it's a sign of strength, and it's a great sign for the organization."