Leafs Reimer affirms Allaire changes with NHL success
Toronto goaltending prospect understands being sent back to AHL despite strong play
James Reimer may have left the National Hockey League behind for now, but the seemingly permanent grin he wore through almost a full month with the Toronto Maple Leafs came back with him on the return trip to the American League.
Despite a 4-2 record, .933 save percentage, 2.26 goals-against average and a three game road win streak that matched a Leafs rookie record, Reimer was sent back down to the Toronto Marlies on Friday.
It was easier to keep smiling because he always knew the demotion was coming.
“When it did come obviously you are disappointed,” Reimer said after arriving on the ice to stick taps and cheers midway through the Marlies’ practice on Saturday afternoon in Abottsford, where they play on Sunday. “You want to stay up there, but the reality is you don’t keep three goalies and I understand that.”
The move came with Jean-Sebastien Giguere ready to return from a nagging groin injury, and the Maple Leafs short on both forwards and the roster spot needed to call one up. So with highly touted Swedish backup Jonas Gustavssson requiring waivers in order to be sent down, and the 22-year-old Reimer still free to shuttle back and forth between the minor leagues, it was always a no-brainer who would have to leave.
“The disappointment was probably lessened because I was expecting it for the last week or two, especially the last couple of days as Jiggy got closer to coming back,” said Reimer. “I was expecting to hear it.”
Now that he has, Reimer is able to reflect on what he learned during his first taste of the top league.
After splitting his first pro season between the ECHL and AHL before spending most of the last two with the Marlies, it may surprise some to hear Reimer found the NHL easier. But a lot of goalies see it that way, largely because there are fewer mistakes and scrambles in front of them.
“As soon as you say that you sound like you are dissing the league but it is easier in the sense of being a goalie and the predictability of it,” Reimer said. “When a guy has a chance to shoot the puck, he’s not going to look for an option to pass, he’s going to shoot. So you can trust in the game and trust if you are square you are going to have the best chance to make the save and you don’t have to worry about plays that might not be there.”
More than anything, Reimer’s successful stint affirmed everything he’s been working so hard on with legendary Leafs goaltending guru Francois Allaire.
“You have to be exceptional at the fundamentals, that’s what I found up there,” he said. “Everything Francois taught me: It’s not about making the great save, or making a diving save or playing outside yourself. It’s all about pushing, stopping, and being square and just relying on that. Most of the time if you let out a rebound the Dman is there so it’s more about being solid fundamentally.”
If there was a defining moment confirming all he’s worked on with Allaire these last couple of seasons, Reimer said it came during his first start, a 32-save 5-1 win over Ontario rival Ottawa on New Year’s Day. After changing some of his tactics on attacks around the net, Reimer executed against the Senators.
“With the stuff behind the net and wraparounds and things like that he has kind of cleaned up my game a lot and up there it happens exactly how he teaches and it happened a couple of times in a row and I remember thinking to myself `wow, this is exactly what he taught.’ It was almost like practice.”
Reimer said the difference in in how he positioned his skates, now making sure to get them, “on the post and being in the butterfly and having my stick out.”
“It’s new,” he added. “Usually I was paddle down and feet inside the net. Before I would have been a lot more scrambled around the net and they probably would have banged in a couple greasy goals just from me falling on my butt or falling on my face. Francois keeps you more square more stable on my knees and waiting for the shot instead of reaching and flopping all over the place.”
Reimer said he didn’t have any steady goalie coaching growing up in Winnipeg and didn’t get his first technical coach until playing major junior hockey for the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League in 2005. But even there he said Andy Nowicki, who also spent four years as the Los Angeles Kings goalie coach, helped him more on the mental side of the game than with technique or tactics.
“Andy taught me the technical side a bit and was good with that, but he really taught me the mental side of the game and that’s been huge in my development so far,” he said. “Goaltending is 98 per cent mental so that’s been huge.”
Reimer said he learned technique by watching his junior partner, former Canucks’ draft pick Morgan Clark, play. Which isn’t surprising given Morgan is the son of well-respected, long-time goaltending coach Ian Clark, who was also formerly with Vancouver and is now working with Modo in the Swedish Elite League.
“Watching Clarkie play and practice, he was probably the most technically sound goalie I’ve ever seen in my life,” Reimer said.
It was also more in line with how Reimer, who was drafted in the fourth round, 99th overall in 2006, started working after Allaire came to Toronto.
“The biggest thing with Francois was he reigned me in a bit,” Reimer said. “I was always taught to come out above the crease and back your way in and make the save at the top of the crease. With him it’s go to the top of the crease and stay at the top of the crease and don’t move. Just stand your ground and make your push from there, and that’s helped me a ton with patience.
“Learning and trusting that I am big enough to make a save at the top of the crease, and I don’t need to be a foot above the crease, and this way I have a foot less I have to push to the post or to push for the rebound.”
That old outside-in, backwards flow skating style might help explain the nearly constant movement in his feet that remain even as Reimer sets himself atop the crease now. They may start as micro-adjustments in his positioning as play moves east west slightly, but continue even when the shooter is coming straight on.
“Honestly I don’t think about it,” he said of the happy feet. “I just saw it on a replays and it was like ‘oh, I guess I do that.’ So it’s probably just me trying to get ready, a little nervous twitch if you want to call it that.”
As far as nerves, that’s about all Reimer showed. After having the style changes he made the last two years re-affirmed in the NHL, don’t expect any others.