The Wizard of Oz turned on the words “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Turns out the great and powerful Oz was an ordinary guy pulling levers like everyone else.
The guy behind the blue curtain is Brian Burke by the way, the most self-possessed Leafs ‘manager since Punch Imlach or even founder Conn Smythe. Still, in building a team, Burke is limited to the same means as everyone else: scouting, drafting, trading, developing and free agency.
Dealing Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin netted two excellent Marlies’ prospects in forward Joe Colborne
and defenceman Jake Gardiner
. Two late first-rounders, an excellent commodity going into the NHL draft, gives Burke more options with which to retool the forwards.
The biggest gift is goalie James Reimer
but maybe not for the reasons you think.
Reimer’s stunning play - his .925 save percentage is third in the league- opens up even more possibilities for Burke whose predecessor, John Ferguson, drafted Reimer.
Burke’s original plan of a one-two tandem that featured Jonas Gustavsson
and J.S. Giguere was obliterated by Giguere’s recurring groin problems and the combination of Gustavsson’s heart issues and inconsistent play. No problem.
With Giguere’s health and expiring contract and Gustavsson yet to establish himself as a number one guy, the Leafs GM would probably have been forced to consider using free agency to find a Monstrous back up Gustavsson or even land an experienced number one goalie. That would mean Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov, 30, or perhaps Florida’s 34-year-old veteran Tomas Vokoun. With Ottawa signing Craig Anderson to a $12.7 million four-year deal and a shallow pool of free agent goalies from which to choose, improving the goaltending would have been expensive.
That money, now, can go to signing free agent forwards. The biggest fish, of course, is current Dallas centre Brad Richards. One cap site puts the Leafs’ available money at $24 million and cogitates the team could sign Richards to an $8 million a year deal and still round out the
roster by paying $1.8 million per spot. That’s nice.
Does all this guarantee Reimer is the ultimate answer? Of course not. You just need look at Anderson’s ups and downs and the inexplicable career slides of Toronto goalies Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft to know no goalie is a sure thing.
But bringing in a number one guy is unthinkable now, not with Reimer’s 16-7-4 record and his steady and otherworldly calm. The job now is his to keep. Gustavsson has played 65 NHL games, and will be entering his third season in the league. He is neither a backup nor a starter. Both players are team-first guys who should keep each other sharp. The presence of legendary goaltending consultant Francois Allaire should mitigate against any lack of experience.
Twenty-four-year old Ben Scrivens
has delivered a 2.26 goals against and .926 save percentage in dividing the Marlies’ netminding chores with Jussi Rynnas
(2.80, .907). Rynnas, 23, is out with a hand injury but his size (six-foot-five), athleticism and competitiveness will outlast the adjustments he must make to North American hockey. The Leafs should have depth in the game’s most important position.
And so, in a funny way, Reimer’s contribution outweighs his gaudy statistics. He has given the man behind the curtain a few more levers to pull.