Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer exudes an aura of humility, shepherded by an unassuming boyish smile.
A season after making his NHL debut, winning 20 games in 35 starts, the Winnipeg, Man., native has good reason to grin: He is the No. 1 netminder for the Leafs heading into the upcoming 2011 training camp.
The 23-year-old, fourth-round draft pick first found the spotlight on Jan. 1, 2011, when he backstopped the Leafs to a 5-1 victory over the rival Ottawa Senators. At the time, Toronto had already fallen to five games under .500 and was in desperate need of stability between the pipes, yet alone a saviour.
Escaping the erratic play of Jonas Gustavsson – Toronto’s current No. 2 – and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Buds found a relative rock in Reimer, whose goals-against average (2.60) and save percentage (.921) easily topped his Leaf counterparts.
But before the prince can become king, the recent recipient of a three-year, $5.4-million US contract will need to prove his worth under the full mass of Toronto’s burdensome scrutiny.
The Leaf Nation’s all-watchful eye has been known to keep a free agent at bay, and a gifted skater on his toes.
“I do not intend to be a one-year wonder,” Reimer told the Toronto Sun earlier this summer. “ I will not dwell on past success. I intend to live in the present.”
While Reimer maintains he is solely focused on his preparation for the upcoming season, he surely can’t be naïve of a Leafs fan’s irascible nature.
Keeping his blades sharp, the former Red Deer Rebel suited up for Team Canada at the world championships in May, and has reportedly been working diligently this off-season to improve his speed and conditioning.
If it helps settle the butterflies, Reimer certainly has the backing of Toronto bench boss Ron Wilson.
“When you watched our team last year, when we started getting solid goaltending from James Reimer, he had 20 wins and 10 losses,” Wilson told the Sun at the team’s charity golf tournament on Sept. 6. “If we get that kind of goaltending, then we can make the playoffs.”
Last year, the kid’s august performance refueled the dissipating playoff aspirations of Maple Leafs fans everywhere. Toronto has not crashed the post-season dance since before the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Needless to say, the ducat buyers are getting restless in their high-priced seats.
And even though Reimer was never ordained as a first-round pick, or blessed with future-star status, the feverous pace in which his fan club has evolved shows how desperate and willing Hogtown puckheads are to anoint the next-big thing.
Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft, a pair of blue-and-white crease castoffs, can testify to the oversized media scrums and solicitous team supporters.
No two goalies are exactly alike, but it may take a certain breed, a blend of skill and stoicism to succeed in such a market. Certainly, former Leafs Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour possessed elements of that formula.
Joseph, who backstopped the Leafs to four playoff runs, acknowledged the rote nature of Toronto fandom.
“I remember driving into the city, knowing that all eyes were on you, and what you did mattered,” Joseph said during his retirement press conference. “Looking at the downtown landscape, you knew that everyone was gearing up to watch the game; and if you were good, people would talk about it.”
Whether or not Reimer can hold down the fort, especially with playoff aspirations amid the Toronto faithful already fomenting, will become clear shortly.
What the good-natured goaltender has done already is endear himself to those who will be quick to point fingers, and his short-term success and tranquil composure are at the root of the praise.
If headlining in Toronto does come down to an immeasurable chemistry, it may turn out that Reimer possesses the magic compound.