Understanding Reimer’s Struggles
I couldn’t imagine James Reimer’s frustration after last night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It must be like trying to diffuse a bomb with soggy toothpicks. Every start has essentially been a must-win, with absolutely no room for error. The pressure has risen to a suffocating level, while his energy and focus has withered away. Such is the life of Reimer right now – a rookie who has done everything he possibly could, but still not enough to save Toronto’s season. One or two more losses and the big playoff push will blow up in his face.
If you watched last night’s 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, you hopefully saw the big picture and realized it was one of Reimer’s few “off” nights. Pucks simply weren’t hitting him like usual, and he didn’t move nearly as sharp or as comfortable, either. Those that haven’t gained much trust in Reimer’s ability to stop pucks probably said “I told you so…” to their friends, while those that chose to blame a weak defensive effort probably had choice words for Brett Lebda and Mike Komisarek.
To me, Reimer’s rough outing was bound to happen sooner or later. He was thrust into a very demanding and pressure-filled situation in which he quickly became the team’s only hope for a playoff spot. Combined with the coaching staff’s lack of trust in J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, Reimer was forced to come up with a monumental effort in every single game during this stretch. That’s too much to ask of a rookie, so the bubble finally burst, and now Ron Wilson has no choice but to rest him in favor of a very rusty Giguere.
So many heavy minutes and such little rest will wear an inexperienced goalie down quicker than a veteran that has been in this situation many times before…and that’s exactly what has happened in the past three games. Furthermore, it forces the other goalies on the team to lose their effectiveness, as they are forced to sit and watch while the other goalie wears down. In Toronto, three goalies in practice are most certainly a crowd, especially when only one is actually being played.
With that being said, I’d like to present you with some scouting notes and clear-cut reasons why Reimer, who was 9-4-2 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in his first 14 starts, has now gone 4-3-2 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in his last 10 starts. As you read through these points, be sure to read this article with some of Reimer’s and Ron Wilson’s post-game thoughts.
Before I present you with some of my notes, I must stress that goaltenders never blame their defense, nor will they use ”being tired” as an excuse for why they may have lost a game. This is simply a part of the goaltender’s code. Everything, and I mean everything, reverts back to their own ability to stop the puck. Whether the defense caved in and didn’t box out, or whether a puck deflects off a skate in front doesn’t matter. There is no excuse for goals going in. The only thing that matters to a goalie is what they did wrong on every goal they allowed and what they can do to make sure it never happens again.
So as a pro goalie scout, that is my sole focus for this piece (and every scouting report, really). I’ll let you decide how much the defense played a part in the loss. Whether or not they struggled in front of him, to me, is simply part of the goal-scoring sequence. I personally didn’t think the defense was very good, but I don’t use that as an excuse for the goals Reimer gave up…and neither would he.
—[ SCOUTING NOTES ON REIMER'S RECENT STRUGGLES ]—
1. Reimer’s main issue right now is energy drain. He won’t admit it, but a lack of execution and focus stems from a lack of energy. And since the ability to sustain high levels of energy over the course of many months mainly develops over years and years of experience, very few rookies will be as successful as Reimer has been. So while you won’t hear it from him, the lack of rest and the sheer emotional toll has certainly played a role in his recent struggles.
Because Reimer began his NHL career in the second half of the season, he also never had a chance to mentally prepare for this kind of a run. Even elite goalies with years of experience have trouble playing more than 10 “must-win” games in a row. It rarely happens that a goalie, especially at his age and level of experience, is able to win them all without crashing at least once or twice.
Without a single game off to rest, Reimer’s ability to make the desperate, timely save has also quickly diminished. But again, this is a natural occurence that most rookie goalies go through, so the key is to realize that this is nothing more than an aspect of inexperience. Just by going through this first-hand, he’ll be better trained, both mentally and physically, for future late-season pushes.
2. Reimer is being pre-scouted by teams in a successful manner, so the book on him has been written quickly. Read James Mirtle’s piece on his blog about what steps the Lightning took to scout Reimer before Monday night’s game. I deciphered Reimer’s glove-side issues just one game into his tenure with the Leafs, so surely other NHL teams that take the time to watch some video will notice the same thing. You should also read Mirtle’s piece with a lot of my insight on Reimer as well.
As I said in Mirtle’s article, one of the main reasons why a goalie struggles in their second year is because scouts do their homework. Teams learn a goalie’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, then present it to the players and discuss a game plan against that goalie. It’s a constant “tug-of-war” in which the opposition learns weaknesses, the goalie adjusts and improves in those areas, then the process is repeated. Some goalies take longer than others to pull back, while some goalies are so good that teams simply resort to the obvious scouting notes, like getting bodies in front of them or taking away their eyes…or elevating the puck and shooting high.
3. Reimer, as a blocking goalie, is going to be exposed up high early in his NHL career. It’s simply something he’ll have to work on over time, and he won’t solve the issue overnight. It takes a lot of mental strength to re-hone the thought process that goes into things like hand positioning and placement, and it also takes a lot of time to improve the muscle memory associated with reacting to high shots. This is something we have seen with Sergei Bobrovsky, and even Anders Lindback. They’re terrific down low, but struggle up high.
Even though I consider Reimer to have slow hands and foot speed right now, I’m still confident that he’ll improve in these areas over the course of another year or two. Since it is his visible weakness, it’s the main area of focus, so nothing will probably be higher on his list of improvements. He’s a smart, hard-working kid and every 23-year-old rookie has clear-cut areas they need to work on – Reimer’s glove side is no different.
4. The other main problem I see with Reimer’s blocking style is that he doesn’t always execute with a free range of movement. He seems very restricted, tense and tight at times. And when it comes to shots up high, I feel a goalie should think less and react in a more relaxed manner. The reaction a goalie makes with the glove hand is a pure and thoughtless movement. It’s one of the most raw, athletic and graceful aspects of stopping the puck.
But a blocking goalie almost has to work harder to restrain that reaction, and think about holding back in a rigid manner to block the puck. Because they are not attempting to catch the puck, but rather get a piece of their body or arm behind it, that “blocking” save will also give up rebounds, which is another major issue. It’s a completely different motion altogether, and one that I don’t think is natural or very effective.
—[ SIMPLIFYING THE GOALTENDING POSITION ]—
Because the goaltending position is so systematic and standardized these days, many goalies are often being taught way too many complicated and restricted techniques (VHS, for example). I feel this is an issue because it erodes a goalie’s ability to rely on their instincts. On low shots, that mechanical save selection of dropping into the butterfly is often a very successful maneuver to absorb or re-direct shots. But on shots above the chest, save techniques should never be restrictive.
If a goalie resorts to a certain movement without reading and reacting, they’re not always going to track the puck with their eyes and respond correctly. This is what I’m currently seeing with Reimer. He’s trying to block high-glove shots instead of relaxing and relying on his reactions and raw skills to catch them. I’ve seen him make those nice reaction glove saves many times before, just not on a very consistent basis.
Because he relies on stopping shots in a “blocking” manner, I notice that he appears somewhat immobilized. His hands stay very low and really tight to his body, as if they were velcroed or glued to his hips. I see a lot of shrugging, or awkward movements in which he tries to lunge out with his shoulders, or throw his elbow out to deflect the puck. It’s simply awkward looking and sometimes causes him to lose balance or fall forward.
So instead of Reimer responding in the same “blocking” mode for many different situations, he would benefit from adding the “reaction” glove save to his arsenal of saves. He surely has this ability, but I haven’t seen him allocate it on a consistent basis. Hopefully Reimer can continue to learn this through experience, play as much as possible between now and next year, and realize that he doesn’t have to try and stop every single shot in that “blocking” mode.
In my opinion, there are specific situations to use the “blocking” style and specific situations to simply react. The movements a goalie makes on shots to the glove side should almost always be a reflex save, because it’s a raw, natural movement that stems from tracking pucks.
— [ CONCLUDING THOUGHTS - CLEAR YOUR MIND ] —
In conclusion, one of the most important lessons I have learned from many NHL goalie coaches is that a confident goalie moves simply and in a fluid, easy manner. They read and react without over-thinking or without any form of paralysis. High shots, especially to the glove side, become an instinctual movement. In that regard, a goalie should never fall victim to over-complicating the position by thinking about too many things. Trust your instincts, know where you are in the crease and be as situationally aware as possible. The rest should come naturally.
Pro goalies spend many years learning (through experience and rigorous training) how to eliminate unnecessary movements. Anyone can execute a paddle down technique or a VHS move, but the truly elite goalies know exactly when to use those complex save sequences, and when to simply stay set and ready. If Reimer can work on his ability to determine when to block and when to react, he will quickly improve his glove hand.
And it’s not just for glove-side shots, either. Knowing when to stay deep and when to push out and cut down angles is another area he’ll need to improve on as well. This is where the “blocking” style really becomes valuable – when it is balanced with an ability to make reactionary saves as well. That’s the true essence of a well-rounded goalie – knowing when to make blocking saves and when to react. That’s where “read and react” truly comes from. The best goalies can pull saves from both worlds at any given moment in order to be as efficient and effective as possible.
Reimer, in my opinion, has gone through a crash course in all of these things in the past two months. In one more year, maybe two, I don’t see him suffering from this robotic style in which he constantly struggles with high shots. He’ll be wiser and smarter and his mind will be better trained to read and react to high shots in a more relaxed manner and with a more relaxed state of mind! And boy, will that look pretty in a Leafs uniform.
Happy 23rd birthday, Optimus Reim. Despite your recent downfall, you have written an amazing story in the past two months, and you should be very, very proud. Many goalies experience a peak of early success followed by a valley of dark, disturbing losses. The key is whether or not you have the strength to overcome those losses and climb back up to the top of your mountain.
After seeing your terrific displays of poise, work ethic and confidence over the last 10 weeks, I’m pretty sure we’ll all soon be shouting your praises as you reach the top of your game once again.