The Big Free Agent The Leafs Must Chase
James Reimer has had a terrific little run. He stepped into the breach when the Leafs needed somebody - anybody - who could stop the puck with consistency, and turned the club from a team wallowing in the depths of the Eastern Conference into a squad that has at least been able to make the final weeks of the season interesting.
It's clear Reimer has a chance to be a good NHL goalie, or maybe more.
But it's also clear, as the soft goals have accumulated in recent games, that he isn't there yet.
That's why the unrestricted free agent the Leafs must chase this summer isn't Brad Richards.
It's Ilya Bryzgalov, the outstanding netminder of the Phoenix Coyotes. Also a fellow, you may remember, who owes Brian Burke a favour.
Again, this isn't dumping on Reimer, or giving up on him. He's a kid who is still learning how to be a No. 1 netminder in the NHL. But that second goal against the Flyers last night was a killer, as was the first goal against Chicago on Saturday, and while there are any number of Leaf skaters who contributed to those defeats, you simply cannot win on a regular basis in the NHL with anything short of airtight goaltending.
The kind Bryzgalov that gives the Phoenix Coyotes. He shut out Calgary last night, his 20th shutout in four seasons with the club, and is again the top reason while the league-owned Coyotes are running so high in the Western Conference.
Reimer may develop into a top NHL goalie, but Bryzgalov already is, and just as the Leafs went out and signed Curtis Joseph as a free agent in 1998 to turn around a non-playoff team, now is the time to spend the dough on the 30-year-old Bryzgalov ($6 million per?) and give the club top-flight, reliable goaltending it desperately requires to move forward next season.
There is simply no way the Leafs can go into next fall uncertain about their goalkeeping again, unsure whether Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas or some other masked man can be the team's starter.
Next season it's playoffs or bust for Burke's team, or at the very least the team must be taken seriously as a contender for a post-season berth from October on, not just with a late-season flurry. They'll need to have quality netminding in October, not February.
Bryzgalov was the backup for Burke in Anaheim when, after being unable to find a trading partner, Burke put Bryzgalov on waivers partway through the 2007-08 season in order to give him a chance to be an NHL starter. Phoenix claimed him, and from that day forward the 'Yotes were a better hockey club.
Maybe Bryzgalov will remember Burke as a man of his word and be inclined to repay the favour by signing in Toronto. He has a terrific, outgoing personality that would play brilliantly in the GTA, far better than the more reserved personas of team stalwarts like Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
There may be other UFA goalies out there in July, including Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson, but Bryzgalov is clearly the cream of the crop. With the Phoenix ownership situation a disaster and the future of the franchise cloudy, it seems unlikely the Coyotes would be able to tie up Bryzgalov before he gets a peek at free agency and a chance to improve on his current $4.25 million paycheque.
Sure Richards would help the team's offence and give Kessel a playmate. But Bryzgalov is a difference maker, a perfect fit for a young, developing team. Other big market teams may have interest, but the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist, Vancouver has Roberto Luongo, Philly has no cap room, Detroit has Jimmy Howard, San Jose has committed to Antti Niemi, Montreal has Carey Price and Chicago looks set to run with Corey Crawford.
For the Leafs, Bryzgalov is what Reimer may one day become, but isn't yet. And really, may never become. You just don't know. And after years of not knowing about their goaltending, for the Leafs enough is enough.
Now go bag the elephant.