WINNIPEG – As an early afternoon practice wrapped in the blustery Manitoba capital of Winnipeg, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle ambled over to James Reimer, stretching just outside the visitors' crease, and offered a quick word.
He, the 25-year-old Toronto backup net-minder and Manitoba native, would be making just his fourth start in the past 16 games against the Jets the following evening. It was the word of opportunity for Reimer, who has fallen into the role of backup, outmatched in recent weeks by Jonathan Bernier, his Quebec counterpart.
"It's been," said Reimer in conversation with the Leaf Report, pausing briefly to choose his words, "it's been an interesting year. That's maybe the best way I can describe it."
More than eight months after he steered the Leafs into their first playoff appearance in nine years and Reimer is no longer the no. 1 guy in Toronto. Bernier has wrestled hold of that mantle for the time being, earning the bulk of starts since the middle of December – 32 on the year compared with 21 for Reimer.
Challenged, doubted, and dissected often throughout his 127-game NHL career, be it through summer trade talk for Roberto Luongo, deadline trade talk for Miikka Kiprusoff or a concussion that badly derailed his first full season, Reimer has managed to overcome a series of different hurdles in his tenure as a Leaf, but maybe nothing quite like this.
Bernier is not a rumoured threat, nor a nagging injury to bypass, but a feisty challenger itching to prove himself in the spotlight. And thus far, the 25-year-old has taken full advantage of the opportunity he's been granted in Toronto, sitting amongst the top-10 in league save percentage (.925), while eventually establishing himself as the Leafs undeclared no. 1 starter.
The looming challenge for Reimer is to snatch the job right back. And he plans to fight for it. He has not and has no intention of asking for a trade out of Toronto despite circumstances (Bernier trade, a proven track record) that might have led others in his situation to stray down that path.
"Your end goal is to be the guy and you want that, but you've got to focus on everyday what I need to do so that that can happen," said Reimer. "It's like I want to win the Cup, but it's not like every day I hit the ice I'm going to win the Cup. I want to win the Cup, but when I hit the ice it's what do I need to do to be the best I can be. And if you focus on that everyday then eventually the Cup will come.
"Same with this (situation). It's obviously something you want. It's something you really want. But you've got to focus on a lot smaller goals."
Those goals start with making full use of the opportunities he gets, however infrequent, and reshape a race that is likely far from over. One such opportunity presented itself earlier this week in Denver, Reimer propelling the Leafs to an unlikely 5-2 win over the Avalanche with 35 big saves. And now another opportunity looms against the Jets on Saturday evening, his club looking to avenge a 7-1 loss in Dallas two nights earlier.
Reimer's only real control in the matter of playing time is performance. And though he started with a bang in October – a gaudy .949 save percentage in six games – that performance has dipped downward (albeit with little help in some situations) with Bernier proving the more reliable and consistent of the two.
"That's exactly the way you approach it," Reimer said of earning more starts with performance. "You try not to look ahead. You try not to say 'I'd like to get 10 out of 12 (starts) or 10 out of 20, or whatever, three out of seven', whatever it may be.
"To me, when I get the nod I want to go out there and play my heart out."
This is unfamiliar terrain for the Morweena native, that of the NHL backup.
Though he very briefly battled with Ben Scrivens at the outset of last season, Reimer has quickly defined himself as a viable starter in the league, finishing 2013 with eighth best save percentage while steering the Leafs to a near-first round upset of the Bruins in the playoffs.
He owns an impressive 63-38-15 career mark with a sturdy .915 save percentage.
Falling into the role of second fiddle, thus, has been a challenge, mostly in the mental arena.
"It's 105 per cent mental, I think, this game," said Reimer. "It's all about trying to be in the right mindset and trying to stay positive and knowing that when you have the extra time to work on stuff that's what you've got to do. You've got to work your butt off so that when you get the nod you're as prepared as you can (be)."
His longer-term future in Toronto remains murky at best.
Reimer is a restricted free agent this summer with Bernier locked up for another year. In theory, the organization could opt to keep both – though Reimer holds arbitration rights and would seem to hold a pretty good case for a good raise – but more than likely one will be gone by next fall, if not sooner.
Both want and have earned the right to start.
The choice will ultimately belong to general manager Dave Nonis, who brought Bernier into the fold from Los Angeles in his first big splash as the Maple Leafs boss last summer.
Reimer wants to stay and won't ask to go. But he also wants to play and intends to fight to do so.
"I feel like I'm becoming a better person for it or at least I hope so," he said of the experience this season. "I feel like I'm battling and grinding and trying to do everything I can. As far as I know if you're doing that then that's all you can do."