Judging on who one talks to there are a variety of reasons that the 2011-12 NHL season went so poorly for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Some argue that the team was never really all that talented, and the end results were an appropriate reflection of the squad. Some argue that once the team began reeling in early February that they lacked the desired leadership in the dressing room needed to right the ship. Finally, some will argue that the season for the Leafs came down to an October 22nd concussion suffered by James Reimer of which he never recovered. For the sake of this piece allow me to select the third argument and elaborate.
There are many out there who – delusional or not – believe that Reimer never fully recovered from that early season concussion. To these fans – and some critics as well – Reimer returned too early to the Leafs lineup and was never the same goalie the rest of the way. Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that the Leafs braintrust decided to shut Reimer down with a little over two weeks left in the regular season due to recurring concussion like symptoms. Apparently healthy and ready to prove his detractors wrong, Reimer at the moment still sits atop the Leafs goaltending depth chart. As for myself, the jury is still out on the smiling Reimer. If we had this conversation last year then I would have banged the drum for this kid – in fact I did – yet at the moment I am not totally convinced. While I do still think Reimer will be a better than competent goalie in the league, I don’t think the Leafs can once again place all their eggs in his basket for the following season. Should Brian Burke not acquire a goalie this summer and Reimer redeems his GM by standing on his head and re-emerging as a wall between the pipes I won’t be surprised, but I don’t condone taking that risk.
Reimer however is not the only member of the blue and white that suffered a major concussion. Defenseman John-Michael Liles also took a devastating hit and was never the same after. In my opinion an important issue heading into next season will be whether Liles is fully recovered or not. While Liles has many detractors in this market, I believe his play early in the season was a major reason that the Leafs got off to such a great start. Saying that I also believe that Liles’ inability to get back to being that player played contributed greatly to the colossal collapse that ended the blue and white campaign.
When looking at the numbers Liles’ impact is obvious. At the time of his injury the Leafs were 17-13-4 and firmly entrenched in a playoff position. Liles was sitting in the top ten in defenseman scoring registering 21 points in 34 games and he was also a key member of the Leafs’ 3rd ranked power play. The first year Leafs blueliner was logging 21:32 at that time and was a plus player. Following his injury the blue and white 18-23-5 and missed the playoffs by a wide margin. In his remaining 32 games Liles registered only 6 points while the Leafs’ power play dropped down to 10th overall.
Having seen the way Liles jumped into the offense and kept plays alive for his teammates prior to his injury, it really stood out when he failed to play to the same level upon his return to the lineup. Take a look at this play from earlier in the season – coincidentally the same game that Reimer was hurt – in which Liles swoops into the offensive zone and creates chaos which directly led to Mikhail Grabovski’s overtime goal. This play is only one example of what Liles provided the Leafs when healthy:
Signed to a controversial 4 year $15.5 million dollar contract – $3.875 cap hit – just after he returned to the Leafs, it appears that the front office also highly believes in Liles’ importance to the buds moving forward. The question then will not only be can Reimer fully recover from his concussion, but can the smooth skating Liles get back to the player he was before he had his bell rung. The answer to those two questions will go a long way in determining how the Leafs will fare in 2012-13.