TORONTO – Jonathan Bernier had little to say when asked whether he knew his role for the Leafs’ home opener against Ottawa on Saturday night.
“No,” the slender, tattooed goalie said with a broad grin.
James Reimer offered a few more words but said just as little.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t,” he said with a sly laugh.
“No obviously I’d love to answer a question for you but I honestly don’t know what Randy would prefer me to say,” he added politely. “So mum’s the word.”
Rather than goaltending controversy, the Maple Leafs (2-0-0) are in goalie mystery mode heading into the weekend.
Coach Randy Carlyle never shows his hand when it comes to who starts in goal and Friday was no different.
“That decision was made a long time,” Carlyle said cryptically of Saturday’s starter.
Both netminders have played well to date.
Reimer, the incumbent, made 34 saves in Tuesday’s season-opening 4-3 win in Montreal. Bernier, the former Los Angeles King brought in to challenge Reimer, stopped 31 shots the next night in a 3-1 victory in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong having whatever you call it, two No. 2s or two No. 1s,” said Bernier. “As long as we’re doing the job, that’s what matters. Getting the wins.”
It’s a nice quandary for Carlyle to have.
In front of goal, the Leafs were forced to make a change Friday when burly defenceman Mark Fraser was placed on injured reserve after hurting his knee in Philadelphia.
Fraser will be out for a minimum of 24 days or 10 games.
On Friday, Carlyle paired rookie Morgan Rielly with Jake Gardiner. Captain Dion Phaneuf was with regular partner Carl Gunnarsson while Paul Ranger skated with Cody Franson.
“I’m not sure if you’re going to see that (Saturday) night on a regular basis,” the coach said of the Rielly-Gardiner pairing.
Carlyle’s advice to the 19-year-old Rielly was simple.
“Just go out and play. Do your thing. He’s a talented young hockey player. Don’t get caught up in the moment too much.”
“He plays the game with his head and his legs and his hands,” Carlyle added. “He’s got all three assets that separate him from other people in his age group.”
Rielly, who was a healthy scratch the first two games, said he had yet to hear confirmation about starting Saturday. But he still drew a crowd of reporters after practice Friday, showing plenty of poise in front of the microphone.
“If I got a chance to play in a Leafs home opener on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ in Toronto, that’s be pretty special,” he said. “If I get that chance, I’ll be pretty lucky.”
The Leafs have a decision to make on Rielly. If they play him in 10 games, his NHL contract kicks in. The alternative is to return him to his junior team in Moose Jaw.
Defensive options with the AHL Marlies include Korbinian Holzer, T.J. Brennan and the high-priced John Michael Liles.
“I don’t really know what the next two weeks is going to bring,” Rielly said. “It’s kind of a weird experience that I’ve never had before. I think I’ve just got to keep working hard every day, keep a positive attitude.
“If I get a chance to play, that’s pretty important and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
His regular season NHL debut would mark another giant step on a hockey journey that included him leaving his Vancouver home in Grade 8 to play for the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan.
“It was tough. But I told my parents that I wanted to do that. I think it was pretty hard on my mom. I know she was pretty emotional about the whole thing. But I think it’s been a pretty good choice in the long run so far.”
He spent two years in Wilcox, Sask., before joining the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL.
Rielly said he has turned to his teammates for help in interpreting the signs during his time with Toronto.
“Dion has been outstanding,” Rielly said of Phaneuf.
“He’s kind of told me what to expect from Carlyle,” he added.
Carlyle flipped Dave Bolland with Nazem Kadri in practice, moving the former Blackhawk onto the second line between Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin in place of Kadri as he did with some success during the Philadelphia game.
The Toronto coach downplayed the move, saying it was just another tweak in trying to produce a winner.
“Expectations have been heaped upon Nazzy to be a second-line centre here … Does he have that ability, does he have that talent? For sure, he does,” said Carlyle. “He’s a young player who’s still trying to find his way and his growth in the NHL.”
Ottawa will be playing back-to-back, with its season opener Friday night in Buffalo.
“Every game we’ve played against them, it’s been intense,” Carlyle said of the Battle of Ontario. “It will be fast-paced, a skating game—it will be hard-hitting.”
Carlyle put the Leafs through a fast-paced practice Friday that included some hotly contested one-on-one drills in front of goal.
Jamie Devane, a six-foot-five 217-pound Marlie, was also at practice.
“We just felt that we needed another forward,” said Carlyle. “Jamie had a good training camp. He’s got size. He’s a big man. We’ll see where that takes us.”