Life has become very interesting for goaltender James Reimer and the San Jose Sharks.
Reimer's season has alternated nosedives and brilliant highs like an air show on a hot summer day. With the Toronto Maple Leafs, he struggled in October, excelled from November to January, then tanked in February. Toronto traded him Feb. 27 just as his value cratered. In San Jose he was merely expected to spell first-year starter Martin Jones, whose workload has never been higher. Reimer, a pending unrestricted free agent, had a chance to rescue his value, but it didn't appear at the time he'd have any chance to pursue starter's money on the open market. At best, he was looking at another battery situation and a deal similar to his expiring one, a two-year pact paying him an average of $2.3 million annually.
But, sheesh, plenty has happened since the trade. He failed to impress in his debut March 8, allowing three goals on 25 shots, but he apparently doused himself in kerosene and rolled in a bonfire after that. Reimer has won six of his past seven outings, posting a .945 save percentage and three shutouts. He's allowed just 10 goals over that stretch.
Reimer has quietly started three of San Jose's past four games. He's played so well that he's stirred talk of a goaltending controversy, and that's especially impressive considering Jones hasn't played poorly at all. Jones has a .924 SP since the all-star break and has an SP of .914 or better in all but one month in 2015-16. Part of the reason Reimer is playing so much of late is the Sharks have openly expressed their desire to rest Jones, who has already started 63 games. But it was fascinating to hear coach Peter DeBoer talk about "needing both guys" in the playoffs after Reimer's shutout Tuesday night. DeBoer was similarly non-committal talking to Sharks reporter Kevin Kurz a couple weeks earlier. Are these the things a coach says if he's set on one starter?
As I've written recently, alternating goalies 50/50 is a disastrous playoff strategy and almost never yields a Stanley Cup champion. The guess here for now is Jones still earns the Game 1 call and retains the gig as long as he looks competent. But Reimer has a real chance to steal it.
More importantly, Reimer has upped his free agent value no matter what happens. He suddenly looks like someone who might get starter's cash. It wouldn't be the craziest thing in the world. He's young-ish at 28. He doesn't always look pretty out there – anyone who watched him for years in Toronto knows his body language often appears downright shaky – but it's tough to argue with the numbers. He holds the Leafs' single-season record for save percentage at .924. Not bad considering the franchise turns 100 seasons old next year. He wilted in Game 7 of his lone career playoff series with Toronto in 2013, but so did all the Leafs, and Reimer still posted a .923 SP for the series. Your NHL qualified leader this year in 5-on-5 save percentage, per war-on-ice.com? None other than Reimer. His .9403 mark tops even Brian Elliott's .9401.
How much will Reimer receive annually on his next deal? Several factors come into play:
1. Precedent. What have similarly valued stoppers earned as free agents recently? Jonathan Bernier, just five months younger than Reimer, earned a two-year deal with a $4.15-million AAV last summer as a restricted free agent. Bernier has the exact same career SP as Reimer's at .914. That's an awfully good place to start in negotiations if I'm Reimer's agent, Ray Petkau, though Reimer would probably love to get more than two years.
If we compare Reimer with last year's UFAs, the likes of Michal Neuvirth and Thomas Greiss were bagged for less than $2 million a year, but both were signing specifically to be used as backups to established starters. Karri Ramo got $3.8 million form Calgary, albeit on a one-year deal, and Reimer has accomplished more as an NHLer. He makes a decent case to flirt with $4 million – though some contracts work against him. Devan Dubnyk took a $4.33-million AAV over six years after finishing third in Vezina Trophy voting. Antti Niemi got $4.5 million annually for three years to share the crease with Kari Lehtonen – and Niemi brought a Stanley Cup ring to the negotiating table. Reimer couldn't make as strong a case as those vets. Not yet.
2. The playoffs. Hey, if Reimer earns the lion's share of starts and the Sharks make a deep post-season run, everything changes. He still has time to massively boost his market value.
3. Competition. What netminders threaten to steal a No. 1 job Reimer might covet? The "top" rival UFAs are Carolina's Cam Ward, the Flames' Ramo and Jonas Hiller, the recently waived Ben Scrivens and established No. 2s Al Montoya and Jhonas Enroth. Only Ward has a resume superior to Reimer's, but Ward is also four years older and has a stuffed injury dossier, so even he isn't guaranteed to command more than Reimer. The greatest threat may come from the trade market, especially with teams worried they can only protect one netminder in a potential expansion draft next summer. That list may or may not yield names carrying greater value than Reimer: Frederik Andersen, Brian Elliott, Semyon Varlamov, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller, Andrei Vasilevskiy and maybe even Marc-Andre Fleury, to name just a few.
4. The market. The most important question is: who needs a starting goalie or at least a 1B to push a 1A? The answer to the latter proposition could very well be the Sharks, who are quite happy with Reimer so far. If the Hurricanes wave goodbye to Ward, they could bring in Reimer to battle Eddie Lack. What about teams who could sign Reimer to start for them outright? The Flames are by far the most obvious answer. Put a gun to my head and ask me to predict Reimer's landing spot right now, and it's Calgary all the way. The Flames rank dead last in team save percentage this season and have zero NHL netminders signed for 2016-17, though Joni Ortio remains under their control as an RFA. Another team in need of a goaltending facelift: the Buffalo Sabres if they don't re-sign Chad Johnson. Robin Lehner looks frighteningly injury prone. And, uh, what about the Leafs? Their goaltending prospects aren't elite, and Reimer bested Bernier this season. Unlikely, but worth pondering.
Regardless of Reimer's results over the rest of 2015-16, he's likely done enough to earn a raise. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Now, we wait to see if his season-long roller coaster can scale one more great height.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin