TORONTO - The James Reimer story has only just begun.
This is Chapter 1 of a book yet to be written.
Just who he is, and what he will become, is a matter still to be determined.
Just ask Steve Mason.
Steve Mason was the runaway winner of the rookie-of-the-year award two years ago.
He had 121 first-place votes for the Calder Trophy. Steven Stamkos had none. The rest of the league’s rookies combined to muster 11 votes.
Mason was the man.
He managed the near impossible that season: He carried the Columbus Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the only time in their 10-year history. He had 10 shutouts, was second in the NHL in goals-against average, top 10 in wins and save percentage.
It was supposed to be the beginning of something big.
But that something big hasn’t happened yet.
“He’s had his ups and downs since that first year,” said Scott Howson, the general manager of the Blue Jackets. “He’s been a little better this year (than last year) but you know, what you learn is it’s really difficult to be a great goalie in the NHL. I think it takes an exceptional goalie to be a No. 1 guy in this league.
“We all believe Steve’s going to do it. He has the pedigree behind him. World juniors. An exceptional junior career. The rookie of the year. You think he’s got it all. But you have to sustain it.
“Steve Mason had a tremendous first year in the NHL and he’s now learning how difficult it is to play goal in the NHL,” said Howson. “Everybody has weaknesses in their game. Everybody scouts everybody. You have to adjust, you have to improve, you can’t stay the same.”
Ken Hitchcock watches the Maple Leaf regularly and is impressed by what he has seen of Reimer. The former Columbus coach — and Mason’s coach in his marvellous rookie season — doesn’t just observe goalies stopping pucks. He looks for other signs. He looks at body language, tries to read more than blocker saves.
“When you first come into the league, you’re just happy to be there,” said Hitchcock.
“Every day is like Christmas. There’s a wow factor. And then you’re in the league for a while and you look around and try and find your place. It’s the looking around time that you learn about the goalie. The time when you have peaks and valleys.
“Toronto’s not an easy place to play for anybody, let alone a goalie. You get the accolades, the criticisms, the notoriety. It’s you how deal with all of that. If the guy comes in and is oblivious to everything around him and stops the puck and can continue his focus, then the climb up the ladder can be short and fast.
“If you get a talented kid like Mason or Reimer or Braden Holtby in Washington, the climb can be fast and the stay can be long.”
Hitchcock has little doubt that Mason will again be a top-flight goalie in the NHL, but statistically now he has a long way to go. He ranks 20th in the league in wins, 17th in shutouts, way down in save perecentage and goals-against average.
“I still think Mase is going to be a great goalie in the NHL. But look around and realize what’s happened,” said Hitchcock. “Look what Carey Price went through (in Montreal) last year. Look at him at now. Look at what (Roberto) Luongo went through in Florida. You have to weather that storm sometimes and — then take stock afterwards and see where you are.
“Very few goalies come in without any bumps in the road. They all have them. It’s how they react to them which says a lot about who they are.”
Hitchcock sees a certain demeanour in Reimer he already admires.
“When you look at a guy like Reimer, when you see him play, don’t you feel calm?
“Aren’t you thinking everything is OK back there. I do, as a person watching him, on TV. And that’s the feeling you want on the bench, too.
“In that position, when you’re humble and you stay humble, that creates a calmness around you. That grows on your teammates. At times it may feel like a fire drill in front of him, but it’s like there won’t be a fire drill behind him. There’s sure to be some rough waters ahead for him, but how he handles it will tell you who he is.”