TORONTO - James, we hardly knew ye.
Willkommen, Herr Mueller.
And if you didn’t stay up late Thursday to see Mike Brown’s first night back with the Maple Leafs in six weeks, you must wait three more games before seeing that handlebar moustache allowed back on an NHL rink.
In what was supposed to be a quiet Friday after a very successful week-long road trip, the Leafs let go the goaltender that had been the sparkplug of the 3-1 trip, sending James Reimer back to the AHL Marlies. Later in the day, Brown was hit with a three-game NHL suspension for Thursday’s hit on Ed Jovanovski of the Phoenix Coyotes. German national team forward Marcel Mueller will take his place on Saturday against the Calgary Flames.
As for Reimer, before jumping to conclusions that Brian Burke stayed out in the Arizona desert too long, the general manager has a big picture to keep in mind.
He has veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere anxious to get back in after a three-week hiatus to get through a groin injury. It’s important the Leafs assure themselves that the 33-year-old Giguere can take on a full workload, which allows them to make future plans for him, Jonas Gustavsson and Reimer. If Giguere does well in the weeks leading to the trade deadline, he will either prove himself worthy of a contract extension here, attract trade hawkers for that young prospect Burke is still hoping to add to the mix, or help the goalie’s case for unrestricted free agency this summer.
Reimer had a .933 save percentage and four wins in six decisions and put some life back in the dressing room and perhaps the playoff race, The Leafs were able to get a piece of 11th place for a couple of days as the season reached the halfway mark. But Reimer is only 22, and when the Leafs reverted to early season form in front of him late in the 5-1 Phoenix loss, Reimer looked a little human, too.
“We all feel James needs more time in the American Hockey League,” Burke said in an e-mail to the Toronto Sun on Friday night. “We had our roster issues, too. He’ll be back, I am sure of that.”
Giguere and Gustavsson weren’t exactly slouches before Reimer came and if they do well as individuals or in tandem, then scant playoff hopes are still there for die-hards. The second-year Swede has made some progress, but you can see the technical adjustments he needs to make when comparing how Reimer stays up, tracks rebounds and helps his defence clear pucks. Giguere will start Saturday. Unlike Reimer, Gustavsson requires waivers to be sent down, but that subject was never broached by Burke.
Brown had just got back Thursday after six weeks recovering from a broken index finger. Coach Ron Wilson plugged him right back into the fourth line where his hitting and penalty killing are valued. With the Leafs down 1-0 late in the second period, Brown spotted Jovanovski, went to step into him and though he claimed the Coyote put himself in danger by lowering his head, there was heavy contact. The league’s new discipline regarding lateral hits to the head was invoked.
Brown will forfeit $8,669.34 US in salary to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
“We support the process the League utilizes in cases such as these,” Burke said. “And while we place great value on Mike Brown as a teammate, we also support the crackdown on blindside blows to the head. There are no issues (with the league’s ruling) here.”
Brown will return Jan. 22 against Washington.
With Fredrik Sjostrom and Kris Versteeg missing the Phoenix game with minor injuries, the Leafs called up Mueller. After not throwing his weight around or scoring at the rate that was expected of the national team winger, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Berliner has seven goals and 20 points in 39 games.
“Marcel had a poor start,” Burke conceded, “but he has played very well lately. He is big and mobile.”