Is Jonathan Bernier The Answer To Toronto’s Goaltending Woes?
When Jonathan Bernier was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings by the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 2012-13 season, many fans felt it was a curious move.
Goaltender James Reimer had just led the Leafs to the playoffs for the first time in what felt like a decade and, with a little good fortune, might have helped the Leafs get by the Boston Bruins in the first round.
Of course, we all know how that series against the Bruins ended— a game seven loss that might be among the worst collapses in the history of the franchise.
Reimer put together a respectable 19-8-5 record that season (2012-13) while registering a 2.46 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. Riemer’s 2.88 GAA and .923 SV% in the playoffs were not far off his regular season totals, leading some to believe that he would be the Maple Leafs number one netminder for the foreseeable future.
Numbers aside, there were plenty of rumblings throughout the NHL that the Maple Leafs were not completely sold on Reimer, so, with the club searching to upgrade between the pipes, Dave Nonis (who was employed as the Maple Leafs’ general manager at that time) pulled off the deal for Bernier.
Bernier arrived in Toronto with great expectations, but with such a small resume to go on, he also arrived with more than a few question marks.
Originally drafted in the first round (11th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Bernier put together a decent 28-17-6 record in a backup role with the Kings. Many felt he had a ton of upside and, in the right situation, that he would emerge as a solid number one netminder at the NHL level.
While Bernier was not immediately given the number one role between the pipes, he quickly established himself as such in Toronto, posting a record of 26-19-7 while registering a 2.70 GAA and a .922 SV% during the 2013-14 regular season.
Bernier played so well that season that he was actually being mentioned as an option for Team Canada in a backup role— high praise for a goalie who failed to lead his team to the playoffs.
For his part, Reimer posted a 12-16-1 record that season, while registering a bloated 3.26 GAA and a paltry .911 SV%.
While many Reimer fans protested throughout the 2013-14 season that Reimer, and not Bernier, should have been anointed as the teams number one netminder, the numbers suggested differently. Simply put, Bernier won the role as the Maple Leafs number one goalie fair and square, and that’s all there is to it!
Of course, manning the pipes for the Toronto Maple Leafs is always difficult. The Maple Leafs had been among the worst teams defensively, which made it difficult to get a true sense of a netminders worth.
Both netminders had to endure a number of coaching changes, personnel changes and overall poor performances from the cast of players in front of them, which often led to both goalies being left out to dry on more nights than not.
Despite both Bernier and Reimer having pockets of success with the Maple Leafs, neither netminder seemed capable of being consistent.
While Bernier put up a decent first season with the Maple Leafs, the following season (2014-15) was a different story. Bernier’s record dipped to 21-28-7, while his GAA (2.87) and SV% (.912) both declined from his 2013-14 numbers.
Riemer endured another poor season as well, posting a 9-16-1 record while registering a 3.16 GAA and a ugly .907 SV%.
With both netminders struggling in 2014-15 and a new man behind the bench (Mike Babcock), the Maple Leafs started the 2015-16 season with no clear number one goalie.
To his credit, Reimer seized the opportunity, putting together a respectable 11-12-3 record while registering a 2.49 GAA and a .918 SV% through 32 games played— on a team that clearly wanted to “tank” from day one.
On the flip-side, Bernier has had to endure his the worst season of his career, putting together a 8-18-2 record while registering a 3.01 GAA and an paltry .902 SV% through 31 games played.
Bernier played so bad, that he was sent down to the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, for a four game stretch where he posted a 3-0-1 record, 1.25 GAA and .948 SV%.
With two goalies in toe that seemingly were not true number one netminders, Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello had to make a decision to move on from one or both of his struggling goalies.
Maybe it was the fact that nobody wanted Bernier? Maybe it was the fact that Reimer had the more affordable contract? Whatever the case may be, Lamoriello made the choice to trade Reimer to the San Jose Sharks.
Reimer may not have been the best goalie, but he was hugely popular in Toronto, so the move to trade the man Toronto fans called “Optimus Reim” was largely unpopular.
That said, Reimer had every opportunity to prove to three different general managers (Brian Burke, Dave Nonis, Lou Lamoriello) that he was capable of leading this team between the pipes. In the end, he failed to live up to expectations, ultimately leading to his trade.
With Reimer out of the way, it was widely felt that, despite his struggles, Jonathan Bernier would be given another chance to assume the starting role.
Not so fast, Leaf fans!
In a move that was not shocking but perhaps a little surprising, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock chose to give Toronto Marlies/AHL standout, Garret Sparks, a chance between the pipes.
Through ten games with the Maple Leafs this season, Sparks has posted a 4-4-0 record, 2.67 GAA and a .900 SV%.
While Sparks numbers do not suggest that he is the undisputed future of the franchise between the pipes, he has played well enough to cause plenty of fans and management alike to put Sparks in the conversation for next season.
Keeping things in perspective, at 22-years old, Sparks appears to be a nice prospect, but hardly ready to assume a starting role in the NHL. Could he evolve into a number one goalie one day? Perhaps. But that day is likely a few years away, not now and likely not in a few months/next season.
Sunday night, Bernier was given a chance to prove to his coach that he still deserved consideration as the teams number one netminder. Bernier responded with a solid 38-shot, shutout against the Detroit Red Wings. It was Bernier’s first shutout since January 6th against the Anaheim Ducks and, quite possibly, his best performance all season.
From December 30th, 2015 through January 27th, 2016, Bernier put together a good stretch, posting a record of 3-3. While the win-loss record looks very average, it should be noted that Bernier had save percentages of (.951, .975, 1.000, .774, .933, and .966).
If Bernier managed to put together more stretches like that, eventually, he will be successful.
Trouble is, Bernier followed those numbers up with six below-par performances in February where his save percentages fell to .824, .882, .842, .769, .968 and .889. Simply put, that’s not good enough.
As coach Babcock has explained to his goaltenders, hockey is a game that commands consistency. Babcoack is trying to instill a winning culture. If you cannot put your team in the position to win on more nights than not, you won’t play— no matter what the name on the back of your jersey is (Bernier, Reimer, Sparks or otherwise).
Going forward, given Bernier is still under contract with the Buds for another year at $4.15 million (AAV), so it would appear as if the Maple Leafs may be “stuck” with Bernier.
Of course, Lamoriello could give Bernier the Reimer treatment by trading him out of town— but would anyone take the under-performing/overpaid goalie? Not likely, but certainly not impossible with Lou at the helm!
Babcock has always been consistent in asking three things of his players— come to the rink prepared to work, be in shape, be professional.
To be honest, all three kind of go hand in hand. That said, when we look at Bernier’s career thus far, he obviously has failed to live up to those standards on occasion.
Bernier has proven two things in Toronto— he can play incredibly well and he can play poorly! Bernier is consistently inconsistent and that is the recipe for dismissal for any NHL goaltender.
If Bernier wants to stay in the NHL (never mind Toronto) he is going to have to spend the summer preparing like never before. Training, diet and working on his craft will be of the utmost importance.
It’s not often you get a second or third chance to be a number one goalie at the NHL level. Bernier’s time is ticking. It’s up to him what he chooses to do with what little time he has left to prove that he is, in fact, “the man”. Failure to do so may mean more than a one-way ticket out of Toronto, it could spell the end of his NHL career….