I doubt there are many (any?) Leaf supporters who would won’t acknowledge that, despite a reasonably impressive current placement in the Eastern Conference standings, a lot of that “success” has been accomplished on the back of Jonathan Bernier.
The former King netminder has brought a steady, composed and technically efficient game north to Leafland, and this has been a good thing indeed for the blue and white—and their faithful.
Depending on how you look at it, he has stolen, earned or assumed (been handed?) the top job—and has run with it with both hands on the wheel. The Leaf surge over about a 15 game span just prior to the Olympic break can be attributed to a number of things, but goaltending was unquestionably one of them.
Would the Leafs have 72 points right now if it weren’t for Bernier (and to a much lesser extent, Reimer)? The answer is clearly no. He has been a lifeline on many of the nights when the Leafs were outshot, out-chanced and had the puck on their sticks a lot less than the opposition did.
Now, despite despite the young talent and their being within two points of holding the fourth overall slot in the Conference standings, questions remain about the club’s overall direction. A few of the questions include:
- Will we ever begin to balance out the whole shot differential and puck possession issues?
- Is Carlyle the man his charges will go through the wall for? And after two years on the job at this point, should we expect a team that understands and responds to the coach's commands without having to over-think?
- As much as almost everyone is lauding the play of young Rielly and of course Phaneuf (more than 30 minutes against the Habs Saturday night) and have been largely impressed with Tim Gleason since his arrival, do the Leafs have the kind of defensive corps that can win a championship?
- We all know that defense is not just about goaltending and your defense pairings—so much has to do with forwards buying in to whatever structure the coach is asking them to play. Do we have the forwards who can handle that assignment come playoff time?
- There is, of course, the penalty-kill, such a source of pride just a season ago yet something less than that for the most part this season. I’ve seen statistical assessments and video breakdowns about the issue. Whatever, something is off the rails there, and we best get it back on the rails pretty soon. Like team defense, penalty killing is often about willingness, smarts and hard work. We have a lot of the same pieces on that unit that we did a year ago, yet the results are vastly different many nights.
- Really good teams, well, you can just see when players know they only have to do their job, and not run around trying to do everyone else's job in their own zone. Are the Leafs that kind of team yet?
- There are also the longstanding questions I’ve raised here in recent years about leadership, playoff experience, team toughness and, I’ll say it again, grit. Without those little items you simply don’t win in the playoffs.
But all this said, I still have a question when it comes to goaltending. Let me explain.
Bernier has been excellent this season. He's had the occasional unspectacular outing, sure—like all goalies do. But he’s been very, very good. He led the team through that tremendous streak just before the Olympics and even in the last two games when the Maple Leafs were a giveaway machine, he kept them in those games and Toronto managed a point on the road both against the Islanders and Montreal. Those points will come in handy in early April.
So what’s my issue? It’s just a nagging uncertainty. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen plenty of goaltenders have excellent beginnings when they join a new team, only to flatten out over time. As I talked about on a recent podcast, Wayne Thomas (an ex-Hab backup who actually played a lot when Ken Dryden sat out the 1973-’74 season) came to the Leafs before the 1975-’76 season and was absolutely marvelous through much of that season. Thomas was only 28 at the time and seemingly on the verge of breaking through, given the opportunity he was handed to run with the job in Toronto. He was the undisputed guy in goal and played really well. And that was a young, emerging Toronto side with players like Salming, Turnbull, Sittler, McDonald and a host of others. Like this Leaf team, they seemed to be right on the cusp of being serious contenders.
But by the next year he began to struggle and eventually lost the job to an even younger goalie in former Marlie junior Mike Palmateer.
That all has nothing to do with Bernier right now, of course. The Leaf problem now, if there is one, is that despite the offensive brilliance of individuals like van Riemsdyk and Kessel and occasionally Kadri and Lupul, we still give up way too many chances. Hall-of-Fame goaltenders like Glenn Hall or Bernie Parent in their hey-day may struggle under those circumstances.
Still, it’s just that I sometimes sense I am seeing signs that the League may be doing their homework on Bernier, just as they did before on Reimer. Every goalies has flaws, and tendencies that opponents can try to exploit. In this regard, the Leaf goalies are no different than anyone else.
Look, when a good goaltender is “in the zone” and on his game, the puck must look like a beach ball. I can remember different goalies over the years at playoff time who, for a while, looked utterly unbeatable. Roger Crozier with the Red Wings in 1966, Ken Dryden (right) at times during the ’71 playoffs for Montreal, Bernie Parent in the mid ‘70s with Philly and Billy Smith with the Islanders in the early ‘80s all spring to mind.
More recently, while some may invoke Jonathan Quick’s name, I can’t forget when J.S. Giguere was on a roll with the Anaheim Ducks the first time they went to the finals in the early 2000s. He was on top of everything, and looked like he was covering the whole net. The opposition seemingly had nowhere to put the puck.
Again, when any good (or even streaky goalie) is hot like that, he can win a lot of games for his team. And I’m sure Bernier is quite capable of that.
It’s just that, I guess for me, there are distinct parts of an NHL season. There is pre-season hockey, when we get excited about this new player and that because they put up a few points, seem to bring “energy”, score a nice goal or whatever. Then there is the early part of the season when some players get off to great starts and a few potential patterns slowly begin to emerge. (We often talk here about not making any serious assessment about the Leafs until they’ve played at least 20 games.)
From there we move toward the long, boring NHL middle-of-the-season grind.
With about 20 games to go in the season and after the trade deadline (both marks the Leafs are hitting now) is when good teams get really serious. That’s a whole other level of NHL hockey. Clubs know that they need to lock things down and begin to prepare to play playoff hockey. Because, anyone hopeful of being a contender for the Stanley Cup recognizes that they will have to win four best-of- seven series—for me, the toughest thing to do in professional sports in a physical sport like hockey.
After that 20-game stretch, we then move on to actual playoff hockey, which we all know is an entirely different kettle of fish. And let me add there is, ultimately, Stanley Cup finals hockey which is the final test. We’ve all seen lots of teams, individual players and goaltenders who played pretty well up to the point, but under the bright lights of the finals, they perhaps don’t perform as everyone had hoped. (Do you remember when the Flyers fired their coach after he led them to the finals, but they lost in four straight to the Red Wings in 1997, I think it was? Expectations were so high even making it to the finals wasn't enough to satisfy the organization, or fans.)
So with that as a backdrop, what kind of netminder will Bernier be for the Leafs when it matters?
He has demonstrated that, for part of one NHL season as the go-to-guy, he has handled the job very well. Now we hit the stretch run of the NHL season. How will he react being a number-one for the first time in the NHL?
Bernier played behind a button-down Darryl Sutter squad the last couple of years in LA when he began to see some serious regular-season back-up action behind Jonathan Quick. To this point, I think it’s fair to say the current Leafs play nothing like the LA Kings of 2011-’12 or 2012-’13.
So can he be the guy who steals games for us come playoff time? He may have to, because ultimately, I’m not sure this Leaf team, as exciting and explosive (and those third period comebacks sure are impressive) as it can be on any given night, has proven to us that they can shut down an opponent for a seven-game series. They came awfully close and deserved a better fate against the Bruins last spring. However the Bruins at the point were not playing the kind of hockey they later played to make it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
With Bernier in goal, Gleason and Rielly and a more mature, experienced Gardiner on the blueline, an impactful top line and secondary scoring, this should be a better Leaf team heading into the playoffs, right?
Great teams that aspire to championships need to play tough, block shots, do well on special teams and fight for every inch of ice. But at the end of the day, even if they do all that, generally speaking they also need superb goaltending.
Bernier seems to have the mechanics, the calm and the mental make-up to handle this assignment and rise to the occasion. Yet I doubt, and I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s just lack of opportunity. Bernier hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do as “the man” at playoff time. You can’t show you can do the job until you get a chance, eh?
He’ll get that opportunity very soon.