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Jonathan Bernier and the bumpy road to the promised land…

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.

16 comments:

  1. I don't feel that Bernier has been playing particularly well recently, so I decided to check out the stats to see if there was anything to my "gut" feeling. Over the last 10 games, Leafs save percentage has been .898 (if that was the number over the full season it would be good for 60th among goalies who have faced a minimum of 100 shots). I know Reimer gave up a few of those goals, but during the period Reimer was pulled once and Bernier was pulled once, so I think those cancel each other out (actual trained statisticians please cover your ears!).

    I am confident that if given a string of games Reimer would reach the form he has shown so many times in the past. With Bernier I'm not so sure. I'm definitely concerned about the nine goals surrendered in the last two games.

    We'll see how this plays out, but I'm not prepared to write off the future of Reimer in the blue and white quite yet. Thank you Nonis for hanging on to him for now.

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    1. All goalies will go through stretches where they are not in top form and/or their save percentage will drop. Unless someone goes on an extended roll, things usually balance out over time. Bernier should be fine. This is likely a blip, but it's not unfair to ask questions, as I did in my post today.

      While on a personal level I agree that Reimer is still likely capable of replicating his earlier play with the Leafs, I think he is so far out of the mental equation it doesn't matter at this point. Bernier is the guy, from Leiweke and Nonis on down to Carlyle. It is what it is so he's the one the Leafs will need to come up big when it counts. A sudden confluence of events would have to unfold for Reimer to a) get the opportunity and b) play enough to get his confidence back.

      It will be Bernier the rest of the way. Thanks Oliver.

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  2. "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?"

    I am not sure the Leafs show often enough they know their OWN job in the def zone never mind stick to it and not run around trying to do everyone else's. We still see much too often other team controls the puck then next thing you know someone is wide open in front of the net with every leaf looking at each other as if "whose man was that?".

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    1. I can't argue with that, Pep. I guess the question is can they finally come to grips with their defensive responsibilities? When breakdowns occur (all teams have them, of course, but when we constantly give up so many chances) is it a question of ability, will- or confusion about assignments?

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    2. Ability or Will or Confusion..... I have come to the conclusion it is a combination of all 3 with ability being the lesser of the 3 . I realize that is a copout answer but I am at a bit of a loss to explain it. I don't buy ability. If it was ability it would mean we would have a whole team of dumb players who have no hockey sense. It has to be a blend of will and confusion with maybe a side dish of system and coaching/communication perhaps as well.

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    3. I've long tended to believe that being a good defensive player (and collectively, by extension, being a good defensive "team") is a question of willingness to work harder than the next guy. Regardless of the "system" a coach employs, players have to be willing to fight through checks, take a hit, do all the things that many don't want to do all over the ice to be a top team- and be hard to play against. I sense the Leafs are indeed capable of this; not sure they want to. Thanks Pep.

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  3. Hi Michael,

    You sure did cover a lot of ground in that post, can't accuse you of having nothing to say on the team. So many topics, so little time.

    As an overall assessment of the Leafs, I would say this. Tons of talent on the roster, almost no discipline, or commitment to playing away from the puck. They continue as a group to be maddeningly inconsistent, even Bernier is falling into the trap. The team as a whole, is so abysmal in its own zone. I get the impression that Bernier is trying too hard to make plays, especially when he comes out to handle the puck. It's like there is no one teaching these guys to do more with less, or make improvements. Or they are just not listening, or are not smart enough to comprehend the message. I really don't know, but, when the message is the same and the players still don't get it, for crying out loud change the message, or the way you deliver it.

    Talking about the teams ability to shut down an opponent for a seven game series made me laugh. I would be satisfied with a seven minute commitment to defensive hockey. Again, I thought defensive guru was the coaches sole mantra.

    Is the goaltending good enough to make a run in the playoffs? This is a tricky question, and it made me think about Halak when asked about Miller going to St. Louis, 'he sure is going to see less shots' That is in essence the question. Is this team going to figure out how to play defensive hockey? I have enough faith in both Bernier and Reimer, for that matter. I have so little faith in the rest of them to do what it takes when it matters, see the Boston series.

    We have no idea if Bolland is coming back, or if he will be any good when he does. I read that he is still having trouble crossing over. This kind of news is not good, and I will be surprised if he plays at all this year, let alone plays a significant role. I think we need to ignore the Bolland factor, and also acknowledge that Clarkson is what he is, nothing more. He looks as out of place on this team as I could have ever imagined.

    Other teams in the East look for the most part, just as mediocre as Toronto. Here is the difference, the Bostons' and Pittsburghs' of the world, are willing to make big trades every year if they feel that they are lacking in an area. I am already reading rumours that Shero is trying to pry Kessler away from Van City. With the incredibly small amount of cap room that Nonis has to work with, can he fill holes in the same way? Is he willing to risk trading away a Gardiner, or Kadri? I don't know.

    To me a lot of the issues with the Leafs boil down to one thing, the coach is not a smart man. Someone who gets outsmarted by a kitchen appliance, needs to go. I pray that this is the last season I have to hear him talk. I can't take any more phoney performance art press conferences about committing to defence, then watch the same old song and dance on the ice.

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  4. Your last sentence pulls together something that is likely a tiring song for Leaf supporters: this is a team that talks constantly about defense, yet too often does not seem to take their own messages seriously.

    As I said above to Pep, all teams have breakdowns. But it is the relative constancy of the same old issues that the Leafs self-create (and again, I say this while looking at the standings and seeing they are in a good spot) that is a concern to most fans- and no doubt to Carlyle.

    I'm not in the same place as you (and many others, I realize) when it comes to Carlyle. I guess this is the chicken and egg argument. Does the message really need to change, or are the players just not interested in following what's asked of them?

    I really don't know. But a "good" team usually is able to play a coach's system by now. All this said, imagine where they'd be in the standings if they weren't struggling in the areas we've often talked about?

    I always appreciate your perspective- thanks Jim.

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  5. Nothing has really changed from last season as far as team defense goes. If anything it's a bit worse. I don't think it's a lack of effort as far as the defensemen go. Is it just too complicated or does the system go against their instincts in some way to the point where it's hard for them to commit to it every shift, every game? Do they actually believe in the D system Randy employs ? There are things about this system I definitely don't like but there may be a reason Randy wants them to play this way. It might have to do with the lack of natural physicality in the youngsters of the group. He might feel keeping shots to the outside is a safer option than expecting some of this group to challenge and out-muscle opponents on the boards. We've seen that some of them just can't. Not yet, anyway.

    It's different for the offensive forwards who skill set is more for seeing and anticipating plays in the offensive zone. For them I think it is committing to a greater effort physically, especially on the back check and the D zone and keeping it as simple as possible. I think that cycling and spending more time in the O zone has really improved.

    I actually like this youthful defense corp but they've run out of time to figure things out. I expect Nonis is looking for veteran D help and I'd hate to lose another young talented player because they've run out of time and patience. On the other hand ( and I admit I'm the least knowledgeable of everyone here) I don't believe the Leafs can compete in the playoffs with the defense as it stands now, and yet last year, they did. C.N.

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    1. Exactly, C.N.- the Leafs competed in the playoffs last spring, and they are more than surviving this season- all despite the flaws that we mere fans can detect. I guess it speaks to the fact that hockey is a game of mistakes- lots of them. If you can make fewer mistakes then your opponent, or take advantage of the opportunities you do get more often then the other guy, you can win more often than not.

      There are indeed things this team is doing better, and still ways where the Leafs struggle at times. How much is about "coaching" and how much is about the players, I don't know. Either way, they will need outstanding goaltending to win in the playoffs. Thanks C.N.

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    2. Nice read. What are your thoughts on Carlyle's future with the Leafs? Is he the coach that will take us to the promised land or do you see changes coming up.?

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    3. The Carlyle "situation" is one I don't have a handle on. Much of the fan base has been exasperated, yet we really have few, if any clues about what management might be thinking. He is still in his first "full" season behind the bench. The team is in a good spot in the standings but at times is infuriatingly weak in certain facets of their game. So I don't know.

      Many question if he is behind the times and/or unable to adjust. I find it difficult to make that determination, as I know, from having worked with a number of NHL coaches on a professional level over the years, how hard these guys work, how much film they look at, etc. There are so many areas where we can assess a coach, from game-day roster decisions and interpersonal/communication skills to game management and the ability to motivate players when that is needed.

      I think he may well be able to lead this team to success, but I sense that is a minority view. Yes, coaches should always be looking to put individual players in in a position to succeed. But it's not just on the coach- the players have to be willing to handle the assignments given to them. Thanks vinoa.

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    4. It's probably unfair to call to fire Carlyle at this point, but it's definitely a question to be posed going forward keeping this core of players. One thing that worries me is that Grabo and McArthur, two guys regardless of whether you like their game or not stuck with it, did not have very nice things to say about him specifically and management. With Reimer, the main reason we made the playoffs last year, unhappy as well it's just hard to believe that locker room and player relationships can be taken seriously. Great coaches like Babcock always have unwavering confidence from their players when things get rough. I honestly think the Bernier logic of "I don't know if I trust him when things get thick" applies more to the coaches than players here. Our players are relatively young. It's hard to play defense in the NHL and lineup changes and new corps being switched in and out probably just means more mistakes, but it's a much bigger risk to walk away from the talents of Gardiner, Reilly, and Franson then it is Carlyle to be honest. He put pressure on himself by saying he'd fix the defense over break. If that doesn't change, it's not very assuring as a fan that he's the guy going forward.

      It is a really difficult job and head coaches get thrown under the bus a lot, but the Leafs are at a crossroads with all of the young talent we have and we need a coach who has their attention and a guy they will work for to be a cup contender. If Carlyle doesn't fix things defensively within a year or so, it definitely becomes compelling to just let him go and attempt to find someone else who can. I don't think we're in a win-now situation really (I hope not anyway). We don't have enough defensive talent materialized to consistently play as well as the top teams. We're a dangerous team in that we can light up the scoreboard and our goalies can stand on their head, but that's good for an upset before we just get outworked by players just as talented. I think this means Carlyle should at least be put on the radar, if the not the hot seat, for how he handles the situation and how players feel about him.

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    5. Excellent post, Devin. I particularly connected with your comment that eventually the Leafs will run into a team in the playoffs that is just as "talented", but one that will simply work harder- and no doubt play much better and smarter defensively.

      Because this is, as you well note, a young group, it's likely Carlyle will be given more time to try and get everyone on the same page. But yes, by next season expectations will be even higher, and Nonis will no doubt be looking to see if there is a match between Carlyle and the core here. Thanks for visiting, Devin.

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  6. The Toronto Maple Leafs have placed enforcer Frazer McLaren on waivers, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie.


    Looks like Carlyle is serious about using four lines for the rest of the season and the playoffs.

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  7. I expect McLaren to pass through waivers and end up with the Marlies. He and Orr did what was needed last season. To make Toronto a hard team to play against with willing retribution if opponents tried anything. That role no longer exists but I'm thankful for their contribution.

    We have seen a bit more flexibility from Randy as of late. What I don't know is whether it was his idea or management's. I believe old dogs can learn new tricks, but I'm not convinced Randy has has that sort of character.
    For the players, he either likes you or he doesn't, plain and simple, and it shows. I don't think there are any gray areas in anything Carlyle thinks or does.
    I believe that he is very knowledgeable and for the most part knows what he is doing, but things can change so quickly in this sport. It will be interesting to see if Randy can change and adjust with it, and be open to new ideas, or if stubbornness wins out. So many coaches are fired not because they are incompetent but because they absolutely refuse to change the way they do things.

    Great conversation today. Looking forward to tonight, worried for Reimer if he's in. I'm praying AND crossing my fingers. C.N.

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