I’d have to go back and check to be sure, but I believe that almost a year ago, I suggested here at VLM that the one guy the Maple Leafs could ill afford to lose for any length of time was Dion Phaneuf. I know Phaneuf, for many Leaf supporters, has never quite hit the mark they were hoping for, but I would still make the argument that he is certainly a key figure in this lineup. He would be sorely missed if he was absent for a prolonged period of time.
So fast forward to a new season, with last year’s experience behind us—but still in our memory bank. There was some good in the team’s play last year, but we were largely overwhelmed (even when the Leafs were winning) by the sense that their good fortune could not continue, that ultimately, being outplayed and outshot would catch up to them.
So the question I am asking myself today, with the exhibition games set to begin this week, is this: is there a singular, truly indispensible Leaf—someone whose absence from the lineup would mean we are just not the same team?
As I scan the projected roster this season, that player, for me, is Jonathan Bernier.
We all know the names in this competition: Kessel, Phaneuf and maybe even Lupul because we do seem to miss him when he isn't in the lineup.
We need those guys, yes, but it was Bernier who almost got us to the playoffs last season. His late-year injury thrust Reimer into a tough situation, and the former Leaf ‘number-one’ simply could not overcome a season long battle with eroding confidence—and consistency. He struggled to the finish line, and it was no shock that the team struggled mightily as well.
So as I try to project what this roster can be (and I recognize that we don’t even know what the real regular-season lineup will be at this point, and it will no doubt change even further as the season moves forward), it just strikes me that as important as Phaneuf is, and Kessel is up front, the success of the team will ultimately fall on the goaltender.
Fans know that all eyes are on Carlyle, of course. Will he adjust, adapt, whatever word we want to use? Will his new system work? (Or will it really be his old system?)
Will the incoming assistant coaches make a difference in how players embrace the coach’s message? Will new players (Winnik, Robidas, Polak, Kontiola, Santorelli, Booth, maybe even the kid, Nylander…) bring energy to the lineup? Will we finally have some kind of discernable identity by the way we play? Will Clarkson bounce back? Will Gardiner and Rielly take that next step? Will an unexpected prospect make a push for a roster spot and become a difference-maker?
Heck, will we be able to hang on to the puck this season, and give our goaltenders a manageable numbers of shots to contend with most nights?
All these things matter, for sure.
But at the end of the day, a team on the bubble—and in my mind, the Leafs are very much on the playoff bubble—needs a goalie to stand on his head.
Bernier did for much of last season, and there is no reason to suggest he won’t play that way again. If anything, he should be better—a year more familiar with his team, the system, and returning defensemen like Phaneuf, Franson, Rielly and Gardiner.
Reimer may think he’s battling for the top spot in net, but everyone knows it is Bernier’s job. He’s the guy. He knows it and should be fully comfortable in that role. And I suspect Reimer will be motivated to play well as the back-up to ensure he has marketplace value outside of Toronto come the summer of 2015.
So while it’s easy to predict success in September, I do think the Leaf backstops will do the job this year. And that falls primarily on Bernier to be good—really good.
If Bernier is, then the Leafs will be in a position to contend for a playoff spot—and maybe more.