As Jonathan Bernier now prepares to try and build on his stellar game this past weekend against his former team, the LA Kings, it’s a reminder of just how difficult it is to play goal consistently at any level in hockey—let alone the National Hockey League.
I always think back to watching Roger Crozier when I was a young hockey fan in the 1960s. He was unorthodox in almost every way. In an era of classic stand-up goalies, he was more like Glenn Hall than the traditional NHL goalie. (For his part, Hall must have been the originator of the “inverted v-shaped” netminding style. It was just do different from say, Maple Leaf great Johnny Bower. Bower was your old-time stand up goalie, for sure, playing the angles and rarely leaving his feet unless he was knocked over. Hall (below left) would come out to challenge the shooters, but back into his net and stay low in that unique, reflex style he had…)
Crozier was different in that he was not only left-handed (very rare back in those days) but very nimble and athletic, though I recognize everyone who made it to play in the six-team NHL back then was highly skilled in their own way.
Some of the best goaltending I ever witnessed (and I’ve been fortunate to be able to see a lot of outstanding goalies over the past six decades) was back in the spring of 1966. It was Crozier and the way he performed in the first two games of the Cup finals against the mighty Montreal Candiens. He pretty much stole the first two games in the series from the vaunted Habs right at the Forum in Montreal. At the time, I was stunned because he was so shockingly good against the best team in the world—and at the Forum, no less, where Montreal rarely lost when it mattered. (Montreal did go on, of course, to win that series…)
But to my amazement, within a couple of years, Crozier, who had been so tremendous for Detroit in the mid-‘60s, was so out of sorts, so lacking in confidence and struggling to stop the simplest of shots, that he was sent by the team on a trip to Florida in the middle of the NHL season (I’m going to say this was in 1968, but I could be wrong) to get away from the pressure and relax.
That kind of thing simply wasn’t done in those days. And for that matter, no organization would likely ever do that now, though it might be a good idea.
Fortunately, Crozier was able to get back to playing closer to the way he could, and he had a nice career with the expansion Sabres after his time with the Red Wings ended in 1970 when he was dealt to Buffalo. In fact he helped the Sabres reach the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 1975, though he may never have played quite as remarkably as he did in those two spectacular outings against Montreal in the Cup finals in 1966. He was astonishingly good.
And that’s my point when it comes to goaltenders, and to Bernier—and James Reimer, for that matter. Goaltenders who last often have up and down careers. Heck, Carey Price went from hero to bum in his early Montreal years, but now he is considered the best in the league. Was anyone better than Halak was in that series against Washington a few years ago (the series that made Washington stop playing the fun brand of hockey they had used to under then coach Bruce Boudreau)? Maybe, maybe not, but he was awfully good. While he’s been a nice goalie since then, we would likely have predicted an All-Star career at the time. That hasn’t happened.
leave the game again for several years. He then returned out of the blue, better than ever, playing for St. Louis and then Toronto in the late ‘60s and early 1970s when he was in his forties.
In recent times, Steve Mason was fantastic in his early days with the Blue Jackets, then hit a wall and really struggled. Many observers seemed to talk about him like he was yesterday’s man and wasn’t going to last. Yet, he has moved to Philly, and has played quite consistently behind a middlish team for the past few years.
This is all by way of saying it is, again, so difficult to judge what a goalie will become over time. Who ever thought Tim Thomas would become Tim Thomas when he was in his 20s and playing in leagues most of us don’t follow?
When it comes to Bernier, the obvious connection to make is with Reimer. Upon Bernier’s arrival three years ago, Reimer suddenly become “the guy we inherited” in the infamous words of the former MLSE President Tim Leiweke. It seemed clear to many of us that Reimer never fit that management or coaching regime- and he by and large floundered. Though clearly frustrated, he stayed with it, and somehow managed to play his way back into the Leaf net on a seemingly full-time basis as the “number one” until his recent injury. Now, the jury will be out on him again, as Bernier get his chance.
Two weeks ago, there was media talk about what the Leafs should do with Bernier, who suddenly himself was now the guy who had fallen out of apparent favour. Would he be released, traded, demoted?
Yet after a nice stint with the Marlies, he has come back and played two good games in a row, with the Avalanche waiting.
Will he win the net back?
I have no idea. But I know this: it feels impossible to predict the future when it comes to most goaltenders. At their best, any goaltender at any level can seem unbeatable when they are in that zone and on their game. When their game is off, they battle every shot, it seems.
Goalies have been through this in the Toronto hockey market for years. Is there a tougher place to play than Toronto when it comes to netminders? Maybe it’s overblown, but it’s certainly not easy.
It all comes down not just to ability (all these guys have great skill) but confidence, which is certainly a fragile thing for many athletes. When a goalie feels truly confident, it makes a huge difference. And that confidence “switch” can get turned off—or on—without much notice.
So I make no predictions about Bernier. Or about Reimer upon his return. Or for that matter about Sparks, who has flashed at times in his unexpected opportunities this season in the Leaf net.
But I’ll say this: while having two “number ones”, as I have written about here for years, is rarely a comfortable thing for an NHL team (or the individuals involved), most fans would rather have three goalies that can win games than none.
A lot of what we’ve seen in Leafland in recent years has been predictably constant—and frustrating. But this may be a movie worth watching, just to see how it unfolds.