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Bernier still a key to any serious Maple Leaf success

One of the encouraging things in a predictably hot and cold Maple Leaf early season has been that the Leafs have won a fair bit without having to rely on miraculous goaltending most nights. A year ago, despite being out-chanced quite a bit through most of the season, they maintained a healthy playoff position for the majority of the year because the goalkeeping was pretty darn good.  In fact, the prevailing view seemed to be that without Jonathan Bernier (and to a lesser extent, Reimer), the Leafs could not possibly have been in a position to contend for the playoffs, despite some impressive offensive play at times.

This year, it feels as though the Leafs are getting better play from across the roster most nights—at both ends of the ice. What is Santorelli—a plus 13 at this point?  I didn't see that coming.  Kadri is a significant plus player, while still creating offense. Lupul has contributed despite injuries and therefore more limited playing time. Kessel, of course, leads everybody in terms of points, but Bozak is averaging almost a point a game, so he must be doing something right, eh?

Who isn’t pleased to see Clarkson with 8 goals already? Holland continues to chip in on offense, while earning real minutes from Carlyle. Panik is part of the team’s impressive bottom-six depth (that was a neat little misdirection move to throw Miller off on Toronto’s second goal Saturday night) and Komarov, a solid contributor, has been out lately. His (hopefully) pending return should only add a much-appreciated edge to our game.

On defense, I’ve liked what Robidas is delivering lately. Just steady, solid—exactly what we hoped for.  Dion is Dion, logging big but now more manageable minutes and a plus 11 on the year.  Gardiner still has his issues but does enough to keep us all wanting to believe he has huge upside. For his part, Rielly is maybe not having a breakout sophomore season, but at 20, he shows the immense promise that he will be “the guy” on our blueline down the road. Franson has been mostly the good Franson this season, putting up significant points from the back end while also registering a solid plus rating. Holzer, much maligned last season, has quietly stepped in for the injured Polak, who himself brings a welcome physicality to the Leaf blueline when healthy.

But I mention all this (too positive, perhaps?) mostly as a backdrop to an important point: watching the Leafs in action against the capable Canucks on Saturday night at the ACC, it was Bernier who made sure the Leafs ultimately walked away with two hard-earned points.  It was more the Bernier of a season ago—calm, composed, steady.  Not needing to make many eye-popping saves, simply because he was so well positioned that the puck came to him.

44 saves was a reminder of, well, a year ago.

I really don’t know where this Leaf team is headed. Either direction still seems a distinct possibility; they have, as we all know, played a lot of their schedule at home so far—the next few weeks will be a test, for sure. But for now, they have earned enough points to be a player in the Eastern Conference standings, with 31 points in 26 games.

Still, I just believe that if this team is really going anywhere, Bernier will have to be the Bernier we saw Saturday night.  New assistant coaches and a “new” system might be important, yes, and winning certainly creates a positive mood around the team, which is vital.  And while all the things we talk about here- grit, desire, 'will', leadership, hating to lose, etc. all matter, without great goaltending, most teams will struggle.

Bernier is the guy who will have to play as well as he has shown he can the rest of the way.

I still like Reimer a lot—always have. And I still believe he, too, can help this team win games and be a factor.  In fact, I think he could fill in if needed for Bernier. But Bernier seems to provide his teammates with the kind of calm presence they respond well to.

Bottom line:  we will see if this team, once they hit the road, has really turned a corner or whether this recent ‘run’ (with a couple of clunkers thrown in to throw us off the track) was indeed yet another Leafland mirage.

If they are the real deal, Bernier will be the needed glue to keep this all together.


  1. Hi Michael

    Odd game, wasn't it? I didn't see the first, but heard it was trading chances back and forth out of which we came on top. I did see the last two periods and thought there was a dramatic contrast between the 30 - 50 minute mark and the two 10 min periods around it. In that middle stretch the Leafs looked like they were going to choke it: back into old, dire habits failing to get the puck out of their own end, failing to forecheck and apply any pressure, failing at everything but skating around in circles really.

    It was in that 20 min stretch that Bernier (and the goalposts) kept them in it and gave them the chance to get stubborn again. Having said that, it seemed to be a tactic of Vancouver's throughout the game to throw pucks on net to feed a trailer with a rebound and I think that inflated the shot totals a bit - though I take nothing away from Bernier's effort as he controlled those rebounds very well.

    And in the last 10 mins, I thought we played very well again having worked through our jitters and found a sticking place for our courage.

    I am remaining hopeful this season, and while I think you're right that Bernier's strong play will be a big part of that continuing, I do also think that we have a forward unit that is capable of winning games through solid all-round play. We are even winning a few battles on the boards this year.

    1. Winning those battles will be crucial, KiwiLeaf. We do have guys who can score, for sure. We need to play well defensively, too.

    2. Michael, I'd be very interested in the general opinion: do we think Kessel is playing hurt at the moment? If so, what are they waiting for to rest him? We have our second and third lines scoring well, a couple of home games on the stretch... Seems like we missed a chance to rest him.

    3. I think Kessel is definitely hurt and more specifically, and worryingly, I think it is his back.

  2. Maybe not the "real deal" but I think this year's Leafs are at least a "good deal"?

    I am thinking these Leafs should make the playoffs, go 6 or more games and maybe win a round.

    The only team I don't want them to play is Pittsburgh. I would love Tampa, who I think they match up well with. Montreal is a toss up that I would take just because it would be so exciting from the history. Boston doesn't worry me quite so much anymore.

    One thing that is starting to show is the Leaf's depth Start comparing our forwards with other teams and you begin to recognize the talent on on the Leaf's lines. On many other teams, Holland and Clarkson are on the second line. Panik plays on the third line and Lupul is on the first.

    We have a capable backup in Reimer.

    Then there is lots of fringe talent available/graduating from the Marlies. Does anybody really cringe at the thought of Kozun, Leivo, Carrick, Frattin or Percy coming up for a week or two to fill in for an injury? Smith and Holzer are already here and doing an adequate job. We will be even stronger with Komorov and Polak back.

    1. We do have guys who can contribute on the third and fourth lines, DP, and you're right, I sense Leaf fans are more comfortable with the lineup and the guys who can fill in. Carlyle must be, too, as ice time is being distributed pretty well most nights.

  3. I think there's one distinct difference with the 2014-15 Leafs. This year, they need good goaltending to win, but in the past 2-3 years, they NEEDED good goaltending to have a chance. Even last night, Bernier played great with his 44 saves, but he did it with his own squad potting a big handful of goals early on. He could make decisions with the confidence of knowing one goal doesn't lose the game for him, as opposed to dealing with an anemic offence and knowing he has to be flawless. Toronto's goals-for has them near the top of the league, which must help Bernier or Reimer in terms of not feeling hung out to dry on a nightly basis.

    Based on this roster, I say..... good work, boys. We already knew what Phil, Lupul and the other established top guns would bring, and they've more or less done what's expected. The retooling of the bottom lines has really offered some punch, as it's refreshing to not have to cringe (and wait for an upcoming fight) every time the 4th line is tossed over the boards.

    I had to laugh at the hand wringing from certain media outlets after the New Jersey loss, as the team was on a great run, and you can't win 'em all. Sometimes you skate out there and it's just a flat night, with zero bounces and not a ton of inspired play. This Leafs team hasn't offered up too many of those steaming turds this year, and every squad in the league has nights like that one..... embarrassed after, and hoping for more the next game.

    KiwiLeaf was asking about Kessel playing hurt, which is an interesting question. Apparently he's been participating in practices, and you'd think if he has any injury that needed rest, at the very least Phil would skip the odd practice. We'll exhaust ourselves trying to figure out Kessel, so we may as well just enjoy the pucks he stuffs in the net.

    1. Heh, rest assured, I always a good Phil stuffing myself, Russ. If he's practising, then you're right, we should assume he's fit.

    2. I've heard but can't confirm that Kessel is still hurt from the pre-season and that it's his back. Some days it's okay, other days it spasms. He's taken some brutal hits and falls lately of the type he can usually avoid and he's been seen stretching during game day skates and appears to be in pain. He's left early a few times. His wrist and hand are usually taped --they were against the Canucks--and his fingers are often black from the amount of slashes he takes each game. Kessel doesn't like to miss games but I think he may need to forget about his iron-man status and take some time off to heal.

  4. You're right, Russ, all teams have games where they just don't have it. The Leafs have struggled some nights, but by and large the effort has been there and they've won more than they've lost.

  5. Goaltending is always important. There's no winning the Cup without stellar goaltending. You not only need a good starting goalie but also a capable back-up.

    I think Russ nailed it - we may need a goalie to win us a game here and there but no longer to give us a chance. Last few seasons we were heavily relying on goaltenders. This year, the forward depth and improved defence is giving our goalies a break.

    Anyhow, I still think they should wait rather than trade Reimer as Bernie can get hurt and then what? If they must trade Reimer a capable goalie better be coming back.

    Kessel is clearly playing hurt - there's too much evidence for that - he's just not skating well, people who claim to know him are saying he's had back pain since the beginning of the season and the insiders on TV are all speaking of his injuries as a foregone conclusion. Kessel plays through injuries - how else do you think he'd be able to play 5 seasons straight without taking a game off? If he were seriously injured I'm sure the medical staff would have him off the ice.

    Also, I guess it's cool to have him on the ice even if he's not playing a lot of minutes because he serves as a decoy of sorts - the opposing teams are forced to field their best checkers against him which frees up our other lines and, if they decide to let him play against flimsy forwards and 3rd d pairings, he can still do the damage even at 30% which seems to be where he's at right now.

    Burke's and Nonis's patience is finally bearing fruit - the youngsters are improving and we now have many that can play the game at a high level. Gardiner finally strung together a few decent games, the last one against Vancouver being his best effort this season. Kadri's played very good defensive and physical hockey and he's now centring our best scoring line, Bozak looks like he hasn't reached his ceiling as his production just keeps going up, JVR is sure to come out soon, Panik and Holland look like amazing pick-ups right now with Leivo, Kozun, Frattin and Ashton all capable of playing decent hockey if need be. We have youth to spare, our development department is finally looking legit. I think we may have the pieces to trade for that special forward or defenceman (or both) that may well take us all the way.

    Even if the management decides to remain patient, this team can only go up with Nylander, Gautier and Connor Brown continuing to develop.

    I think this time my optimism is warranted. I think, this year we're in for a pleasant surprise.

    1. I guess the big test will come on the road, Leafdreamer. It strikes me that the key will be how well this team can play defensively, and also when it goes through tough times.

  6. Hi Michael.
    I hope we're still commenting on this post.

    A great game by Reimer to steal 2 points last night--against a great team at home in a back-to-back, after sitting for three weeks. It did my heart good to see James offer such a performance and increased my anger as well. The excuse Carlyle used for playing Bernier so much was to "get him going" after he struggled a bit at the beginning of the season. If James had been struggling would Randy have played him more? Always the double standard in Toronto.

    From the moment the Leafs traded for the rights for Bernier, this is the sort of comments we've heard, the goalie competition, the 1b/2b that never existed when James, with a higher save% only got the B2B's in front of a tired team, the blame constantly placed on Reimer and not on a coaching staff that sat him for weeks on end.

    Carlyle and Nonis could have just said--Now we have two good goalies and left it at that, but what we heard were downright lies to sell Bernier and discredit Reimer's ability to be a #1. It's sad that so many fans fell for it when what they said and what they did were two different things.

    I can't forget the stupidity of an organization who devalues it's own assets --on purpose!!--but most of all I can't forgive lies. Ever. I can't help enjoying wins but to me it still means the remainder of the season will include more of Randy and Dave when I so wished them gone. I may have to stop believing in Santa Claus.

    1. I can appreciate your frustration, Colleen. I have not liked how this was all handled from Day One.

  7. Hi Michael,

    a good team is always build from the back to the front. And if you have a mediocre team you need strong goaltending. Strong goaltending can come from Reimer too.
    I wrote a piece two weeks ago you did not comment on where I pointed to the Leafs cap Situation.
    If Reimer carries the team to and through the Playoffs it would be good for the Leafs. And they can sign Bernier to a reasonable term and Money.

    I would like the Leafs to play better all around instead of relying only on goaltending.

    1. Hi Marcus- yes, there are some cap realities, no doubt, that Nonis will face this off-season.

      Bernier is the appointed guy and he will be seeking a big time contract in the summer. Fans may be fine with that if he leads the team in the playoffs.