Last week the Toronto Maple Leafs showed glimpses of what they could be if their lengthy rebuild comes to fruition: a hardworking unit that can battle through adversity and challenge some of the best teams in the league.
The Leafs pieced together a three-game winning streak, their longest of the season, against the Stars, Predators and Canucks, three teams that currently sit in playoff positions in a deep Western Conference. And the wins came thanks to the stellar play of goaltender James Reimer, the on-again, off-again No. 1 man between the pipes in Toronto.
Reimer posted a .952 save percentage over those three victories, good enough to earn the NHL’s Third Star of the Week.
But to end the week, we also got a glimpse of what the Leafs currently are: a team whose problems are still so glaringly obvious that more hard decisions await it.
After a 4–3 loss to the New York Rangers on Sunday, Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier took the brunt of the blame, admitting that he cost his team two points. Bernier was playing his first game since Oct. 31 after a lower body ailment kept him out of the lineup.
He might have been right. He let in a softball from center ice that could have been the difference. One bad goal does not a bad goalie make, however. The problems in Bernier’s game have been creeping up for some time now.
Tuesday night’s 5–1 win over the Colorado Avalanche showcased rare brilliance from the Leafs’ special teams, but Reimer still stopped 34 of 35 shots in the process.
It’s long been a crowded crease in Toronto, but the faith that Leafs coaching and management had in Bernier, acquired by previous GM Dave Nonis in the summer of 2013 after a successful stint as Jonathan Quick’s backup in Los Angeles, has been evident. He played the lion’s share of games for the Leafs the previous two seasons. His stats became troubling, though, going from a .923 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average in 2013–14 to .912 and 2.87, respectively, in ’14-’15.
And through eight games this season? A paltry .895 and 3.17 with no wins.
Goalies go through rough patches all the time. But Bernier’s inconsistencies have been clear for some time. For a Leafs organization that not only seems intent on investing in the future but not turning a blind eye to telling statistical analysis, continuing to roll with Bernier in the net would be a confusing gamble.
Stephen Burtch, via War on Ice, has looked into the Bernier vs. Reimer comparison and his work shows a startling problem in Bernier’s game. His ceiling appears to be higher, but aside from some early-season flare-ups, his inconsistent play has been partly to blame for the Leafs’ perennial mid-to-late season collapse.
Reimer, while showcasing some lower dips in save percentage, has largely been more consistent and has done so for longer in his career.
Bernier’s $4.1 million cap hit for this season and next is untradeable now, sure. But teams will certainly sniff around at either the deadline or the draft, believing that Bernier could use a change of scenery from Toronto and all that playing in the city encompasses.
In the near future, dealing Bernier for a draft pick or two can be done. It’s the smart move, as it’ll allow the Leafs to sign Reimer, whose contract expires after this season, and provide him with the good faith and stability he needs to have strong seasons moving forward.
Is either Reimer or Bernier a bonafide option in the long term for the Leafs? Perhaps not. But consistency should be the order of the day for a Leafs team that has been victimized by constant turnover and instability.
There are intriguing goaltending prospects in the Leafs’ minor league system, including 22-year-old Garrett Sparks, who is sporting a .929 save percentage through nine games for the Toronto Marlies this season.
The Leafs’ key pieces to build around look to be center Nazem Kadri and emerging puck-moving defenseman Morgan Rielly. Both were highly touted entering this season, and they look to be benefiting the most from new coach Mike Babcock. Not only will they be counted on to be leaders both offensively and in the dressing room if the Leafs do become competitive in a few seasons, they’ll also be expected to act as bridges from the coaching staff to the youth—they’re players who’ve been part of past Leafs struggles but who can see the rebuild through with a steady hand.
Reimer has also benefited from the coaching change. He’s not the picture of calm in the net, but his results and unorthodox, sometimes flailing approach speak to a will to win.
Why roll the dice with Bernier when a stable option has presented itself? For the same reason that the Leafs are waiting patiently with offensive dynamos William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown as they let their talents simmer and develop in the AHL, letting Reimer’s talents walk would be a callback to Leafs management of old. The Leafs are trying to reduce the risk involved with these three future stars and keeping Bernier instead of Reimer ignores the up-and-down nature of his play in the past two seasons.
The Leafs are looking toward the future, and that also means cutting ties with some of the failures of past regimes.