Goaltending Question Continues in Toronto
As William Nylander, Morgan Reilly et al give Toronto fans hope of success in years to come, questions remain between the pipes.
With James Reimer gone (at least for the moment), Jonathan Bernier struggling and Garret Spark’s NHL career in its infancy, the Maple Leafs have no clear number one goaltender right now. And while that isn’t a major issue this season, it’s a situation that would benefit from some degree of resolution in the near future, to ensure the rebuilding process is effective.
Bernier is now in his third season with the organisation, following a relatively high profile arrival from Los Angeles in 2013.
The Quebec native impressed during his first year with the team, posting a 92.3% save percentage in the face of a heavy workload, but struggled last season as the Maple Leafs finished 27th overall.
This year things have slid even further for Bernier, whose numbers stand at a worrying 89.74% save percentage and 3.12 goals-against average. The 27-year old has been outperformed by both Reimer and Sparks for much of the campaign, and has appeared slow to correct flaws in his game.
Bernier is not a lost cause by any means, but this ponderous approach to change is concerning. There appear to be people within the Maple Leafs organisation who believe in his ability to be the clubs #1, but with just one year remaining on his present contract it’s hard not to feel things need to change sooner rather than later if that faith is to be rewarded.
Moving James Reimer prior to the trade deadline changed the conversation slightly; an almost public declaration that the Maple Leafs still believe Bernier can be their guy in a way the club never seemed to feel Reimer could – a feeling that dates back to the Maple Leafs 2013 playoff collapse against the Boston Bruins.
But Reimer is still believed to favour a return to Ontario in July, when he will be an unrestricted free agent. Despite a recent slump, there are undoubtedly those who would like to see the Manitoba native back in a Maple Leafs’ jersey.
Reimer was a hugely popular fan favourite, who handled some difficult situations with great professionalism over the past three seasons – people don’t forget that kind of thing, especially when he also underpinned it with some outstanding play through the first half of this season, dwarfing Bernier’s numbers:
There were a significant number of people who though Reimer’s revival might lead to Bernier being traded before the March deadline, and any potential of a return only causes that cloud to linger over Bernier, no matter the clubs attempts to back the former Kings’ prospect.
The situation is further complicated by Garret Sparks strong play, with the 22-year old posting a 91.62% save percentage through his first 7 NHL games.
The Illinois native has certainly looked the part during his brief opportunities with the Maple Leafs, though there needs to be some caution applied at this point.
Sparks is not the first goaltender to make a bright start to his NHL career, but the more he plays the more opposing teams learn about him and the pronounced any flaws will become. This is not to say Sparks is not a long term NHL goaltender, but it’s simply too early to say he is the clubs future #1.
If he is unable to adapt when his flaws are exposed, he won’t last very long at the top.
Again, Sparks might be ok. But history suggests remaining patient pays off and Toronto needs to exercise some caution when it comes to Sparks and Antonie Bibeau before they eject Bernier and throw the two young goaltenders in at the deep end. They need time to develop.
Fortunately the current Maple Leafs management group seems to be applying a little more thought when it comes to such things.
But that doesn’t change the short to mid term need to get a handle on things, lest a significant hole at the back derail everything the organisation has worked so hard for in the past twelve months.
If Goaltending Coach Steven Briere cannot get Bernier back on track, the Maple Leafs may need to look elsewhere.
Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, with Toronto boasting both the cap space and the picks and prospects to be able to make a move appealing to both the Dane and the Ducks.
Andersen’s ceiling may not be as high as Bernier’s, but he has arguably shown greater consistency; and sometimes it is better to know what you’re getting every night rather than hoping you’ll get something good.
Were the club to give Bernier another year to truly re-capture the starting role, then other options may open up should he fail – Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop may enter the conversation, with the giant goaltender an unrestricted free agent and Andrei Vasilevskiy potentially poised to become Lightning number one.
But the goaltending market remains tough. There are plenty of short term success stories – Andrew Hammond in Ottawa for example – but finding someone able to perform over the long run is much more difficult.
Perhaps this comes back to the relative difficulty clubs have in scouting goaltenders, often referring to the views of those who use terms like ‘goalies are voodoo’ rather than seeking out those better versed in the position.
But whether they cash in on some of their assets via the trade market, or look to make a splash during free agency, the Maple Leafs will need to figure things out in the coming 12 months if their hopes of bringing a Cup to Toronto are to blossom – because gambling on goaltending is no way to achieve success.