The much-maligned Jonathan Bernier got his first win of the season – his first win since 05 April of this year – last night against the Los Angeles Kings. Yes, it had to come sometime and yes, the Kings were at the end of a lengthy road trip but hey, a victory – and a shutout victory, at that – against one of the top teams in the NHL is definitely something to be proud of. Bernier is fresh off a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League. Since returning to the Leafs, he has had one poor game, one adequate game and, most recently, a great game against his former team, including an outstanding pad stop on sniper Marian Gaborik.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Bernier hasn’t had an easy run in Toronto. In fact, the story of his entire career seems to be one of struggle and setbacks.
At the 2008 World Juniors, Bernier was selected as one of the goalies for Canada’s entry, splitting duties throughout the Preliminary Round with Steve Mason. Despite having the tougher draw, Bernier, with a 44-save shutout over the Czechs and a 4-3 loss to Sweden, was passed over in favour of the 2-0 Mason, who faced only 38 shots combined over two games against Slovakia and Denmark, stopping 37 of them. Despite Mason’s shaky play in Canada’s QuarterFinal win over Finland, Bernier was again passed over for the SemiFinal. Mason won that game, too, before leading Canada to the gold medal over Team Sweden. Despite his team’s success, Bernier was vocal in his displeasure, both during and after the tournament, at having not been given the same opportunities as Mason. Mason was, admittedly, the better puckhandling goaltender of the two, which Canada’s coaches might have felt would benefit them on the international-sized ice surface – the 2008 tournament was played in the Czech Republic. Or, perhaps Bernier’s loss against Mason’s perfect record made all the difference. Who knows. Whatever the case, Bernier did not endear himself to the hockey community with his unhelpful, albeit understandable, attitude towards the situation.
Drafted by Los Angeles, Bernier was set up to take over the Kings’ goaltending throne, before being usurped by another prospect, Jonathan Quick. After the Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup, a trade request Bernier had originally made before that season’s trade deadline was made public. Despite the championship, Bernier still wanted to go somewhere to be closer to home and, crucially, somewhere where he could be a starter. Again, understandable, given that 2012 Conn Smythe winner Quick had firmly entrenched himself as the starter in LA. But again, more evidence that Bernier is, perhaps, a bit of a difficult personality.
On to Toronto where, in 2013-14, Bernier turned in a spectacular season of work in propping up a marginally competitive Maple Leafs team, winning 26 games and posting a .922 Save Percentage. Reality came crashing down when Bernier was injured and James Reimer could not maintain the bailing out of the Leafs’ perpetually sinking boat. And though 2014-15 was a miserable year all around for the Maple Leafs – Bernier included, he still managed a middling .912 Save Percentage. However, the fact remains that Bernier has never had success over a significant enough period of time for him to warrant consideration as an elite National Hockey League goaltender – and perhaps not long enough to even be considered a bona fide starter (rather than a good 1A or 1B option). And yet, Bernier still remains supremely self-confident, bordering on abrasively so, at times.
It is this self-confidence, and perhaps not an inherently difficult personality, that I contend is Bernier’s biggest strength – AND his biggest weakness. He has the calm, collected demeanour of Carey Price, rarely appearing rattled. However, much like Price early in his career, this zen model of goaltending has gotten Bernier into trouble. Coolness and calm are fine when things are going well but, when they are not, they lend themselves to accusations of uncaring and apathy. Countless players have been labelled as “lazy” or having a “bad attitude” because of their relaxed demeanour on the ice. As mentioned, Carey Price. Frank Mahovlich, anyone? How about Jaromir Jagr?
Bernier’s on-ice behaviour has not helped this perception. His cool, calm manner seems to be central to his playing style, often at the expense of focus and intensity. Certainly, bad goals go in on every goalie. But not at the frequency with which they go in on Bernier. I believe that much of the problem lies with his overly composed, casual nature in the net. How about the goal against the Carolina Hurricanes from a couple of years back? Or pre-Leafs Michael Grabner’s shorthanded tally? Of course, this article would not be complete without Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s legendary snipe. And, from this season, check out Derek Stepan’s entry.
Those goals were absolute stinkers, to be sure. But even goals that were not inexplicably awful illustrate my point: the first goal of the 2014-15 season Bernier allowed went in because his pad was not flush with the ice. A weak shot, right along the ice, from a horrible angle: definitely preventable. Or this one, also from last year: he has to seal that post; that just cannot go in. Or, how about this one: I understand standing up for a high shot but it is pretty clear that this one needed to be a butterfly save. Even he stopped it, where was that rebound going?
You get the point. To be sure, there are worse goaltenders than Jonathan Bernier in the NHL. And I am equally sure that I could scrounge up enough lowlights to make a pretty decent blooper reel for any National Hockey League ‘tender. However, Leafs fans know a thing or two about questionable goaltending. And no goaltender has made them do this more than Jonathan Bernier. Say what you will about James Reimer and his technique, no one ever questions his intensity and compete level. Bernier probably has more raw talent than Reimer. However, in terms of putting it all together on the ice and, ultimately, producing results? Reimer’s got him beat, hands-down.
The main bullet point of the presentation? Bernier gives up a lot of soft goals, and often looks as though he is not even trying. The cool, calm, collected manner he endeavours to project is often a detriment to his game, making him appear casual and apathetic. His self-confidence in himself and the way he plays might be grating on the teams on which he plays, and is definitely so on the fans he plays for. This last point is especially pertinent given that Leafs Nation is used to the self-deprecating, “Aww, shucks”, widely-recognised-all-around-good-guy attitude of tandem compadre, James Reimer.
I do not believe for a second that Jonathan Bernier does not try, or that he is in any way apathetic towards his team. I also do not believe he is the goalie he has shown himself to be in the past couple of years. However, to get out of this funk he is in, he needs to channel his zen into focus and his self-confidence into intensity. I believe that Jonathan Bernier should be a starting goaltender in the National Hockey League – and a darn good one, at that. It is up to him to find that consistency that has eluded him so far in his career. Being cool, calm and collected is only helpful until it isn’t. But, look at Carey Price: once one finds that balance between composure and focus, the sky is the limit.