Starting Jonathan Bernier: Leafs Have Little to Lose

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Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have plenty to look forward to in the near future. Their top two prospects, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, dominated the AHL and CHL respectively this season, the team’s coaching and management had a near perfect first year, and most importantly they own the first overall pick for the upcoming draft. With so much upside for this organization, one grey area that remains is their goaltending situation. As of now, the only proven goalie Toronto has is Jonathan Bernier, but even he isn’t trusted by his coach, let alone his fanbase. Despite his inconsistency over the past couple of seasons the Leafs have little to lose by starting Jonathan Bernier next season.

Leafs Have Little to Lose by Starting Jonathan Bernier

Bernier’s 2015 calendar year was one to forget. Over the whole year, Bernier carried an abysmal .899 save percentage with him through 48 games, which had him ranked 45th of 46 goalies in that timespan with a minimum of 1500 minutes played. Leafs fans had every right to lose hope in the netminder who was acquired to give Toronto’s goaltending a one-two punch alongside James Reimer.

Keep in mind that a goalie’s save percentage will often fluctuate, that’s why it’s common for them to go on hot and cold streaks during the season. Bernier’s notorious cold spell lasted longer than many expected, but by the end of this season fans started to see him perform much closer to his true capabilities. Since the beginning of 2016, Bernier posted a respectable .921 save percentage in 21 starts.

Playing less than a third of the regular season may not be a significant sample size to predict what he will bring in October, but Bernier showed signs that he’s finding his groove again. Fans shouldn’t worry about a goalie’s short-term performance but rather concentrate on his career numbers. Bernier’s career save percentage is around .915, making him an average quality goaltender who has more to prove with just two seasons of 40 starts.

Even if Bernier bounces back to normal next season, there’s no telling if the Leafs brass would like to resign the goalie once he reaches UFA eligibility in 2017. Talks of Toronto trading him during this year’s off-season seem to be stirring in the GTA, but doing so eliminates management’s options when looking towards the expected expansion draft in 2017, where teams can only protect one goalie. This allows the Leafs to look at expected unprotected goalies before the deadline if they decide to move on from Bernier.

Aside from the expansion draft, something simple like free agency is another option Toronto can easily pursue if Bernier doesn’t their plans. Currently, the list of goalies who are set to hit free agency in 2017 has a decent amount of capable starters, such as Ben BishopRyan MillerSteve Mason, and Brian Elliott. The list may not be exciting to typical hockey fans, but they have proven they are able to handle the starting position.

For the Leafs, long-term starting goalies should be a priority through development. If Bernier is going to be replaced after his contract is up, by no means should a long-term replacement be immediately fought for by Lou Lameriello and his band of merry men. Toronto is currently in a rebuild, so there’s no point in finding a goalie that fits a championship team but is stuck on a non-contending team. Sorry, Cory Schneider.

Keeping Bernier for one more season is a low-risk, high reward situation. The best case scenario is he gets his groove back like it’s 2013-14 again and steals a few wins for Toronto. At the very worst, he struggles to get out of his slump and is put back in Mike Babcock’s doghouse while the Leafs continue to rebuild and develop their young players. Team expectations are quite low at this point in time, and experimenting with Bernier’s last possible year won’t do much damage to the team in the long run.

 

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