At the start of the 2015-16 NHL season, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier was hoped to be another piece in the team’s optimistic new puzzle.
Through the 2014-15 season, the netminder, who was an acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings back in June of 2013, had put up a league-average 0.912 save percentage in all situations behind an abysmal Toronto roster. The club, who had started off the year flying high, went on one of the worst nosedives in recent NHL history as they went from the top of the Atlantic Division to nearly last in the league. They would ultimately finish 28th overall, earning them the fourth overall pick and dynamic winger Mitch Marner.
The year prior, Bernier had been good for a 0.922 save percentage in all situations. With new coach Mike Babcock hopefully working on the team’s possession capabilities – and therefore taking some of the pressure off of Bernier – his numbers were expected to bounce back up.
At the very least, fans assumed they would carry over from the year prior, and he would be a serviceable starter for a rebuilding club in their first year after scrapping the old guard.
Things went quite differently.
It’s hard to tell whether or not it was a direct byproduct of the strong-willed Babcock coming in to Toronto or not, but Bernier seemed to not just step out of his comfort zone in the crease — he flew out of it. His starts were disastrous, he couldn’t win games, and things were only seeming to get worse with every passing game.
An injury to backup James Reimer left the Leafs running with Bernier and recalled prospect Garret Sparks, who ultimately shouldered most of the starts until Reimer returned. Bernier was injured, then played on a conditioning stint in the AHL, a far cry from where fans expected the former tandem starter to be come midway through the 2015-16 campaign.
By the end of the year, Bernier had settled in a bit with Toronto and their new coaching style. He finished the year with a 0.908 unadjusted save percentage, even stopping 83 percent of the high-danger shots he faced (well within the league’s average numbers).
His numbers with the AHL’s Marlies had been even better, as he finished with three shutouts in four games and a .948 save percentage during his conditioning stint.
Still, it seemed the damage had been done. Fans no longer had faith in the Quebecois netminder, and it’s hard to imagine he had high aspirations of remaining in Toronto, either. He was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks over the summer in an indirect swap for Frederik Andersen, and his time with the Original Six club came to a decisive end.
Ducks fans were hesitant to see what the 28-year-old Bernier could do. Pundits worried that his mental game had been damaged beyond repair during his time with the Leafs. Enough goaltenders had walked away from tough rebuilding systems with permanently regressed numbers that this fear wasn’t unfounded. He had just 12 wins out of 38 appearances for Toronto when he returned to Southern California, and for a team looking to return once again to the playoffs, that wouldn’t be good enough.
Luckily, he seems to have bounced back nicely.
Through eight appearances for Anaheim already, Bernier hasn’t managed to earn a shutout just yet, but he’s gone 4-1-1 behind an always-strong Anaheim corps. He’s put up a 0.933 save percentage and allowed just 14 goals on 208 shots faced.
That’s a far cry from what was seen in Toronto — so what gives?
For starters, the most obvious answer is that nothing changed but Bernier’s scenery. A tough three years in Toronto, which saw three head coaches and zero playoff appearances, likely left the netminder frustrated and struggling to keep his head in the game.
Heading to Anaheim – where he not only had an optimistic set of predictions for the team offered heading in, but the lack of pressure to be the saviour and starter – gave him a chance to breathe. It gave him a chance to revisit his inner self, remind himself why he’s in the NHL and what it takes for him to perform well.
Looking at it from a technical standpoint, though, a Carlyle-coached Anaheim may simply be more suited to Bernier’s style than a Babcock-coached Toronto.
Sound crazy? It may not be.
Looking at goaltenders that play for Mike Babcock – including Andersen to start this season – the crease-keepers tend to play farther out, adding an extra dimension and an extra necessary push or two to their games in order to get into position.
For some goaltenders, playing out is where they feel most comfortable. Petr Mrazek in Detroit, for example, prefers the aggression that comes with completely leaving the blue paint throughout the game.
Bernier’s game had always been played farther in, though, so seeing him come out during the 2015-16 season may have been part of why he started to falter. He may have come out on Babcock’s directive, or he may have just seen that as a complementary style to the way Babcock deploys his defenders, but by coming back into his net this fall in Anaheim, he’s looking more comfortable and confident once again.
The biggest critics of Carlyle’s old-school coaching methods think the Ducks seeing regression isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. They’re waiting for the inevitable collapse, set — in their eyes — to come sooner rather than later.
When the Florida Panthers fired head coach George Gallant just earlier this week, though, it was believed that part of the reason was that the direction Florida wanted didn’t click with Gallant’s coaching style. For Bernier and Carlyle, the opposite may be true; even if his style is outdated and less predisposed to success, it could be exactly the right fit for Bernier.
Whatever the reasoning is, though, we’ve seen two good seasons in the past from Bernier behind a much worse Carlyle-coached roster, and it looks like we’re about to get that third good year.