The more I think about the Jonathan Bernier trade, the more I realize it was a straight-up judgment call by the Leafs‘ pro scouts (led by Steve Kasper, this staff includes Mike Penny, Tom Watt and Rob Cowie.. the trade also likely involved a consultation with amateur scout Mike Palmateer). While Bernier has an edge in pedigree based on his draft position, projecting goaltender development can be alchemy and neither Scrivens or Bernier have significant enough sample sizes to their name to really know what either could become. James Reimer’s biggest workload in a single season is 37 games, so despite what he proved in his first stint as a rookie and then again in the shortened season, there is still a fair amount of projection involved in definitively labeling Reimer a high end starter as well.
Whose ceiling would you say is higher? Bernier or Reimer?
Justin Goldman: I would say Bernier’s ceiling is higher. I know the stats don’t necessarily reflect this due to Bernier’s smaller sample size and Reimer’s better-than-expected season, but in terms of which goalie has the higher talent ceiling, I believe that is Bernier. This doesn’t answer the question of who will be more successful in a Leafs uniform next season, but rather who I feel is capable of being more talented at stopping the puck down the line. Remember, sheer talent isn’t everything — those hidden mental traits like work ethic go a long way in winning games. That being said, Bernier has made some great adjustments and tweaks to his style over the past few seasons in limited games played, while I feel like Reimer, who has also made some good adjustments, has more work to do. There’s no way to know how it will play out, so maybe the gap between the two will end up being smaller than I’ve been led to believe through my observations and research. Toronto wouldn’t have invested in a deal like this if they didn’t think Bernier could be as good as Reimer, or better. We’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out.
What do you make of the concerns about Bernier’s size?
JG: From my perspective, I’m not really worried. One of Bernier’s main strengths is his overall solid positional base for a smaller goalie. He doesn’t over-pursue a lot of shots and he does an excellent job of squaring up to pucks and playing big for his size. His net coverage is better than what you usually see from 5-11 or 6-0 guys. The ones that are thriving in the NHL (Enroth, Bachman) find ways to look and play big…and Bernier is arguably at the top of that list. He’s also made some key changes to play even bigger since his rookie season. This includes adjusting the placement of his glove, and his overall depth management as well. He is also very patient on his skates, to the point where he’ll even make some saves standing up. He also reads plays really well and is way stronger and more physically fit than most people realize. As long as he continues to exhibit those traits on a consistent basis, I think it’s only a matter of time before fans get over the “lack-of-size” concerns. That being said, size is tangible, so this is an area where Reimer has an advantage…and that’s how it always goes with a smaller goalie being compared to a guy 2-3″ taller.
Do you buy into the concerns about Reimer’s glove hand and rebound control? Is Bernier better in those areas?
JG: I’ve seen games where both goalies struggle and excel in both departments, but I don’t think Bernier’s glove hand is as much of an area of concern as it is for Reimer. Every goalie in the NHL will have their glove hand exposed at times because it’s getting harder and harder for guys to catch pucks cleanly. Look at Corey Crawford and what he had to deal with in the Stanley Cup Finals. I also think rebound control is one of those aspects of goaltending where it is as much situational as it is tactical. Sometimes it really just depends on the situation (shot and zone setup dynamics), and on what type of rhythm a goalie is in. Because Bernier has a smaller sample size, I can’t say if he’s legitimately better than Reimer. From my own observations, however, I do think Bernier is better at puck management. That skill includes not only just absorbing and placing initial shots, but how a goalie handles it around his crease area — knowing when to cover and freeze it, knowing when to jump-start a transition with a quick outlet pass, and knowing when to reach out and poke pucks away, or stay “home” and keep the ice sealed. In that regard, I would give the edge in this skill to Bernier. But Reimer, at least in my opinion, seemed to make improvements in that area this season.
You wrote for the Leafs Annual one summer that you didn’t think the Leafs did a particularly good job supporting Reimer, or Gustavsson before him. Does this help/push Reimer, or hurt him by generating a controversy in nets?
JG: How this trade affects Reimer is totally up to him. On the surface, I believe the move will only drive up the competition in goal, and that is almost always a positive in a coach’s and GM’s eyes. It may bother and rattle James at first, but there’s no changing it now, so he’ll have no other option than to work even harder this summer to get better. The trade may not translate to more wins and a second-round playoff berth for the Leafs next season, but it will force both guys to work harder, and the harder you work, the more likely you are to improve. I thought Ben Scrivens did a great job in a support/backup role this past season, but Bernier comes in with a “chip on his shoulder” and something to prove to the hockey world — that he can be a solid, steady, consistent starter. If there’s a controversy, that’s almost always fan and media generated, and an NHL goalie knows that they can only focus on what they can control. So regardless of what’s going on around them, or how they are perceived by the fans and portrayed by the media, I am confident they will both be better as a result of this move. It all comes down to who performs better in the opportunities they get. I like it for that sole purpose — we’re now going to see what both goalies are truly made of, and all the uncertainty surrounding their long-term upside will become more clear as they play more games.