The 2013-14 season marked the first time since the 1989-90 campaign that no goalie played more than 65 games.

That was, of course, an Olympic year with a condensed schedule. While I expect we will get at least a few goalies playing 65+ games this season – Cory Schneider has started every game for NJ this season — this might be the start of a trend.

In 2011-12, 10 goalies played 65+ games. Four of them now have good young backups (Niemi-Stalock, Quick-Jones, Pavelec-Hutchinson, Price-Tokarski), Miikka Kiprusoff is out of the league, Cam Ward is being surpassed by his backup, and the remaining teams have second goalies they have invested in with Hiller (Ramo), Fleury (Greiss), Rinne (Hutton); the one exception is Dubnyk, who is the second goalie behind Mike Smith.

As was discussed last week in this space and by James Mirtle separately in the Globe and Mail, it essentially never makes sense to start a goalie two nights in a row, especially for a team with two productive goalies; the Leafs‘ duo has combined to give them the 12th best 5v5 save percentage to start this season, a year after finishing 7th in that category.

For the Leafs’ part, they play 17 back-to-back sets this season. Barring injury, that’s 34 games right there being split down the middle (they split all of their back-to-backs last season). That leaves 48 games to split between Bernier and Reimer instead of the 82 that is commonly referenced.

Both Bernier and Reimer were born in 1988 and drafted in 2006, and their resumes are not altogether that different in the NHL, although seemingly their pedigree and reputations are. Reimer has played in 147 games, playing 7,962 minutes and facing 4,412 shots with a .915 SV%. Bernier has played in 127 games, playing 7,089 minutes and facing 3,626 shots with a .918 SV%.

There really isn’t much between the two at this point, regardless of what their stylistic play may suggest to some viewers, or a lights-out shortened season dragging the Leafs to the playoffs may say to others.

Last year Bernier got hot and ran with it until getting injured (I thought he should have made Team Canada over Mike Smith). After their back-to-back this weekend, the Leafs have eight games between another set of back-to-backs. That is the longest stretch between a set of back-to-backs and is matched once more in January.

That means the schedule is still largely condensed; there is always a reason to turn to “the other guy” whoever that might be, and calls to give one of Bernier/Reimer ten straight starts to see if they can run with it are largely unrealistic.

Provided both goalies are healthy, each goalie already has 17 starts to their name right off the bat. Even if one plays 65% of the remaining 48 games, that would give one goalie an additional 31 starts and the other another 17; a 48-34 split. With the ebbs and flows of the season, neither goalie owning an NHL resume head and shoulders above the other, neither making 55-plus-game-starter money, plenty of back-to-backs and a compressed schedule overall, that should ensure both goalies will see a decent chunk of games.

Last season Bernier started 49 games, Reimer started 32, and Drew MacIntyre started one. We are probably looking at something similar happen again, with the gap in games played between Reimer and Bernier perhaps winding up even smaller.

The talk in Toronto is always about who is the starter, who is the guy and why isn’t he playing all the time, but ultimately both Bernier and Reimer are needed to succeed. The question is how can they bring out the best in both at the same time?

Notes

  • It is extremely early, but check out the shots per game the Leafs top 7 D are putting up this season compared to last:

    Edit
    2013-14 Shots/game 2014-15 Shots/game
    Phaneuf 1.8 Phaneuf 2
    Franson 1.5 Franson 2
    Gardiner 1.7 Gardiner 0.8
    Rielly 1.3 Rielly 2.4
    Gunnarsson 0.6 Polak 1.3
    Ranger 1.1 Robidas 0.6
    Gleason 0.7 Percy 1.5
    Average 1.4 Average 1.7
  • A multitude of factors go into that increase:

    1. Gunnarsson not on the top pairing helps the bottom line in and of itself. Add Franson to Phaneuf and both stand to benefit from it because of Franson’s ability to get shots through and move the puck.
    2. The Leafs have improved at cycling and creating zone time, and while they aren’t where they need to be just yet, any improvement stands to help the D funnel pucks to the net.
    3. The D is more mobile than last season, with Polak showing a surprising flare for joining the rush and pinching that Gleason did not. There’s also no Gunnarsson playing with an apparent torn labrum (instead an old Robidas trying to recover from a broken leg), and a youthful Stuart Percy in the place of Paul Ranger, who was trying to make a comeback in the NHL after an extended stint out of hockey altogether.

  • Both Phaneuf and Rielly are in the top 30 for shots on goal by defensemen, by the way. Last season, the top 30 shot producers among defensemen, of which the Leafs had none, averaged 42 points; the full season before that they averaged 38. Dion Phaneuf was eighth among D-men in shots on goal that season and had a 44-point season. When a team consistently generates shots on net, goals like the one Clarkson scored off the Rielly shot are going to start happening with more frequency.

  • That game on the whole was a pretty good case for “throw pucks to the net and good things will happen.” On top of the aforementioned goal, Holland and JVR’s goals were each off of weak and innocent shots.
  • Gardiner has had a slow start this season, being healthy scratched, playing 13 games, and putting up only 10 SOG and three points. This is beginning to be a trend. Look at what has happened in his full seasons in the first half compared to what happens at the start of January in each season:

    Edit
    Gardiner GP Points SOG
    Oct. 2011 – Dec. 2011 35 9 34
    Jan. 2012 – April 2012 40 21 45
    Oct. 2013 – Dec. 2014 40 11 60
    Jan. 2014 – Apr. 2014 40 19 76

  • Last note on the defense: The Leafs put a lot of emphasis on handedness this summer, so I was a little surprised to see Gardiner-Phaneuf on at the end of the game against Arizona with the goalie pulled. The offensive zone is chaotic with 11 players inside it and the game on the line, and having a lefty on the right point makes it really difficult on that player to keep pucks in. What happened, of course? The puck rang around to Phaneuf, he was pressured on his wrong side, and he failed to keep it in. Game over. I will be keeping an eye out to see what they do when confronted with the same situation next time around.
  • Over the weekend, Nazem Kadri averaged a 37% zone start, the lowest among centers in the top 9 in both games. That is a new development from the beginning of the season, when Kadri was getting fed offensive zone starts with Lupul and later with Phil Kessel. At the beginning of the season, Bozak was handling a heavy load of the defensive zone starts, especially when playing with JVR and Clarkson. Over the weekend, Bozak was 57% against Ottawa and 44% against the Rangers (which is slightly skewed because of all the defensive zone draws he took at the end of the game; JVR was at 50% and Kessel was at 57%).
  • Building off of that, it appears the Leafs are attempting to zone match their forwards as opposed to line matching (excluding the fourth line, of course). The defensemen are still getting more direct match-ups with the top pairing soaking up the difficult minutes by and large, while the Gardiner-Robidas pairing is getting sheltered.
  • The power play did not score against Ottawa on three opportunities, but the puck movement was excellent and it was arguably the best the two units have looked all season (JVR hit a post on an open net and Kessel got robbed by Lehner on a reach-back paddle save). The dynamics of both units have drastically shifted with the swapping of Gardiner and Phaneuf, giving each power play group both a puck mover and a shooter. Believe in this process because the puck movement is crisper, the zone time was excellent, and the opportunities ample. The goals will come. Ottawa has the tenth ranked PK in the league so far, so they weren’t up against a bad unit.

Quotes

Years ago, when it came out that Ron Wilson did not personally tell players like Brett Lebda that he was getting healthy scratched, he got ran through the grader in the media. I was surprised there was no real reaction to this strange way of managing people, too.

“I’m going to do the worst interview of all time,” Lowry said. “Watch this.” And then he did: a resentful series of “Hm-mms” and blank stares… Still, you have to admire him. Lowry’s commitment to being the best extends even to things he’s trying to do really poorly.
– Cathal Kelly, Toronto Star

I know this is a basketball quote in a hockey blog, but I wonder what would happen if Dion Phaneuf did this? Or Nazem Kadri? Or Phil Kessel?

“He made a difference in the end & when it counted”
– Randy Carlyle on Jake Gardiner’s night against the Rangers

I thought this was a nice gesture from Carlyle in trying to extend a bit of an olive branch to Gardiner and build up some confidence. He is clearly lacking it right now.

“Possession has become the stat of the millennium, but in the opinion of the authors, it is abused and misused. From Spain to Barcelona to the local under-10 team, they say, the more important metric is managing turnovers. And the most damaging turnovers occur in a team’s defensive third of the field.”
– Jack Bell, NY Times, on possession in soccer [link]

This quote is a little dated and about a different sport, but I think there is value in looking at discoveries in other sports and applying them to hockey. The neutral zone is where the game is really decided, and you understand that best when you are tracking entries and exits as I am. The Leafs are still at their best when they are playing wide open hockey, as they did against Colorado, New York, and Ottawa. They opened the ice up and gladly exchanged opportunities, but they now at least have a wrinkle of cycling and puck possession in their game. Ultimately, though, the top teams generally speaking do not trade chances in a wide open style of play; they suffocate the game a bit and manage the puck and tempo of the game effectively.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think I was about to say I would put Santorelli back to center, even if it is on L4, just to try and actually build four lines, but I thought the Smith-Carrick-Leivo unit showed some spark and would like to see the experiment continue if Winnik does not return for the game against Boston.
  2. I think, if Winnik does return, I would put him right back in the top six, taking Panik’s spot. If he’s back, that means he’s 100% and against Boston the Leafs can’t afford to play a better player down the line-up just because Panik has performed decently in his absence. It is a bit of a raw deal for Panik, but it is also the reality of the business. Boston is still a top flight team and the Leafs will need all the help they can get.
  3. I think the Leafs need to be careful with Stuart Percy. I believe there is some value in bringing him on a road trip and getting his feet wet with the experience — being around the team and all that — but eventually he needs to play games consistently. The Marlies have played four games already this month while the Leafs have played 5; Percy has played in two. It is something to be cognizant of in the big picture moving forward.
  4. I think, looking at the schedule this week where the Leafs play Boston then Pittsburgh and Buffalo back-to-back, I would go Reimer-Reimer-Bernier. Reimer is 5-5-1 with a .921sv% against Boston, and he’s even better versus the Pens with a 6-0-2 record and .931sv% in his career. That seems like a no-brainer, especially when Bernier does not have even a .900sv% against either opponent. He can take the Buffalo game Saturday, although the Leafs might not be happy that he would have a week off between games.
  5. I think there is a lot of value in keeping Carrick up with the team even if he is not playing that much, as long as he sticks at center. The Leafs have been devoid of center depth for the better part of the last decade, and bringing along Carrick, Holland, and even Kadri still will pay off down the road. This is the best Kadri has ever played as a Leaf, for the record. He does not get pushed off pucks any more, he is beginning to handle tough zone starts and still producing, he was excellent with Kessel, and anyone that has been on his line has suddenly produced.

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