Sunday, 2 August 2015

He Deserved More

When it came to pass that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jonathan Bernier were more than $2 million apart before entering their five-hour arbitration session, it was expected that there may be a rift developing between the Leafs' starting goalie and the club. After all, a low-ball offer from the Maple Leafs says a lot about how they feel about their netminder. However, it turns out that the two sides just wanted to make their cases in front of each other as the two sides agreed on an $8.3-million, two-year deal hours before the arbitrator came back with a ruling on a one-year deal. While Bernier left a money on the table for a two-year deal, it's hard to argue against the fact that he'll earn every dime of that money over the next two seasons.

Based on the roster being cobbled together by the Leafs' front office, the 33.5 shots-per-game that the Leafs gave up last season might seem like a vacation for Bernier. When Mike Babcock warned everyone that things may get worse before they get better, Jonathan Bernier should have taken heed of that warning because his season may not go very well.

The Leafs, as it stands right now, will open with Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Reilly, and Stephane Robidas as their top-five defencemen, and could see Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin, or Scott Harrington crack the roster as the sixth rearguard. None of those names should be considered a stopper of NHL quality. While all of them bring different aspects to the game, the Leafs simply don't have an elite defenceman who can log 25 minutes of ice-time in all situations.

The Leafs will have you believe that Phaneuf is their all-star defenceman who can play in any situation, but anyone who watched Toronto games last season knows he's sorely lacking in a number of categories that elite defencemen easily fill. His 166 hits last season was 61 less than the previous season, and his blocked shots total dropped by 30. If compared to players like Niklas Kronwall or Shea Weber - physically-dominant offensive defencemen - Phaneuf's numbers fall way off from these players.

In saying that, Jonathan Bernier is going to see a lot of rubber this season unless there's an all-out commitment to defence by the Leafs so that they resemble the 1995 New Jersey Devils (hi Lou!). Mike Babcock uses a system that focuses on an excellent transition game, but he succeeds with defencemen who can move the puck to forwards who can flip the switch from defence to offence at a moment's notice. There aren't any players of a Datsyuk or Zetterberg calibre on this Leafs roster at this time, so expect to see a lot of pucks coughed up by the Leafs. And that means more shots against Bernier on the whole.

While I understand that Leafs aren't going to pull a Garth Snow and sign Bernier to a fifteen-year deal, the Leafs have now given Bernier the upper-hand in the next negotiation. They've asked Bernier to take less than what he feels he's worth to suffer through what could be two seasons of absolute hell for a goaltender. Bernier, for what it's worth, could turn out to really hone his skills with all the pucks he'll see over the next two seasons and make things difficult on the Leafs when his contract expires.

Of course, if Bernier's numbers balloon way off the averages he's posted in Toronto, there might be questions on his effectiveness as the Leafs starting goalie. That part will be up to Bernier to control, but it's hard to wonder how he'll keep his GAA near 2.79 and his save percentage around .917 with the crew being iced in front of him. You'd expect his goals-against-average to go up, but it's the save percentage that I'd focus on if I were looking at the results after two seasons. After all, you expect goals to be scored, but the number of shots allowed will determine how many are scored. If his save percentage hovers around his Toronto average of .917, you know he's still providing quality goaltending.

For a team that was 29th-overall in shots-against and 25th-overall in goals-against-per-game, paying Bernier a little less for a couple of years of solid goaltending isn't a bad move. However, they may have to pony up a lot more dough in two year's time when Bernier decides he might want to look elsewhere than the rubber disc factory known as the Air Canada Centre.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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