Breaking Down Toronto’s Goaltending Depth

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that, in theory, loves to complain about their goaltending controversies. 

Last season, Chris Gibson and Antoine Bibeau ousted former top-ranked prospect Garret Sparks from his role with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, and that created a minor league controversy (oh my gawdddd, is Sparks no longer a prospect we should care about? Who gets the NHL next year, Gibson or Bibeau? WHAT HAPPENS NOW THAT SPARKS LOOKS GREAT AGAIN?!?)

Then, there’s *literally* always controversy between the team’s actual NHL depth. I chalk it up to distrust for any player that Dave Nonis has ever kept on a roster, since all of the management that’s come before him did weird stuff and he did weirder stuff and once the team traded Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. 

This year, though, the depth is pretty straight-forward and set. It’s a rebuild year, but goaltending isn’t a race; so what you see is what you should learn to love (and learn how to identify)

I’ve broken down two guys from each of the team’s three systems; the NHL, the AHL, and the ECHL. I’ve given upside, what to expect, and a bit of a technical breakdown – read it, learn it, and embrace your goalies! 

#GoaliesArePeopleToo. 

Starter: Jonathan Bernier

There’s a lot to like about the technical aspects of Jonathan Bernier’s game – whether you love him or hate him for the Leafs, that’s a largely undisputed fact in the goaltending community. 

Look. Personally, I’m not a big fan of pure butterfly goaltending. I never was when I was first getting into the real breakdown of goaltending scouting and analysis, because I just don’t play a very good butterfly game – but since, I’ve discovered that there are a lot of risks to butterfly that can place limitations on the way a goaltender plays and how healthy he can remain over his career. 

Bernier is one of the shorter butterfly netminders, so he’s got a similar issue to guys like Viktor Fasth; in order to play a butterfly style at a shorter height, he has to make a choice in how he executes his plays. A shorter butterfly netminder can wait longer to drop and kick out, therefore preventing the exposure of the top of his net by making himself too short with a butterfly executed before a puck is released from a player’s blade; he can also drop into an early butterfly to prevent himself from dropping too quickly (which can injure easily) but leaves the top part of the net more exposed and can result in the need to scramble if a rebound lands on the opposition’s blade again. Fasth drops early; Bernier doesn’t but injures himself more frequently. 

Behind Toronto’s defense, I think that Bernier could thrive more than he has (and he hasn’t posted awful numbers over his career in the GTA, going from above average to simply league average last year) with some more structure and stability on the blue line. One observation about Bernier’s game, even last year, was that he was able to figure out his team’s weaknesses from night to night within the first five or so minutes; that meant some poorly allowed goals early on, but Bernier had to do a lot of on-the-fly modification to his game that the team should respect. 

If Toronto can fix some of those defensive inconsistencies, expect to see Bernier regress upwards again. If Toronto can’t do that, though, he’s still got an extremely consistent technique that’s going to serve the team well enough. 

There’s only so much a team can do when the defense isn’t playing well; sometimes, a club will still luck into the post-season, but a goaltender has to regress above his own career average play to make this happen. Bernier could do that, but he could also allow some easy goals; expect either to happen with the rebuild under way under Shanahan. 

Backup: James Reimer

A lot of you disagreed with… well, everything I said about James Reimer in the comment section on his player profile earlier last month. Leafs fans fall into two categories for Reimer: either he’s been given way too much credit for what’s clearly a game with a set ceiling, or he’s been underrated for a seven-game series that was blown through more than his own poor play. 

Reimer is a non-traditional goaltender who had very little formal training for a very long time, so we can chalk his success up to a lot of natural talent. He knows his own game pretty well for someone who was never given too much in the way of rigid instruction – although that’s as much a benefit as it is a setback in his game — and while there’s plenty of technical downside to the way that Reimer plays, he’s got a pretty clear comprehension of what those downsides are. 

The Leafs themselves are a poor defensive team (or at least, the numbers have suggested they are for the last few years). Where Bernier’s playing style works against him in the sense that it can hurt him much faster and he’s less likely to be able to rely solely on being big and athletic, Reimer’s game works against him behind the Leafs because he does have a limited upside. He’s a backup, that’s become pretty clear. 

That being said, there’s no reason to believe – especially based on how Reimer has played over the last few years – that Reimer isn’t a capable backup at the NHL level. The Leafs, defensively, could have done things to their goaltenders that the Oilers have now done to something like eight guys in the last two years; Reimer hasn’t allowed that, and that’s a testament to him. 

If he gets anywhere from 15-30 starts next year, it’s likely he’ll be successful. The only downside to having him as a backup right now is that he doesn’t seem to have bona fide starter upside, which means that Bernier needs to be ready to move on when either Bibeau or Sparks is ready to assume more starts in order to prevent a true backslide for the entire franchise. If Bernier stays in too long, the team will either have to trap a prospect in the system or trade them away; if Bernier wants to move on too early, Reimer doesn’t seem like a good bet to shoulder 50+ games a season. 

AHL: Antoine Bibeau, Garret Sparks

It’s hard to tell exactly who’s going to get the bigger share of the starts for the Toronto Marlies this season, because both Bibeau and Sparks have been making a case for why it should be them. 

Initially, Sparks was described as a butterfly goaltender – but as the 22 year old Illinois native described in his blog feature on the benefits of hybrid goaltending, the shift to a more modified usage of the traditional butterfly to incorporate a wider variety of playing styles has actually boosted his numbers and lowered his risk for injury. 

It’s clear that Sparks has a solid understanding of the game; his hockey IQ is off the charts, and that shows in his pretty seamless transition from one playing style to one that would help prolong his career. Not every player can look at the way they’ve developed leading up to being drafted in the NHL, decide that’s not conducive to success, and alter their game enough to get back on track; that Sparks could do that is a strong sign for the Leafs’ future in net. 

Bibeau, on the other hand, hasn’t needed to make any kind of resurgence; the former QMJHL standout has always been pretty solid. Four different teams in the major juniors is a pretty varied list for someone who’s only 21, but Bibeau’s numbers stayed fairly solid across the four teams — starting with the Lewiston MAINEiacs and ending with the Val d’Or Foreurs before heading to the Marlies. 

What Bibeau has over Sparks right now is more consistency — he’s never had a ‘drop-off’ season — and familiarity; the younger prospect spent last year with the Marlies and teams like to reward good play with continued starts. If Bibeau did nothing wrong last year, there’s no reason to believe he’ll have to concede his job with Toronto unless Sparks pushes him out of it. 

Sparks holds more structure and a clear understanding of how he views his own game as an advantage over Bibeau; that may be through no fault of the other netminder’s own, but it certainly helps to know exactly how Sparks is able to identify his own resurgence. It gives a sense of faith in his bounce-back that eliminates some of the ‘maybe his strong ECHL numbers were just voodoo!’ concerns that some may have; if he can maintain the roll he’s on in the AHL, it’s not impossible to believe that we’re only a year or two off from seeing Sparks at the NHL level on a more regular basis. 

Bibeau, on the other hand, looked like he’d be able to handle the NHL soon by last year; it’s not fair to say that Sparks *didn’t* look NHL ready (he was in the ECHL, which is a tough comparison), but Bibeau does hold that as an advantage. He’s got great athleticism and reaction timing; Sparks has good structure and mental readiness for the game. Both should get some work with Steve Briere this year; that’s also important. 

ECHL: Keegan Asmundson, Ryan Massa, Rob Madore

Ryan Massa is an interesting name to see added to Toronto’s system via the ECHL; he’s coming off a four-season career with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he backstopped a mediocre defense for Nebraska-Omaha and played a key role in the team’s sitting above a .500 for three of his four years on the club. 

Massa is a former student of Patrick Roy’s, so take that as you will. Some goaltenders thrive under Roy — Semyon Varlamov has certainly benefitted from having the former elite netminder as his head coach — while others, such as Arizona Coyotes prospect Louis Domingue, have been less than pleased with the way that the coach helped them develop mentally. 

Massa stands at 6 feet even and he’s 180 pounds, so don’t expect much in the way of size to influence his game. He was the first goaltender to backstop Nebraska-Omaha to a Frozen Four appearance, though, and Toronto’s ECHL affiliate has a new head coach whom I’ve always been very high on. Anthony Noreen did excellent things while with the Youngstown Phantoms; if he gives the Solar Bears some great structure to stand in front of Massa, this could be a name we see move up in the depth chart in time. 

Keegan Asmundson is a name I’m less familiar with, but he’s coming off an excellent season with the South Carolina Stingrays. A failed ATO with the AHL’s Hershey Bears this off-season resulted in his inking with the Solar Bears, though, and seeing that AHL clubs were interested in the 25 year old’s services is intriguing. 

I don’t know if I would give, just from the grapevine, as much upside to Asmundson as I would to Massa — but he’s got the potential to see a call-up to the AHL if he’s needed, and there’s always room to steal some games at that level. He’s 6 foot 5 and 225 pounds, so the polar opposite of Massa; it’ll be interesting to see how the two newcomers fit into Orlando’s system next year. They’ll be without 2014-2015 starter Sparks, so someone will need to step up and take the plate. 

After the two rookies, though, there’s still one more player to look at, though – that’s Rob Madore, who’s on a two way deal with the Toronto Marlies. We can expect him to see more time in the ECHL, but he’s met with reasonable success at both the ECHL and AHL level; where he’s needed is where we’ll probably see him. For now, I’ll categorize him as an ECHL piece and we can go from there. 

Madore is the first player in Kelly Cup history (for those who don’t do minor league, that’s the ECHL championship) to be named MVP as a member of the losing team. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native stands at 5 foot 11, spent four years at the University of Vermont, and has pretty reasonable stats when you glance over his extensive minor league resume. 

Don’t expect Madore to be pushing to move up in the depth chart too much, but expect him to be a great veteran to have around the young guys and get the two newcomers adjusted to playing the pro game. He could easily start out the year as Orlando’s starter, but there’s room for him to move up and down the depth chart where he’s needed. 

  • MatsSundin#13

    I’m a little confused about your analysis of James Reimer, Cat. In your opinion, was his success in 2012-13 attributed to a fluke, or have opponents simply figured out his game?

    With little in the way of quantitative analysis for goaltenders, I can’t really point to much evidence here, but I don’t buy the concept of Reimer having a set ceiling that, say, Bernier wouldn’t have.

    This is a narrative that I’ve heard before, that Reimer has poor technique. As someone who worked teaching goalies at several levels, I certainly agree with you – Reimer doesn’t stop shots the conventional way. But would concede that maybe it’s too soon to pigeonhole the goaltenders into the starter/backup roles?

    Great article, by the way. Awesome to read people writing about goaltending depth.

    • Hey Alex!

      I hate to ever call goaltending success a ‘fluke’, per se. As someone who’s worked with goalies, I’m sure you know: unless we’re talking a few isolated saves here and there, goaltenders generally don’t post good numbers or make big saves just by accident. I think that Reimer’s athleticism and natural skill certainly helped him to post those 2012-2013 numbers.

      I guess that puts me in the other category – teams may have figured out his game. I’ve seen more and more skaters spending time studying how goaltenders execute certain saves (Justin Goldman mentioned how he once saw Joe Pavelski studying how certain goalies execute RVH to figure out how to better beat them) and Reimer does have a style that skaters may find beatable.

      I generally tend to find goaltenders with more structure easier to find success with (ie Bernier vs Reimer) because there’s a much easier to identify pattern to their game for the defense, which helps set up established D systems that may not work in front of a less conventional guy like Reimer. I don’t know how well this Leafs corps can execute any system, though, which could earn Reimer the starting gig if he’s able to outplay Bernier.

    • SEER

      Nice to see you give Reimer some kudos for once, Alex.. but let’s stop this “know it all” reference to who you really are, eh..?

      (you said)

      …”As someone who worked teaching goalies at several levels…”…,
      I certainly agree with you …”

      You stated your age two years ago in the old Leafs forum that closed.. You were 21, then… Now you try to persuade people in here to believe your nonsense again, about having all this goaltending-training experience..?

      You were in “high school”, claiming to be a writer.. and you also tried this BS on us in the old forum… Just letting everyone here know, that this kid likes to pretend a lot.. He also told us that he was a Pro, scout.. LOL! At least some people may not like my video posts.., but I don’t claim to be someone I am not..

  • Bill-Burford

    Great article but I am in no way convinced that Bernier is what you claim.I guess we’ll have to wait and see.He sure hasn’t impressed since he’s been here and has been basically protected by the Leafs playing at most times the softer teams.Take a close look at last years games he played.

    • Jeremy Ian

      I don’t think anyone would contest that Bernier and Reimer are pretty evenly split in terms of success, if you go back three seasons or so. Reimer had the better 12-13, Bernier the better 13-14, and neither were particularly effective.

      I think what a lot of Reimer fans correctly identified, though, was that throughout Nonis’ tenure as GM, there wasn’t really an open competition for the #1 role. That was Bernier from day one.

      So I think the opening day starter will reveal a lot of the thought process behind Babcock’s attitude towards the goaltenders – based solely on performance you’d think Reimer gets it, but we’ll have to see.

  • Jeremy Ian

    If I understand your argument right, it’s this: what Bernier and Reimer had in common was a miserable defensive structure. Structure and style are where they differ. So, in theory, a tighter system favors Bernier.

    But in the rocky few years to come, which of these guys has more stamina for transition? Here I am a little less clear on your argument. Bernier’s more vulnerable to being “read” by the attacking team and letting in softies. On the other hand, Reimer’s style prevents him from being a real starter.

    So, I am not sure where that leaves us — other than with more turbulence (which is, I think, what we get to look forward to).

  • Gary Empey

    The one thing you didn’t touch on is our goalies ability to play the puck. This aspect of goaltending seems to be getting more important each year. How do you rate our guys ?

  • Gary Empey

    An analogy would be the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff, especially the starters who struggled in the first few months of the season as they had a Dr. Stranglove in left field, one of the worst defensive short stops in the league in Jose Reyes and a rookie second baseman in Travis who has limited range. Well , well all of a sudden A.A. started to wheel and deal and brought in the best defensive short stop in the game in Tulo, made Goins a regular at second , shifted Pillar to center field where he made Pillarvian spinerama moves every game and started to play Smoak more at first. Presto suddenly the Jays had one of the best defensive teams in the league and the Jays starters ranked near the top in the second half including R.A. Dickey who only lost one game in the second half.

    The point I’m making both Reimer and Bernier will not succeed with pylons like Phaneuf, a player afraid of his own shadow in Gardiner and the other A.H.L. defenceman.

    When the leafs become a solid team defensively, surprise, surprise, surprise their goal tending will be considerably better. It is as simple as that.

  • SEER

    lol bernier hasn’t proven anything besides being a capable back up as well. i fail to see the difference between the two who have had similar career numbers… reimer was a starter longer than bernier (on a horrendous team) and still put up decent/great numbers while bernier put up medicore/good numbers behind the elite kings defence as a backup… i don’t think bernier is a starter and reimer is a back up. i think they’re mediocre goalies who could thrive behind elite teams similar to crawford/howard. they’re even to me. idk how you could basically say bernier hasn’t had much to work with behind this garbage defence and can improve while reimer is a bonafide back up… it makes no sense. they both played behind a horrendous defence so why does one get the benefit of the doubt when both put up similar career numbers? bernier has only proved he’s a good backup while reimer has shown that he needs more starts to be effective but has been decent as a starter. that’s it.

  • Bill-Burford

    I used to attend all the New Westminister Bruins games years ago.It was when Johnny Bower was a scout.Ernie McLean(excuse spelling) was always there as well.We became fairly friendly and I learned quite soon what Johnny’s views on goaltenders were.Bernier does not come close to what his views were at that time.The closest believe it or not is Riemer.

    The Leaf organization through Nonnis pampered Bernier giving him the starting position without ever earning it.They protected him last year by giving him just about all the starts against what was classed easier teams to play against to try and pad his stats.God forbid if Nonnis was proven wrong.Even Don commented about what was going on,on Coach’s Corner.Riemer’s stats still were almost as good with a terrible team.Let’s face it he was hung out to dry.

    If what you claim is right what do we do,bring back Alare(excuse spelling) to work with Bernier?We all know what happened there.Goaltenders dropping to their knees when players came over the blue line carrying the puck.This didn’t help Riemer’s stats either.He never was and never will be a butterfly goaltender.Even Damien Cox agreed with me there on the Toronto Stars blog.