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!
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.