A lot of people deserve some level of blame for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ slow start, but after a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night – the team’s sixth straight loss – a lot of that blame became very focused on the goaltending.
That might not be entirely fair, considering the Leafs offered nothing in the way of goal support for their netminders, but here we are. Toronto will need to start weighing their options in goal and ask themselves three questions… Do we need to upgrade? At what cost? And to what end?
Bernier and Reimer
Simply put, they haven’t been good; there’s just no way to sugarcoat it. Bernier carries a .899 SV%, which ranks 30th amongst NHL goaltenders who have appeared in at least four games (that threshold set to try and weed out the backups). James Reimer sits at a .876 SV% and ranks 37th.
It is a bit odd though that, as a pair, Bernier and Reimer seem to fall apart during special teams situations. Toronto’s combined save percentage at even strength is .919, sitting 21st in the league – that’s not exactly good, but it’s not the absolute worst either. On the penalty kill, though, that save rate falls to .812 (27th in the NHL). On the powerplay… get this… a league-worst .714 SV%.
To put that into perspective, 13 teams in the league currently have a perfect save percentage while on the powerplay. Only Arizona and New Jersey have given up more shorthanded goals (four each, to Toronto’s two) and they still have a better save percentage in those situations.
Those numbers are bad, but that might also have something to do with the team in front of Bernier and Reimer. The Leafs aren’t a very skilled group and have been overwhelmed by a number of very good teams – two losses to Montreal, two more to Pittsburgh, one to the New York Rangers and another to Detroit. Toronto’s other losses against lesser opponents were either one goal games (4-3 against Arizona) or came in the shootout (losses to Ottawa and Buffalo).
So What Do You Do?
The Leafs might be kicking the tires on goaltending help, but it might be too early in the season to make a move. And before Toronto makes any moves, they need to ask themselves why they’re doing it?
Nobody ever expected much out of the Leafs this season, their front office included. Sure, Mike Babcock may want to his team to try and win every game, but I’m sure he knew just how difficult that would be as well. Toronto is in a transition year, and wins aren’t as important as teaching the younger of its roster players good habits to carry forward. You shouldn’t lose sleep if P.A. Parenteau doesn’t make any giant leaps forward this year, but you should be concerned that Morgan Rielly still develops as a player.
So if that’s the goal, why do you need good goaltending? It’s not fun to lose, but it isn’t likely or necessary to win this year either – and it’s certainly not necessary to make a drastic change just ten games into the season. The best thing Toronto could do is continue working with a Bernier/Reimer tandem and hope they both turn around their slow starts, and not waste assets on a patchwork solution. It’s not unrealistic to believe that the goaltending can improve, not to the point of being great, but to at least respectable.
After all, both Bernier and Reimer shouldn’t sit this far below not only the league average, but also their own career averages, for the entire season. This is the worst we’ve seen out of Bernier since he first debuted in 2007 – should we really believe that he can’t crawl closer to his career average .915 SV%? The same applies to Reimer, who’s far, far off his career average of .912 SV%.
If Not, Make it Count…
If Toronto did decide to try and solve their goaltending situation, though, they may as well go big. They would need to skip over that ugly “bring in a veteran to calm things down” phase and focus immediately on bringing in a young goaltender who can grow with the team as it (hopefully) improves over the next several years.
Do you call up the Anaheim Ducks, desperately looking to turn things around themselves, and offer up NHL-calibre talent in some sort of deal that brings John Gibson to Toronto? Or maybe you approach the Winnipeg Jets and try to pry Connor Hellebuyck away from them? Do the Tampa Bay Lightning want to try and put themselves over the top and use Andrei Vasilevskiy to do it? None of them would guarantee immediate improvement, but any of them should help stabilize the crease for many years to come.
These are all very unlikely scenarios, but it would take that kind of unconventional, big impact deal to convince me to make a move now. Unless you can replace Bernier and/or Reimer with an emerging star talent, it’s best to let the Leafs try and work through this.