1. The slump
Goaltending is a position shrouded in mysticism by its very nature. The position is so specialized — and has been for years — that it recently led Ken Hitchcock, a man widely agreed to be a Smart Hockey Guy by the Nerds and the Game-Watchers alike, to say the following:
Hitch: “When I listen to the goalie coach & goalies I have no idea what they’re talking about. All I know is the puck doesn’t go in the net”
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) November 30, 2015
This is mostly true of the Blues right now. They’re allowing 2.5 goals per game since mid-November, which isn’t bad or good, but Jake Allen has a .926 save percentage for the season so there’s not a lot about which Hitchcock can really complain.
This is wholly untrue for the Toronto Maple Leafs. James Reimer is playing out of his mind, but Jonathan Bernier is now considered far and wide to be broken in some way. Among the people who feel he is broken? Jonathan Bernier.
There’s good reason for this. He has an .888 overall save percentage so far this year, and that’s a deeply bad number for someone who has played nine games. What that number also is, though, is “exceptionally far outside his career norms.” Bernier entered the season with a career .916 save percentage in all situations, and that’s on 5,000-plus shots. We had every reason to believe, therefore, that the sample was large enough to tell a story about what Bernier is, and that story said he was a pretty good goaltender.
So what went wrong?
2. Examining past performance
The “mysticism” part of the goaltending experience necessarily lends itself to pseudo-psychological and lingo-filled explanations, which may or may not get at the heart of the issue. Among the ideas floated, as compiled by nice boy James Mirtle, about why Bernier apparently stinks now:
- He’s had a heavier workload the last two seasons than at any other point in his career, and the defense in front of him was horrible, so now it’s wearing on him.
- He’s coming off two injuries in a relatively short period of time (January and earlier this year).
- He’s really sad about how mean Lou Lamoriello was during arbitration.
- He’s “very casual about his movements. No reads at all. Very sloppy,” according to a former NHL goalie.
- He’s getting actual competition from Reimer.
- He’s not very big.
- He’s got a new goalie coach.
Are any of these an issue? It’s tough to say. Can’t dismiss any of them, especially because so many are conveniently unprovable. But also you can’t say, “His reads used to be good but now they are bad.” I don’t know if they are! Ken Hitchcock doesn’t know if they are!
The only difference is the pucks are now going in as opposed to not-doing that before. Have a look, then, at what Bernier has done over the course of his career, and how the recent slump stacks up.
You’ll notice that his career save percentage in all situations cleaves pretty closely to his 5-on-5 save percentage. Makes sense that it would, but it’s taken a much bigger hit in the past nine games or so than ESsv%, due largely to Bernier’s inability to stop a puck at a decent rate on the PK.
3. Other slumps
What’s interesting, though, is that it’s not like this slump is unprecedented. In the last season or so, it’s happened twice. In his last 10 appearances with the Leafs, he’s .891 overall, and .900 at full strength. From Jan. 2 to Feb. 3, 2015, he went through a similarly rough stretch of .902 ES, and .892 overall. And from March 28 through Oct. 25, 2014, he was .913 at 5-on-5, but .899 overall.
Those are the only real stretches of absolute futility since he came to Toronto. And again, everyone was more than willing to chalk that up to, “The Leafs were garbage under Randy Carlyle.” But the question is whether those slumps were in any way comparable to the current one, and if so, why that would be the case.
The first thing to keep in mind when talking about this issue, though, is that one bad night on the PK can torch a goalie’s overall save percentage, even though this is an area where goaltenders don’t have much control. There are just going to necessarily be fewer SOG for a player, so giving up even 2 of 6 is going to make you look like crap because there are just fewer chances to get it right and correct your problems.
So for example, if Chicago comes to town and carves you up for three power play goals, you don’t often get a lot of, “This is on the netminder” talk, so to some extent I think you necessarily have to write off shorthanded save percentage as an issue when discussing what goes wrong for goalies. Indeed, even “low percentage” shots from the point have a greater chance of going in at 4-on-5 than they do at full strength for any number of reasons.
But at 5-on-5, you may start to see patterns develop because there are a roughly similar number of goals scored and way more shots taken. So let’s have a look at the three times Bernier’s play went pear-shaped for a 10-game stretch and see if we can determine the root of the problem.
4. What went wrong?
The first thing to keep in mind, though, is that it’s hard to compare the Leafs’ play under Randy Carlyle to that under Mike Babcock. Well, I mean, it’s easy because one was “demonstrably terrible” and the other is “admirable,” but you see the point. It could theoretically skew a goaltender’s numbers pretty badly.
But that would show up, to some extent, in terms of the quality of shots being faced. He’s clearly not stopping a large number of shots these days, but if he’s stopping high- and medium-quality shots just as effectively as he always has, but letting in more softies, that’s something worth thinking about critically.
So here’s the breakdown for the three streaks of sub-.900 hockey for Bernier since he arrived in Toronto:
Pretty clear explanations here: He’s below his career averages to significant extents for both low- and medium-quality, but Bernier it’s the medium ones that are annihilating him.
Medium-quality shots, as defined by War on Ice, are those from within the middle-green area seen here:
So while Bernier is stopping a lot near the crease, and has done okay from shots outside the faceoff circles and beyond the middle slot, it’s that neon green that’s killing him. So the question is, are the Leafs letting him face an inordinately high number of shots from that part of the ice? And the answer is that he sure isn’t.
As one might imagine, Bernier playing behind a Babcock team has a much earlier time than Bernier playing behind a Carlyle team. No surprise. So these are shots he probably should be stopping, and he’s facing fewer of them every night.
That’s a real problem.
5. Fixing it
The question is whether this is something that needs fixing. It’s nine games, the guy got hurt earlier this year, a bunch of things are new to him, and this really could just be a slump that he’d come out of naturally if he got some reps.
I don’t know why it matters that he’s giving up this many goals at the NHL level — and therefore needs an AHL assignment to, what, Rebuild His Confidence? — since the Leafs were going to be a garbage fire anyway. But if you’d rather play Reimer for obvious reasons and you can somehow get away with stuffing him in the AHL for a handful of games, why wouldn’t you do it?
Now when he comes back and, after maybe another rough game or three, he turns it around and starts playing like his old self again, everyone involved can feel good about their role in Getting Bernier Back On Track. And then they can trade him at the deadline.