Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking back at some of the more regular members of the Toronto Marlies, how they fared this season, and what could reasonably expect from them moving forward. Since one of the biggest stories of the playoffs was their goaltending situation, we’ll kick things off by looking at Antoine Bibeau, who was the man between the pipes down the stretch.
While he ended off the season as “the guy”, it took Bibeau some time to reach that point. He managed to get the starters nod on opening night, but outside of a single strong performance against Lehigh Valley on October 25th, he struggled heavily in his first two months. Bibeau finished October with a decidedly average 0.907 SV%, but after Garret Sparks stole the net for two weeks in early November, he responded in terrible fashion, allowing 22 goals in a 4 game, 127 shot stretch.
This left him at a 0.869 SV% going into December. There was a legitimate case to be made for Bibeau being the worst goaltender in the American Hockey League. As confidence was lost in him, he lost the opportunity to play his way out of it. He desperately needed an opportunity to take the reins once again, and when goalies above started getting injured and Sparks was brought in in relief, it ended up becoming that.
After Jonathan Bernier’s infamous conditioning stint was done, Bibeau never had more than two consecutive games off. Even that only happened four times; most of the time, he was either splitting starts or getting multi-game looks. While he never really caught fire for more than two or three starts in a row, he ended up finishing up with a 0.915 save percentage from December on, carrying him to 0.909 for the year.
For his efforts, Bibeau was rewarded with the lion’s share of the playoff starts, opening up the festivities in 12 of Toronto’s 15 games. He was particularly excellent to start the Albany series, something that many expected given his history against the team, but things came apart as the playoffs progressed. Bibeau started six of Toronto’s final seven games, but only one of those appearances saw him put up a save percentage above 0.900; an 18 save shutout in Game 4 against Hershey.
Quite honestly, you never know what you’re going to get with Bibeau. To say that his mindset appears to be inconsistent is an understatement, but oddly enough, it happens more on a game-by-game basis rather than an in-the-moment basis.
Bibeau isn’t prone to falling apart midway through a game, or starting slow and shaking it off. What you start with is what you get, which usually means that he’ll either pull off a 40-save shutout or let five or six goals past himself. In terms of actual player traits, I’ve noticed that he’s also not very good at managing scrambles, which, interestingly, has worked in his favour. Bibeau has been praised by everybody from the coaching staff to the media to the fanbase for his ability to “battle” and dig himself out of holes, but at the same time, most of his multi-safe flurries come from not being able to smother a puck or control a rebound. It’s entertaining to watch, but it’s less amusing when it leads to a goal.
It’s really one of the biggest conundrums; peak Bibeau is an absurdly entertaining goaltender that dominates games. Off-day Bibeau is painful to watch and takes points away from you. The latter is starting to fade away as he works more with goaltending coach Piero Greco on fundamental play, something that he acknowledged. “He was great for me,” Bibeau said during locker room cleanout day this week. “When my game wasn’t going really good, we took some time to talk and go back to the basics. He’s one of the key parts of our team.”
The Box Scores
What’s particularly worrisome about Bibeau is that there was never a truly extended stretch of dominance. Typically, when you’re looking at a goaltender that you’d like to graduate to the NHL, you want them to vastly exceed the average of their development league for a long period of time and come out ahead of that curve at the end of the year. Bibeau’s full regular season and playoff save percentage of 0.907 is nearly right on the line for average, and even when you give him the benefit of a rolling average to shake off the past, he didn’t quite go on tears for very long.
Bibeau’s peak stretches were in Mid December and Early April. The former was probably the most skill-displaying of the bunch; he had a stretch of five games in a row where he posted a 0.920 or above, his dips weren’t low, and two monster performances against Utica and Grand Rapids topped those numbers up. He actually kept a run of solid performances going all the way into the end of February, which gave a lot of hope. But the wheels eventually fell off. The latter involved a spike boosted by a stretch of seven games that involved two shutouts and two one-goal results; fun to watch, but something that anyone could tell wasn’t lasting.
As far as patterns go, Bibeau has his highest save percentages when he faces more shots on goal (I presume a connection to the ‘battling’ can be found here), and when he has less time off. Bibeau’s numbers were well above the curve in appearances where he only had 2 or 3 off days. In a league with a lot of weekend matchups, that’s a difficult sell but also gives him a strong case in situations like road trips and, yes, the playoffs.
It seems that his best performances also come immediately following a good, but not great night. His save percentage after games in the 0.910-0.929 range is a 0.931, by far his best bounce back. He doesn’t improve a ton after bad nights and tends to get chased after a dominant (0.950+ or shutout) performance, falling below the 0.900 in the games that follow.
Consistency, as mentioned, might be Bibeau’s biggest issue. 31% of his starts saw him post a save percentage of 0.889 or worse, and a shade under half were below 0.909. Most games see Bibeau face 20-30 shots, with an average of 29.23 against per 60 minutes.
It’s very easy to romanticize the idea of Antoine Bibeau. He’s an intense French-Canadian goalie with a bit of Junior Hockey lore behind him, and he’s immensely fun to watch at his most erratic. With two full seasons of looks now behind him, though, it’s difficult to imagine him making the jump to the next level.
Putting him between the pipes seems to be a huge risk; if Toronto wasn’t the offensive juggernaut that they are, you may have seen a few of his decisions go the other way; 20% of his regular season appearances came on nights where he had a below league-average save percentage and still won, including a game where he allowed eight goals and Toronto scored nine.
Bibeau has one year left on his entry-level contract, which is perhaps his saving grace. The Leafs aren’t exactly in a position where they can afford to trade goaltending depth, seeing as the team currently consists of Jonathan Bernier, three pro prospects, and no drafted prospects. It seems that Bibeau has the body to deal with the grind of a season, but to have any chance at the next step, he needs to develop a consistent mindset and work on building up his fundamental techniques to the point where they’re second nature.