For Leafs, a No. 1 Goalie Must Emerge

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 19) – Here is a bulletin: the Maple Leafs will go as far, this season, as goaltending permits.

In other news, the sun is frequently bright; Barack Obama wants to paddle Syria, and Canadians are burdened by taxes.

You get the picture, don’t you?

It can easily be argued that a hockey goalie is the most indispensable player in sport. Some will contend a football team is utterly dependent on a star quarterback, which is often the case. But, there are exceptions. Baltimore Ravens, for example, won the Super Bowl in January 2001 with a swarming, uncompromising defense and a pedestrian attack led by Trent Dilfer. Up here, Toronto Argonauts advanced to (and won) the 2004 Grey Cup propped by the CFL’s best defense and special teams. Hall of Fame quarterback Damon Allen struggled mightily through much of the regular season before coming alive in the playoffs against Montreal and British Columbia.

Success in baseball is largely predicated on pitching, yet almost always by committee. Of course, it helps to have a dominant starter and closer, but the effort of more than 15 players is required to pitch a team into the Major League playoffs. Though such mega-stars as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have risen far above the pack, basketball is a sport requiring strength at all five positions.

In hockey, a team simply cannot win without sparkling performance in goal – typically by the same man. There is no compensatory element; even a team with productive scorers and play-makers will fall short in the absence of strength between the pipes (to wit, Pittsburgh Penguins the past two playoff years). Yes, a star goaltender – if burdened by a club with imbalance and lack of depth – will ultimately fail, but no championship can be won without star goaltending.

Here in Toronto, Maple Leafs carry the longest Stanley Cup drought – 46 seasons – like an albatross. The grounds for such inadequacy have filled newspapers, magazines and books. Ownership (thrift spenders such as Harold Ballard and Steve Stavro); mis-management (the list is long), and injury (I contend Leafs could have won the 2002 Stanley Cup if Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker were healthy) are each factors. Standing above all else, however, is a general lack of stability among more than 60 men that have played goal for the team since 1967.

TORONTO’S LAST STRING OF CUP GLORY ARRIVED WITH THE EMERGENCE OF JOHNNY BOWER (ABOVE) AS A PERENNIAL GOALTENDING STUD IN THE NHL.

As Maple Leafs embark on the 2013-14 NHL season, I think it’s accurate to say the club has enough quality through the roster to thrive – and, perhaps, contend. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri provide lots of scoring punch; penalty killing – second-best in the league a year ago – should be further augmented by the addition of David Bolland; the defense corps (once Cody Franson re-signs and, possibly, with junior phenom Morgan Rielly) will be among the NHL’s quickest and youngest. That said, we know Leafs will not improve by any appreciable amount without unwavering assurance in goal.

Early in camp, it is not yet clear how the netminding picture will evolve; only that – with incumbent James Reimer and off-season acquisition Jonathan Bernier – Leafs have terrific depth at the position. But, how critical is such a factor? Perusing a list of Stanley Cup teams since the advent of the two-goalie system in the mid-1960’s indicates – almost unanimously – that a single, dominant player back-stops a champion.

The names of multiple Cup winners are prominent and legendary: Ken Dryden (Montreal); Bernie Parent (Philadelphia); Billy Smith (New York Islanders); Grant Fuhr (Edmonton); Mike Vernon (Calgary and Detroit); Tom Barrasso (Pittsburgh); Patrick Roy (Montreal and Colorado) and Martin Brodeur (New Jersey). All were so commanding that it requires a sharp hockey mind to remember their back-ups. 

Scant exceptions date to the early years of the two-goalie setup: Montreal winning Stanley Cups in 1966, 1968 and 1969 through the combined efforts of Gump Worsley and either Charlie Hodge or Rogie Vachon; Maple Leafs plundering the ’67 title behind Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk; Boston (and some guy named Orr) prevailing in 1970 and 1972 with Ed Johnston and Gerry Cheevers.

Otherwise, an unrivaled stud has manned the crease of a Stanley Cup-winner. Most would argue Leafs have had only four-such figures in the NHL’s post-expansion era: Bernie Parent, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, with Mike Palmateer on the fringe. Parent and Belfour were champions elsewhere while Potvin (for two years) and Joseph (for four) were nearly a match for those raising the mug. Problem is that Leafs were close to good enough beyond the crease on only two occasions: with Potvin in 1993 and Cujo in 2002. Had Toronto won the Cup in either year, it would not have been viewed a major upset.

The other 44 seasons were mostly a wasteland.

Can the 2013-14 campaign be different? Might it stand apart from others since 1967? In my view, it depends on Reimer or Bernier. Not both.

We’ve seen Reimer effectively handle the No. 1 role over long stretches… and into the Leafs’ first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. It would come as less than a shock were he to retain the starting job when the schedule begins, Oct. 1, at Montreal. In fact, only Reimer’s penchant to whiff on high, glove-hand shots has prevented more of an elite ranking. Though he was hardly the lone culprit, however, the Leafs Game 7 calamity in Boston last May (coughing up a 4-1 third-period lead and losing in overtime) convinced general manager David Nonis the position required upgrading. But, rather than pursuing mere support for Reimer, Nonis – many believe – went a step beyond.

Bernier filled in more than adequately for Los Angeles when Jonathan Quick struggled in the first month of the lockout-shortened 2013 schedule. In fact, some observers out west felt Bernier should have continued as L.A.’s starter; that he had wrested the No. 1 mantle from Quick. Those more familiar with Kings coach Darryl Sutter knew otherwise. Loyalty has forever been a hallmark of the Sutter hockey clan and Quick’s performance in the 2012 playoffs (he won the Conn Smythe Trophy) yielded Los Angeles its first Stanley Cup title. Under virtually no circumstance would Sutter deny Quick an opportunity to re-gain his No. 1 posture and that’s exactly what happened; Quick played remarkably well in leading Kings to the Western Conference championship round, in which Chicago prevailed.

It had long become clear, however, that Bernier possessed the ability of a No. 1 stopper – a role he could seek only if traded. Kings and Leafs had considered such a deal in the summer of 2012, when Brian Burke was still in charge of the Blue and White. Ultimately, the 113-day lockout interfered with all-such design and the Leafs stuck with Reimer and unproven Ben Scrivens. Having a long-term Collective Bargaining Agreement in place effectuated more concrete planning this off-season and Kings GM Dean Lombardi accepted (on June 23) a package – from Nonis – of Scrivens; promising winger Matt Frattin and Toronto’s second-round pick in either the 2014 or 2015 NHL draft (at Leafs’ discretion). It was hardly the trivial maneuver of a club seeking depth in goal. Rather, Nonis boldly made a play to revise the Leafs’ netminding structure.

Time will determine whether it happens. Some of the always-skittish Leaf rooters believe Bernier is a product of hype. I disagree. Hype is generated by peripheral forces: media; promotion departments; zealous ownership. No better example of such is the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays – a colossal bust after being touted a World Series contender. Commendation, on the other hand, is trustworthy and credible. It occurs when those closest to the scene – with first-hand experience – offer praise. Recognition of this sort for Bernier has come from such impeccable observers as former NHL goalies Ron Hextall and Bill Ranford, both of whom regularly watched the Laval, Que. native in L.A. (Hextall as assistant GM; Ranford, goaltending coach). They rank highest among those that believe Bernier can be a star in the NHL.

The purpose of this blog is to emphasize that someone had better grab the Toronto goaltending assignment… and not let go. Overwhelming evidence suggests one of Bernier or Reimer must prove worthy of playing 60 to 70 games at a mostly elite level before turning it up a notch in the spring. Otherwise, Leafs will remain a tantalizing pretender.

Depth in goal is wonderful.

Until you need it.

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