By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 11) – It was difficult for me to sleep Thursday night as I felt my heart bleeding for Randy Carlyle. Poor guy. His general manager gets him what appears to be the undisputed, front-line goalie every Stanley Cup contender needs and he’s bitchin’ away left, right and center. Holy Vesa Toskala!
Look, we know the little game Randy is playing; it pre-dates his arrival as a rookie defenseman with the Leafs in 1976. Don’t tip your netminding plan one week into the schedule, lest you hurt some feelings. We also know he’s the luckiest SOB to stand behind the Toronto bench since Pat Quinn nearly a decade ago (Patrick: If you’re reading this, I never once called you an “SOB” back then… to your face). Not since the halcyon era of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour – circa 1998 to 2004 – have Leafs possessed a no-argument No. 1 between the pipes. Such a commodity landed in Carlyle’s lap on June 23 of this summer when David Nonis traded Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick to Los Angeles for Jonathan Bernier. Oh, the torture of it all, Randy.
MORE OR LESS THE EXPRESSION MAPLE LEAFS COACH RANDY CARLYLE WEARS WHEN BEING ASKED BY REPORTERS ABOUT HIS GOALTENDING SITUATION.
Bernier – No. 2 in L.A. only because of the other Jonathan – has been close to perfect in his early Maple Leaf moments and was absolutely flawless in a 4-0 rout of the Predators in Banjoville. It was a game that followed the quintessential Maple Leafs script: Let the goalie play save-your-ass for 35 minutes and then pull away – courtesy of top-end scoring. It happened with Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Steve Thomas and Alex Mogilny in the Cujo-Belfour days; and (somewhat less frequently) with Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark and Co. in the reign of Felix Potvin. Only once in the post-2005 lockout era – with current back-up James Reimer – did a similar blueprint evolve. Otherwise, it was a veritable wasteland between the pipes with an assortment of “saviors” that included Andrew Raycroft, Mikael Tellqvist, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Toskala, Scott Clemmensen, Martin Gerber, Justin Pogge, Cujo again (at the end of his career), Jonas Gustavsson, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Joey MacDonald, Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas (though Raycroft’s team-record-tying 37 wins in 2006-07 cannot be sneezed at).
Getting back to Bernier, it had me thinking about the last time Leafs traded for an authentic No. 1 stopper – hardly an exercise, to be honest, that should consume the better part of a day. Not with a team that hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup final since A Whiter Shade of Pale topped the charts. Counting backward, on less than two hands, Leaf front-liners in the post-1967 era are Bernier, Belfour, Joseph, Potvin, Mike Palmateer and Bernie Parent; sprinkled amid reasonable facsimiles Jacques Plante (at the end of his great career), Doug Favell, Wayne Thomas (for one season) and – ever so briefly – Grant Fuhr.
In the first group, Parent was the only netminder acquired by trade and it still ranks – nearly 43 years later – among the most brilliant moves by any Leafs’ GM. Jim Gregory heisted Parent from Philadelphia for his starter – Bruce Gamble – who back-stopped the Flyers for less than a season before a heart attack, suffered during a game in Vancouver, cut short his career. Parent could have ended the Leaf championship drought in the first decade, but Gregory had to watch in dismay as owner Harold Ballard – the skinflint – dared Parent and his agent to accept a boat-load of cash from the World Hockey Association. When Parent returned from the WHA after one season, he gave no thought to playing again for Ballard and was dealt back to Philadelphia, where he promptly won consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975.
Gregory, somehow, recovered from the ordeal.
Some of you may be thinking (and, not for the first time), “Berger’s lost it. He’s putting Bernier in the same class as Parent.” Well, not quite. Let’s give it a wee bit more time. That said, I see nothing but star potential in Bernier. If you watch him closely, he resembles Belfour in many ways: Calm in his positioning; rarely flailing with action hot around the crease; precise in taking away shooting angles, and very good at remembering to use the length his big goalie stick as a blocking mechanism along the ice. Though he is new to fans in this city, Bernier arrived here with some accomplishment, having won 29 games with Los Angeles after making his NHL debut as a 19-year-old in 2007-08. His up-to-date career save percentage is .917; his goals-against average 2.27, and his shutout-to-games played ratio – seven in 66 – is otherworldly.
Carlyle, for all his mock anger with reporters, has no reasonable alternative but to put Bernier in net – game after game after game – the way Boston does with Tuukka Rask; Chicago with Corey Crawford; L.A. with Jonathan Quick; Detroit with Jimmy Howard; the Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist, and any team lucky enough to have a Top 10 goalie in the NHL. If Randy is truly looking for an answer to the apparent goaltending conundrum, he merely has to check with his GM.
I guarantee there will be no ambivalence in the reply.
I RECEIVED AN EMAIL this week asking why I have “soured” on Reimer. It confused me because no such thought has entered my mind. Perception being reality, however, I felt obliged to respond.
Anyone familiar with this corner will know that I was completely sold on Reimer as a legitimate No. 1 goalie during the lockout-shortened schedule last year. And, with good reason. He was terrific for the Leafs and almost solely responsible for the three victories against Boston in the playoffs. In the end, however, my opinion was irrelevant. The only assessment that mattered belonged to Nonis and he clearly was not convinced Reimer could take Leafs to the next level. Otherwise, Bernier would still be in Los Angeles or – more than likely – playing elsewhere.
Having watched Bernier, though, I can understand why Nonis traded for him. He is an upgrade on Reimer. Not by leaps and bounds, but still an enhancement. As mentioned, I see Bernier as a Top 10 goalie in the NHL. And, not many in that group have an Achilles heel – a particular frailty – as with Reimer and his glove-side coverage on rising shots. I can guarantee that Bernier won’t play all season without allowing a crappy goal or two, but opponents aren’t likely to seize on any specific vulnerability. And that – to me – is what separates him from Reimer.
OCTOBER 11 ALWAYS RINGS AN HISTORIC BELL, as it was 46 years ago that a modern-day expansion team played its first game in the NHL. Pittsburgh Penguins made their debut at the old Civic Arena on Oct. 11, 1967 – losing 2-1 to Montreal. Jean Beliveau scored his 400th career goal for the Canadiens while Andy Bathgate counted the only Penguins goal, and first in team history. Pens wore their original home jersey: predominantly light blue with dark blue trim and the word PITTSBURGH sewn diagonally across the front. Goalies were Hank Bassen for Penguins; Rogie Vachon for Montreal. Photos from the game:
PLAYERS IN THE ABOVE PHOTO ARE HENRI RICHARD (16) AND GILLES TREMBLAY (21) FOR MONTREAL; VAL FONTEYNE (8), LEO BOIVIN (2) AND GOALIE HANK BASSEN FOR PITTSBURGH. IN THE PHOTO, BELOW, ROGIE VACHON FOILS PITTSBURGH SHOOTERS AB McDONALD (7) AND BOB DILLABOUGH (15) ON OCT. 11, 1967 AT CIVIC ARENA.
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