TORONTO (Dec. 17) — There are two questions that need be asked of Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock:
1. Under what pretext could Jonathan Bernier be granted another start in goal?
2. Why did he allow James Reimer to face the Minnesota Wild two weeks ago tonight?
In our hockey climate of evasion and chicanery; upper and lower–body injuries, even a relative straight–shooter like Babcock would circumvent the former… and thoroughly disdain the latter. But, someone has to offer clarity about Bernier’s dwindling status with the club, and — minimally — a reasonable alibi for so–hastily deploying Reimer with a freshly–pulled groin. Babcock’s avowal in the moments after Tuesday night’s melt–down against Tampa Bay that he would “look at the film” to appraise Bernier was subterfuge. He knew what he witnessed — again — from the doddering netminder and would rather turn to 91–year–old Johnny Bower for tonight’s assignment against San Jose (it’ll be 22–year–old Garret Sparks).
As for Reimer, who performed splendidly throughout November, a quasi panic–move has shattered all the momentum. Groin injuries, particularly those incurred by a goaltender, do not heal in four or five days. They can, however, be exacerbated in a heart–beat. No medical wizardry is required to comprehend what may have happened to an already–damaged groin in this TV image from the game at St. Paul on Dec. 3.
Clearly, Babcock did not want this to happen. Nor need I explain to him that a groin yanked on Nov. 24 (when Reimer abruptly left practice), and not–yet healed on Dec. 2, can’t possibly be primed for maneuvering, Dec. 3, by a National Hockey League goalie. Groin injuries, by nature, aren’t acute, but notoriously chronic — settling and flaring, even after considerable rehabilitation. In today’s Toronto Sun (to site an example), it is stated that Babcock “thought [Reimer] was recovered from the groin issue only to have him re–aggravate it in the 1–0 loss at Minnesota.” Baloney. The Leafs coach was mortified by the shelling of Sparks in Winnipeg (a 6–1 defeat) and either lost temporary confidence in the rookie or abhorred the notion of dropping consecutive–night games. Given the fiercely–competitive Babcock, I’d put money on Door No. 2; thus the unseemly gamble that Reimer’s ailment had cured itself overnight.
As oft–noted in this corner, there is a glaring precedent. Randy Carlyle played an immeasurable role in the demise of the 2013–14 Maple Leafs by looking the other way so that Bernier could encounter his ex–teammates in Los Angeles. This occurred on Mar. 13, at the Staples Center, with Carlyle’s crew riding a 14–3–3 eruption and challenging for first place in the Northeast Division. Bernier, with a newly–strained groin, lasted 20 minutes before pulling himself in favor of Reimer. The Maple Leafs survived that night (prevailing, 3–2) and then lost eight consecutively, with Bernier either out of the line–up or playing hurt. Given that Bernier underwent a sports–hernia operation after the March/April collapse, maybe he would not have recovered at any point in the final month of the schedule. What we know — for certain — is that Carlyle acted recklessly by allowing Bernier to start against the Kings. A coach always makes the final call.
There is no playoff run to destroy this season. Nor will there be. As such, Babcock’s election to deploy Reimer at Minnesota could be perversely effective in the long run. For the Maple Leafs, 2015–16 is mostly about lottery balls. But, likely not to the extent that Babcock will choose to stomach Bernier at any point in the future. Methinks the coach has seen more than enough; that Bernier’s two–week “conditioning” dispatch to the American Hockey League was equal parts strategy and “get the guy out of my hair!”
Bernier has all the physical requirement to be a reliable stopper in the NHL. I’m told he’s a wonderful husband and father. Personally, I wish the young man only well. But, it ain’t gonna happen for him here. This city can swallow whole a Leafs player it chooses to isolate. The noisy eruption for every time Bernier stops a two–bouncer at 40 Bay St. will surge in volume. And, by extension, render him increasingly impotent between the pipes. A change of scenery is no longer theoretical for J.B. It is essential.
Only the “how to?” remains a mystery.