TORONTO (July 9) — Given the still–memorable events of March 2014, it is perhaps fateful that Jonathan Bernier finds himself, once again, tending goal for Randy Carlyle — both now in Anaheim. The two men were complicit in a hugely underplayed calamity that led to the most recent nosedive of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, annihilated what was Bernier’s lone spate of brilliance with the hockey club.
After a near–historic 14–3–3 eruption between January 12 and March 10, 2014 (a span interrupted for 19 days by the Winter Olympics in Sochi), the Leafs were not only battling for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, but a top–four seeding and home–ice advantage in the opening round. It would have ended the club record of seven consecutive playoff misses in a full 82–game regular season, dating to 2005–06.
During a 3–1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center, Mar. 10, Bernier sustained a groin injury that wasn’t considered perilous at the time. With another match the following night in San Jose — and Carlyle planning to deploy back–up goalie James Reimer — Bernier looked forward to a couple of days rest before an initial encounter with his former team, the Los Angeles Kings (he’d been dealt by L.A. to Toronto the previous June). After a morning workout at the Staples Center on Mar. 13, however, it was clear that Bernier’s aching groin–muscle hadn’t improved. Given how valuable Bernier had become to the Blue and White — and the enormous strides the hockey club had made in the previous 21 games — Carlyle unquestionably should have held his No. 1 goalie back for at least one more night. If not longer.
Instead, the coach gave in to what must have been considerable prodding from Bernier, who understandably did not want to skip his first confrontation with the Kings. It proved to be a disastrous call.
YOU NEEDN’T BE NEITHER MALE NOR A GOALTENDING EXPERT TO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS FIRST–PERIOD MANEUVER BY JONATHAN BERNIER AT LOS ANGELES, MAR. 13, 2014, AGGRAVATED A GROIN INJURY AND SIDELINED THE NOW–FORMER LEAF FOR FIVE GAMES. HARRY HOW GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Bernier played 20 minutes before hobbling off the ice with a predictable exacerbation of his injury. Reimer held the fort in a 3–2 Toronto win, but it was the beginning of the end for Carlyle’s Leafs. With its No. 1 goalie shelved for the following five games, the club lost in regulation time to Washington, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Montreal and New Jersey in an eight–night span. Bernier returned — again prematurely — for a home game against St. Louis. He looked terribly (and justifiably) uncomfortable in a sixth consecutive defeat (5–3). Toronto then dropped another pair for an eight–game tailspin (as part of a 2–12–0 collapse) that destroyed its playoff aspiration. Bernier spent the 2014 off–season recovering from sports–hernia surgery.
And, frankly, it was a mess from which the goalie never rebounded during his time here.
Bernier had no confidence to start the 2014–15 schedule. The Maple Leafs lost at home to Montreal and Pittsburgh; in the latter game, fans began a season–long habit of throwing blue–and–white Toronto jerseys onto the ice. A 9–2 humiliation against Nashville at the Air Canada Centre — during which the audience mercilessly rode Bernier and the entire team — was followed by a victory, two nights later, over Tampa Bay. Instead of customarily raising their sticks to salute the home fans, the Leaf players skulked off the ice. It kindled a 48–hour gong show in the city and brought into focus a lack of character and leadership.
Captain Dion Phaneuf and running–mate Phil Kessel were particularly scorched by local media.
For the second; the final, and the most perplexing time in Bernier’s three Toronto seasons, his teammates found lightning in a bottle. The Leafs went 10–1–1 in a 12–game span — out–gunning the opposition 51–27 to soar atop the National Hockey League in goals. It created terribly–false hope. Beginning with a 4–1 loss at Carolina on December 18, Toronto would prevail in just 11 of its remaining 51 matches. Bernier startled another home crowd on Jan. 29 by whiffing on a 110–foot shot to begin the third period by Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman–Larsson. The most difficult and demoralizing season in the post–Harold Ballard era (after 1990) cost Carlyle and his interim coaching replacement, Peter Horachek, their jobs, as well as general manager David Nonis and a bevy of amateur and professional scouts.
Interim GM’s Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter all but donated Kessel’s gargantuan contract to Pittsburgh.
In came Mike Babcock to coach and Lou Lamoriello to generally manage.
The Maple Leafs immediately picked up where they had left off six months earlier — enduring the second–worst October in team history (1–7–2). It dropped the club’s record between Dec. 18, 2014 and Oct. 31, 2015 to an astonishing 12–42–7 in 61 games. If Bernier had Babcock’s confidence to begin with — and it’s debatable — there was nothing left after the calamitous start. Of course, Bernier was far from the lone culprit, though he continued to yield soft, untimely goals. Both he and team briefly came alive prior to the New Year (8–2–2 in 12 games), but, again, it was deceiving. By early–January, Babcock had turned to Reimer as his No. 1 goalie — and even deployed minor–leaguer Garret Sparks ahead of Bernier.
BERNIER’S FINAL START — AND APPEARANCE — FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS WAS A 4–3 OVERTIME VICTORY AT PHILADELPHIA ON APR. 7, 2016. NHL.COM
It was, therefore, no surprise when Lamoriello traded a pair of high draft picks to Anaheim for Danish–born netminder Frederik Andersen last month (June 20), and perhaps of even less curiosity when the GM unloaded the final year of Bernier’s contract on Friday. Carlyle and Anaheim acquired the Montreal native for a “conditional draft pick” — more–than–likely the final piece of the Andersen trade.
And so ended another abortive attempt by the Leafs to solidify their goaltending.
But, one that ostensibly went off the rails for good on that March 2014 night in Los Angeles.
RE–CAPPING THE NEW
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LOGOS…
THE LEAFS HOME (BLUE) AND AWAY UNIFORMS…
AND THE CLUB’S CENTENNIAL PATCH.
TWO OF THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE AND INFLUENTIAL SPORTING FIGURES OF THE 20th CENTURY DIED ONE WEEK APART LAST MONTH — BOXER MUHAMMAD ALI (June 3) AND “MR. HOCKEY”, GORDIE HOWE (June 10). SPORTS ILLUSTRATED AND TIME MAGAZINES HAVE ISSUED SPECIAL COMMEMORATIVE EDITIONS. AND, S.I. SOMEHOW CULLED A PHOTO OF HOWE DURING A NOVEMBER 1968 GAME AT OAKLAND AGAINST THE LOVABLE SEALS. THESE ITEMS ARE WORTH THE PURCHASE–PRICE.