They’re building statues in Toronto these days, to borrow a clever turn of phrase from former coach Ron Wilson.
Only, five games in, these ones are for a different netminder.
Sure, the comments were only coming from some of the more excitable members of the Leafs fan base, but as the young goalie turned aside shot after shot en route to a 4-0 shutout in Nashville on Thursday night, there was chatter about Jonathan Bernier being a Vezina-calibre goaltender who would have a .930 to .940 save percentage on the year.
Or even represent Canada at the Olympics in February.
Again, this is after five games, only four of which Bernier has appeared in.
It’s undeniable that Bernier has been good. With his 36-save night against the Predators, his save percentage in those four appearances climbed to .974 on the year, putting him first among goalies with more than one start.
His career save percentage, meanwhile, has already jumped from .912 up to .917 – another indication of just how little NHL experience he has coming in.
Given he was somewhat buried behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, his overall sample size is obviously small, both this season and in his career, but you can see why people are getting excited.
It’s not just the numbers, either. The way Bernier has stopped pucks, he looks so calm and collected, with many hitting him in the jersey and few turning into rebounds.
For a small goalie, he has also got a big glove hand.
Stylistically, he’s so much different than James Reimer that even his own teammates have noticed in practice, remarking how positionally sound he is.
Not that the organization is making any bold statements about Bernier taking over the No. 1 role yet.
“You guys are just waiting to anoint somebody as our No. 1 goalie,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle barked at reporters after the win. “This is our fifth game of the year. It’s kind of early guys.”
Early in Thursday’s game, Bernier had to be particularly sharp, as the Leafs were outshot 25-15 through two periods and didn’t have a whole lot of zone time against Nashville’s stingy defence.
Toronto’s play improved late in the middle frame, though, and opportunistic goals from Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were enough to guide them to their fourth win of the year.
There were some compelling storylines beyond Bernier – David Broll and Josh Leivo both played solid in depth roles in their NHL debuts, and Morgan Rielly calmly slid into a top four role on the blueline and picked up his first NHL point on a late power play – but goaltending is going to be the main topic of conversation for the foreseeable future around this team.
The Leafs schedule is also rather light over the next two weeks, with only five games, leading up to a double set of back-to-backs that closes out October and will likely draw both goalies in.
If Bernier continues to play this well, it’s possible he starts right up until then, and by that point, with a month under his belt, a few more well-reasoned conclusions can be made.
But many, many young NHL goalies have had strong stretches of 10 to 15 games – even Reimer started the first month of his career with a sparkling .932 save percentage that naturally faded over the rest of his first season.
Heck even Vesa Toskala came to the Leafs in 2007 with a .914 save percentage in 115 games with the San Jose Sharks – nearly double what Bernier had with the Kings – and was well regarded enough that he got a two-year deal for $4-million soon after.
Then there are goalies like Steve Mason, Patrick Lalime, Josh Harding, Jamie Storr, Peter Skudra, Al Montoya, Brian Boucher… well, you get the idea. They all had great seasons, mainly as backups, early on and had trouble sustaining that play.
The point here isn’t that Bernier can’t play – it’s obvious even after four games that he can and that the ability that got him drafted 11th overall seven years ago is only getting better – but that goalies are unpredictable and in some ways unknowable, and you can’t base much of anything on the 15 good starts that he has had the last two seasons.
It’s going to get lost in the din here, but consider this a voice for patience and serenity on a 25-year-old player who will likely have a few more ups and downs to come.
Overhyping a young player can often end badly, with a letdown when reality sinks in.
“They build a statue, they knock it down and piss on it and then now they'll be out there building it again,” Wilson once chided the media over the buzz around a different young goaltender, less than two years ago. “So you just have to be reasonable.”
As good as Bernier has looked, that still stands as sound advice.
After all, it’s kind of early guys.
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