Being the third goalie is not a prestigious position at the Olympic Games.
They are the sparest of spare parts on the 25-man roster, players that rarely dress, let alone play, and wear street clothes for much of the tournament save for maybe getting into a game as a backup to ensure they can collect a medal.
Sure, there’s the longshot that they will make an impact, if there’s an injury and a lot of poor play. But in a tournament this short, the likelihood is that if you’re down to thinking about your third goaltender, you’re already out of the event.
Canada being Canada, however, there’s a heated debate to be had over who that third goalie should be when the team is announced on Tuesday morning, assuming as expected that Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price and Vancouver Canucks veteran Roberto Luongo will be the locks as No. 1 and 2.
Do you take a veteran knowing that if he does play, it’ll be a do-or-die situation?
Or do you look toward 2018 and select a young goalie who may be there four years from now, just as they did in 2010 when a 25-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury watched on as Luongo and Martin Brodeur won gold?
It’s not as easy a decision as it sounds, especially given that every possible Canadian candidate comes with some weaknesses.
It’s widely believed, for instance, that Phoenix Coyotes netminder Mike Smith will be GM Steve Yzerman’s pick behind Price and Luongo.
But, despite playing for a strong defensive team, the 31-year-old Smith has had below league average numbers the last two seasons, with only his breakthrough 2011-12 campaign truly standing out. Among the 12 Canadian goaltenders that have played at least 40 games the last two seasons, he sits 10th in save percentage with an unimpressive .911.
If Canada is looking for the hot hand, his is decidedly not it.
Add in the fact that Smith definitely won’t be a factor come 2018, when the Games may or may not include NHL players, and there are reasons to question the choice.
Which brings us to an interesting alternative: Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier.
From a purely “what have you done for me lately” perspective, Bernier has been impressive. He has the highest save percentage of any Canadian starter the last two years (.926) and has held a struggling Leafs team in the playoff race despite the fact they’re allowing a league high 37 shots against a game.
He also has a lot of international experience – as part of the Under-18 team in 2006, the gold-medal winning world junior team in 2008, the world championships in 2011 – and, at only 25 years old, obviously has a lot of hockey ahead.
What Bernier doesn’t have much of is NHL experience. Trapped behind expected Team USA starter Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles until this season, he has only played 92 games spread over the last six seasons – far less than the more than 250 Fleury by the time he was selected in 2010.
But that hasn’t kept Bernier – or even teammate James Reimer – entirely off of Canada’s radar.
“Bernier and Reimer have both been really good,” Yzerman said of the two Leafs goalies on CBC’s recent documentary, The Making of Team Canada, last week.
Now, Reimer doesn’t have a lot of international experience and appears to be even more of a long shot. But Hockey Canada is well aware of Bernier’s pedigree as a high first round pick and AHL netminder of the year back in 2010.
Those who have been able to watch him up close this season also believe he’d be a good fit as a young player more than willing to be a good teammate and potentially never play.
“They haven’t asked me about him,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said, “but I think he’d be a good choice.”
Beyond the statistics, perhaps the biggest argument in favour of Bernier is there aren’t a whole lot of other candidates if Canada wants to go young. After Bernier and Price, Reimer, Steve Mason and Braden Holtby are the only other starters under age 27 that have played regularly in the NHL the last two seasons, and all come with their own question marks.
That may be why Yzerman and the selection committee finally settles on a veteran, although there’s an argument there, too, between going back to Fleury or with someone like Chicago Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford over Smith.
There are no true slam dunk candidates here, in other words, and Bernier is as reasonable a choice as anyone to sit in the stands and soak up the experience.
Only 12 Canadian goalies have started 40 or more games the last two seasons combined. Which three make Team Canada remains a source of heated debate.
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