Skip to main content

New York Rangers centre Derek Stepan celebrates his goal from centre ice against Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier during the second period at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15.Adam Hunger

When the first bad goal went in on Sunday night in New York – from centre ice – social media lit up and lit into the beleaguered goalie who had somehow fumbled the shot.

When he then bungled what turned out to be the Rangers' winner, with a minute left on the clock, Toronto Maple Leafs fans went berserk.

They have, you'll understand, a lot of painful experience with bad goaltending. Andrew Raycroft. Vesa Toskala. Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson. And those are only the recent hits.

But Jonathan Bernier is a unique case because, for a time, he was quite good.

When the Leafs acquired Bernier from Los Angeles in the summer of 2013, it was an odd move. Toronto had holes everywhere in its lineup, and Bernier was a 25-year-old goaltender who had started a total of only 54 games for the Kings. This would be his first chance at a starting gig.

What made it odd was the fact that James Reimer was coming off a dream season for the Leafs – he had a 19-8-5 record and .924 save percentage while backstopping the franchise's first playoff berth in nearly a decade – and that Bernier cost what became a very high second-round draft pick (34th overall in 2015).

He had a great pedigree – a former first-round pick with decent AHL numbers in a good organization – but he was unproven. What the Leafs old regime, led by general manager Dave Nonis, liked about him was, in large part, his rebound control, which they had meticulously analyzed using the PUCKS video and analytics software.

The data showed Bernier outperformed Reimer in that area, and the Leafs front office believed that was reason enough to not only trade for Bernier, but to give him a two-year deal for just shy of $3-million (U.S.) a season.

Bernier's first season for the Leafs justified the cost. He posted a .923 save percentage and was especially good early on. But he was also worn down by the heavy workload on a bad team. His numbers dipped and, eventually, an injury ended his season.

The Leafs, meanwhile, missed the playoffs, and ever since, Bernier has struggled to recapture what made him so effective in that half season two years ago.

The contrast in his play has been alarming. In Bernier's first 40 games in Toronto, he went 19-15-5 with a .926 save percentage that had him among the league-leaders midway through that season.

In his past 40 games as a Leaf, he has only seven wins (7-27-5) and a save percentage that's barely over .900. The league average this season is .915.

Goalies' stats tend to fluctuate, and even very good netminders fall into ruts. But these aren't small samples. And several former NHL backstops have noticed Bernier's struggles recently because of how glaring they are to the trained eye.

"He was very casual about his movements," said one who watched the Leafs' heartbreaking 4-3 loss in New York on Sunday. "No reads at all. Very sloppy. I don't know how Toronto plays him again."

"He's feeling the pressure," added another.

"I cost two points for my team," Bernier said.

There are a few theories as to what is wrong. One centres on Bernier's arbitration case in the summer, which was – as they tend to be – contentious. Led by new GM Lou Lamoriello, the Leafs "ripped" Bernier for having a poor "platform season" and for not being a proven starter, according to those who have read the brief.

Bernier had, to that point in Toronto, been nothing but lauded by the previous regime, which obviously had a large stake in his success.

Not having that backing – and facing legitimate competition from Reimer, given his strong play early this season – may have affected his confidence.

Another, simpler explanation is that injuries have been an issue. Bernier sustained a significant groin injury back in his first season in Toronto, and has missed time early this year with an undisclosed ailment, opening the door for Reimer.

Bernier is one of the smaller goaltenders in the league, and he went years without starting many games or dealing with so many shots against. Perhaps he has been worn down with the Leafs.

The other potential X factor is the change in goalie coaches. In addition to recently hiring Steve Briere, the Leafs have used outside consultants with both Bernier and Reimer. The messages – and the results – have been mixed.

Reimer has thrived. Bernier looks hesitant. Neither has been coddled.

"Well, Reims is starting against Colorado [on Tuesday]," head coach Mike Babcock said when asked about Bernier's gaffes against the Rangers. "The bottom line is we're in the winning business."

The tough part with that hard-line stance is Bernier is under contract until the end of next season at the not insignificant cap figure of $4.15-million. Based on his play so far this season, he is untradeable.

So whether he is staying or going, the Leafs will want to rehabilitate him.

Reimer, meanwhile, isn't under contract beyond this season, and he was named one of the NHL's three stars of the week on Monday. His price tag to remain a Leaf is going up.