Toronto Maple Leafs Have Quietly Improved Their Goaltenders
Oct 21, 2014; Uniondale, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) makes a glove save against the New York Islanders during the third period at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Maple Leafs defeated the Islanders 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
In the last five years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have turned their biggest weakness into perhaps their biggest strength.
Now, five years later, the Leafs boast one of the better young goalie tandems in Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer and appear to have another goalie in the pipeline who looks like he could be a difference maker in Antoine Bibeau.
So how did this all come about?
For starters, Reimer was already in the pipeline. In 2009-2010 Reimer was starting his first real year with the Toronto Marlies, playing 26 games behind the aforementioned MacDonald while also splitting time with Adam Munro and Andrew Engelage.
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I think it’s fair to say the Leafs weren’t sure exactly what they had. While MacDonald was the veteran and played 10 more games than Reimer, they both finished with the same total of wins. The Marlies also gave significant time to Munro (14 games, now plays in Austria) and Engelage (10 games, bounced around the ECHL and CHL). If the Leafs brass knew what Reimer was going to be, he’d clearly have played a lot more.
So part of the rebuilding between the pipes is obviously luck.
There’s the luck in seeing what Reimer turned into, while also the luck of getting a successful NHL goalie with the 99th pick overall in the fourth round. 10 goalies were drafted ahead of Reimer, from NHL regulars like Bernier, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Jhonas Enroth and Steve Mason to three other goalies who saw a combined one NHL game.
Apr 12, 2014; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer (34) during warmup prior to game against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
While luck is a factor in developing prospects, particularly with goalies, other factors were at work in the goalie rebuild.
Late June in 2013 really saw the complete transformation of the Maple Leafs in goal. On the 23rd, the Maple Leafs traded a second-round pick, Ben Scrivens and Matt Frattin to the L.A. Kings for Bernier. Full credit for the deal belongs to Dave Nonis and his management team. Hot off the heels of a devastating playoff loss, with only six months on the job as the GM, Nonis swapped a pick, a backup and a borderline NHLer for a star goalie in waiting.
A lot of people criticized the move at the time.
The Leafs clearly had many problems and goaltending didn’t appear to be one of them. While Reimer had battled concussions previously, in 2012-2013 he was 19-8-5 with a .911 SV% and a 3.26 GAA. These days the move is looked at as a steal, prying away a former first-round pick who was ready for stardom while not sending much the other way.
Nonis wasn’t done there though.
A week later on the 30th of June, the Maple Leafs drafted Bibeau late in the sixth round, 172nd overall. Bibeau was the 18th goalie selected and might be the only one you’ve ever heard of outside of Kristers Gudlevskis, the Latvian netminder and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect who had 55 saves against Team Canada in a surprisingly close game at the Sochi Olympics. While it’s obviously too early to tell exactly how good Bibeau could be, only one goalie from the entire draft has played an NHL game and that was Gudlevskis with exactly one start, the early returns on Bibeau are promising.
Despite falling so low, the Leafs felt they were getting one of the better goaltenders in the draft. That year Bibeau had gone 28-11-3 with a .911 SV% and 2.81 GAA with five shutouts on a Prince Edward Island Rocket team that had no stars and was only average despite being in the weakest division in the league.
It looks like they were right.
Sep 24, 2014; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Ottawa Senators left wing Matt Puempel (26) shoots on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Antoine Bibeau (30) in the second period at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Ignoring his hot start with the Marlies, 2-1 with a .959 SV% and 1.25 GAA, Bibeau has put up solid numbers in the QMJHL. Bibeau ended his QMJHL career with a record of 58-38-10 and a .901 SV% on very average teams before he was traded last season to Les Foreurs de Val-d’Or. Bernier is also a QMJHL graduate, with a career record of 78-60-6 and a .908 SV% on stronger teams.
That’s to say nothing of Bibeau’s playoff acumen. He guided the Foreurs to the QMJHL championship despite being outshot in 13 of the final 14 playoff games. His play in the Memorial Cup was also memorable, starting with a 51-save shutout, which eventually lead to him being named an all-star and the tournament’s most outstanding goaltender. Bernier previously won the President’s Cup as the QMJHL Champions, too.
This year at training camp, Bibeau surprised and impressed the Leafs brass with his strong play and calm demeanor.
He’ll get the time to develop in the AHL with Bernier and Reimer in the NHL, but he could be an interesting injury fill in if necessary.
Turning a weakness into a strength in the NHL isn’t easy. We’ve seen teams trying to rebuild part or all of their rosters flounder for years.
Apr 1, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Calgary Flames goaltender Joey MacDonald (35) makes a save during the warm up against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Despite that, in five years the Leafs went from Gustavsson and Toskala steering the ship with their top AHL goalie being a 29-year-old MacDonald, to Bernier and Reimer at the helm with a 20-year-old Bibeau in the minors.
That kind of improvement is significant, as with the goaltending situation seemingly at hand, it frees up resources to improve at the NHL level or go after prospects who are forwards or defencemen. Building a strength in one spot can help lead to building a strength elsewhere.
For Leafs fans, that news should come as a relief, as years of goaltending incompetence is a thing of the past.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.