Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports
Since arriving in Toronto following the lockout-abbreviated 2013 campaign – the only season in which the Maple Leafs have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the imposition of the NHL salary cap in 2005 – goaltender Jonathan Bernier’s status as the Leafs’ No. 1 goaltender has been unchallenged.
When healthy, Bernier has started more than two-thirds of the time, and he’s handily outperformed his backup James Reimer by every relevant metric (and by the irrelevant metrics too, like win/loss record and goals-against average). If Bernier continues to perform like he’s the better of Toronto’s two netminders, he’ll continue to get the lion’s share of the starts. If he doesn’t though, well, Mike Babcock has indicated that he’s hosting an open audition for the starter’s job at training camp.
“Whoever plays the best is going to play,” Babcock told reporters on Monday, while outlining his plan to have both Bernier and Reimer start on Monday in the Maple Leafs’ preseason-opening split squad games against the Ottawa Senators.
The plan is for Reimer and Bernier to play on Monday, while Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks share Tuesday night’s exhibition contest against the Montreal Canadiens. Babcock’s comments regarding the starter’s job being an open contest echoed what he told the media last week about being a confirmed, practicing goaltender monogamist dating back to his days coaching Red Deer College.
“I like one guy to know he’s the guy and basically what you tell him is that ‘I’ll tell you when you’re not starting’,” Babcock said of how he likes to handle his goaltending platoon. “Someone has got to grab it. If I’m going to camp, the veteran guys are probably playing four games. Let’s decide who wants to play. They’ve put in their work I know they both want to be No. 1. I don’t know, let’s watch and see who it is.”
We have to be a bit cautious about taking Babcock’s comments to the press at face value, particularly when he’s this open about a training camp battle. We’re dealing with an outrageously successful professional motivator, after all.
If we look at his track record, a more complicated picture emerges. As it turns out, Babcock has allowed his goaltenders to split duties pretty evenly in the past when the situation warranted it. Chris Osgood, for example, shared the net relatively evenly with all of Manny Legace, Dominik Hasek, and Ty Conklin during at least one full campaign in Babcock’s first four years in Detroit. Babcock has also allowed a backup outperforming his starter to steal the job and get the lion’s share of starts, as occurred in Detroit last season when Jimmy Howard lost his spot to Petr Mrazek as the season went along.
So Babcock’s ‘one goalie kind of guy’ boast isn’t iron clad, but it does appear to be true that Babcock’s ideally prefers to lean on a 1A starter for about 60 games a year.
The question remains though: is Babcock really going to go with Reimer – a pending unrestricted free agent – if he outperforms Bernier in four-or-so preseason games, even though Bernier’s track record of being an above average starter is deeper and more convincing?
That strikes me as doubtful. More likely, the noises Babcock is making of late are just about motivating his two NHL-level goalies heading into the preseason.