TORONTO – Truth be told, this is no way to start a battle to become the No. 1 goalie of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Jonathan Bernier readily admits that he’s allowed a steady stream of pucks through his legs over the last month – “Plenty … a lot,” he said – while adjusting to the new shrinking standard of goalie pads that will be introduced around the NHL this season.
As you might imagine, the changes aren’t very popular among the goaltending fraternity. Each of them has had the height of his pad reduced by between one and three inches as part of new regulations designed to help increase scoring.
Goalies are expected to become particularly vulnerable through the five-hole, where the top of their pads will cover much less space when they drop down to make a save.
“I changed my style a little bit,” said Bernier. “I think everyone’s going to have to adjust. Everyone is starting from scratch.”
That also sums up his own situation as he embarks on his first season with the Maple Leafs. Ostensibly, Bernier and James Reimer are battling for the team’s No. 1 job at training camp, although there is a feeling in Toronto that it is probably Bernier’s to lose because of the assets surrendered to acquire him from Los Angeles and the sizeable contract he was given.
Perhaps he also has a slight leg up on the competition after being among the first wave of goalies to get a pair of the reduced-size pads to start experimenting with back in August.
There is a healthy dose of skepticism among goaltenders about whether the changes will even have their intended effect. Four of the best in the NHL recently told sportsnet.ca that they don’t expect scoring to increase league-wide this year: Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For his part, Reimer seemed a little less sure than the others.
“I think at first there’ll be more scoring, but whether we’ll adapt or not is yet to be seen,” he said. “We’re all skilled, we’re all great athletes, we pride ourselves on being in the best shape – if we’re able to adapt we will. But I don’t know yet.”
Lundqvist is a five-time Vezina finalist and acknowledged that the new equipment has left him feeling “weird” on the ice. One benefit he hopes to see in time is that he becomes quicker in the net.
“Hopefully there’ll be something good to come out of this,” he said.
The Swede lost almost two inches on either side from the pads he had worn since the end of the 2004-05 lockout – a stretch where he was the most consistently dominant goaltender in the league.
Part of his issue with the changes is that he believes the tight defensive systems employed by teams is just as responsible for declining goal rates as the size of equipment.
Just like Bernier, he has taken a proactive approach by altering his technique ahead of the new season.
“I think it will change how you move, especially side to side,” said Lundqvist. “You have to make sure you bring your knees together a lot more because you won’t have the pad covering that hole.
“That’s actually something I’ve been trying to work on the last few years and now it’s just going to have to happen.”
The discussion about equipment changes between the NHL and NHLPA went on through the summer and came to include the knee protectors many goalies wear under their pads.
Those might be even more important now because there is a potential safety issue to worry about with smaller pads. Smith referred to the new rules as “horrible” because he believes goalies are going to be at more risk, especially with pucks striking them in the knees.
“It’s such a grey area because you’re kind of getting into the protection part of it now,” he said. “The guys that are making these rules changes aren’t goalies. They’re like ‘why don’t we just take two inches of the top of their pads and everything will be fine? There’ll be more goals.’
“It’s the wrong way to look at it. There’s so many little things that go in to making changes that people don’t think about if they’re not a goalie.”
Ultimately, he believes that rule-makers are going to be forced to institute “soccer size nets” to get the level of scoring they desire.
Failing that, Bernier had a suggestion of his own – perhaps it would be best if the clock was turned back on all equipment to the way it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We’ll go with the brown pads and (the shooters) can have the wood stick, you know?” he said with a smile.