TORONTO — Some of the damage we can see.
It’s the less-visible scars that are most important right now. You simply can’t go through a prolonged stretch as ugly as this one without doing some harm, which is why it will be imperative for management to identify areas beyond repair when sorting through the wreckage of this year.
Jonathan Bernier insists he doesn’t fall into that category. The Leafs’ No. 1 goaltender is clearly frustrated after dropping six straight decisions and getting pulled three times this month alone, but it hasn’t soured him on the big-picture possibilities in Toronto.
During a conversation after Monday’s practice, he made it abundantly clear that his commitment to the organization is unwavering — even striking an understanding tone about the recent string of early exits from games.
“Lately, it just seems that the only solution that we’ve found is pulling the goalie,” said Bernier. “It’s just seemed to motivate the guys.”
Goalies are conditioned to carry a disproportionate amount of their team’s burden. But no NHL tandem has been tested more in the last two seasons than Bernier and James Reimer, with the Leafs currently sitting 28th in shots allowed per game (33.1) one year after finishing dead last (35.9).
The unique position was even lamented by Bernier’s girlfriend, Martine Forget, during the most recent episode of “Hockey Wives.”
“If they win, it’s because of the player that scores,” she said. “And if they lose, it’s because of Jonathan.”
Even though Bernier has only registered five victories since Jan. 1, that isn’t exactly the case. His save percentage is a substandard .903 during that period, but he’s also received an average of just 1.69 goals from his teammates in the last 26 starts.
Put another way: Even if the Leafs were receiving Carey Price’s league-leading 1.88 goals-against average over the last three months, they would still have been losing more often than not.
“It’s not an easy situation,” said Bernier. “But at the same time, I’m here to stop pucks and I’ve got to do a better job.”
Given the unpredictability of his position — and the impressive .923 save percentage he posted last season — there is plenty of reason to believe he will.
Bernier is still just 26 years old and says he would be on board with playing through a full-scale rebuild should the organization head in that direction. He clearly has faith in a front office which includes Hockey Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas, his first player agent.
Among the items on Toronto’s “to-do” list heading into a busy off-season is negotiating a new contract for Bernier. He is just one year away from unrestricted free agency, which makes it unlikely the team will pursue anything less than a two-year term.
However, the Leafs will have to pay a premium for any UFA years they end up buying, and that likely means a sizeable increase on his current $2.9-million cap hit even after a difficult season. Based on comparables, he’ll likely be asking for a deal averaging $5-million or more.
The impending negotiation has been front of mind recently.
“Especially now towards the end of the season,” said Bernier. “It gets in your head, (with us) not being in a playoff spot.”
To date, the Leafs have treated him like a cornerstone member of the franchise. Bernier has even been included in weekly meetings with interim coach Peter Horachek and the leadership group which help determine the team’s travel schedule and off-days.
Horachek has repeatedly defended his goaltender to reporters and met with him after an early pull against San Jose on Thursday night.
“I talked to him after the game to get his take on some of the things,” Horachek said.
That was the seventh time Bernier had been lifted in 52 starts. It hasn’t been the kind of year the team or its top goaltender expected.
“I’ve had tough seasons,” said Bernier. “I don’t think I’ve had a season like this year, but that’s what summers are there for. You take a couple weeks off, go somewhere, then reset and get back in the gym and get back to work.
“That’s the nice part about it: You always get a chance the year after.”
At least he’s anxious to return — someone else in a similar position might not be so eager.