Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Puck Handling: How Jonathan Bernier Can Help Toronto With More Than Just His Fists

On Sunday night there was bedlam at the ACC, with John Scott attempting to punch the face of Mr. Kessel, leading to 239 minutes of penalties and at least a couple of suspensions from the league.

Unfortunately the Leafs only dressed one of their three resident tough guys, that being goaltender Jonathan Bernier…

Ok, maybe he isn’t exactly an “enforcer” per se, but as it turns out our newest tender throws a pretty mean right hook.

The twitterverse was taken over by news of the brawl, with many comparing the goalie dust up to the unforgettable Potvin versus Hextall fight in 1996. While I wouldn't quite put the confrontation in that realm, it did provide us all with an excuse to watch this video again.

Those observing the fight live stood and cheered, loving a goalie tussle in the way one would love to witness two T-Rex in a boxing match. I imagine Nonis was in a corporate suite somewhere covering his eyes, as a broken wrist or dislocated shoulder from Bernier would have further complicated the teams cap woes and left them $2.9 million dollars in the press box.

Bernier was of course brought to Toronto not to fight others, but to fight for starting minutes with James Reimer. I’ll try to avoid going down the path of “was the trade necessary” given the team already had a capable number one, since that story has been covered quite a bit.

Instead I want to talk about what Bernier can do outside of his crease, specifically with his stick. A couple days ago I came across a great article from the Edmonton Journal on Martin Brodeur. The post looks at how Marty’s puck handling effects the flow of a game.

The author looks at a five game series between the Devils and Flyers, keeping track  of every time either Brodeur or Bryzgalov touches the puck. The results were very interesting. During only 5 games Brodeur made a “good pass” to a teammate 90 times, compared to Bryzgalov’s 15. When it came to clearing the puck to a less dangerous spot on the ice Brodeur had 32 successful occurrences, while Bryzgalov was 13. I would encourage you to read the full article, as it goes into quite a bit more detail.

So what does this mean for the Maple Leafs?

While for starters everything I have been able to find on Bernier says he is a fantastic puck handler. His comfort leaving his crease to stop a dump in, or an end a round is evident when you observe him playing.

Conversely, handling the puck has never been James Reimer’s greatest asset. He routinely looks a bit awkward outside his net and will make an effort to avoid playing pucks whenever possible. I don’t have data on how much this has or hasn’t impacted the Leafs defensively. However, anecdotally, I have witnessed a number of frantic scrambles in Toronto’s end as a direct result of poor decision making from Reimer with the puck.

If Bernier can improve this for the Leafs it could have a positive effect on their shot differential. I couldn’t find a definitive analysis on how much shot differential and Corsi is impacted by a strong goalie, but it stands to reason that if your tender clears the puck to safety the opposition will have the puck less often.

If the opposition is unable to gain possession of the puck on a fore-check, then they will conceivably have less shots on net. The common sense approach says this would be the case, but I’d be very interested to see a full study (if you have anything toss it up in the comments). NHL numbers also looked at the Journal article and did some work on this, but the results were a bit inconclusive.

For instance, in the Brodeur and Bryzgalov example Marty would routinely pass 15 to 20 pucks to his teammates, no doubt helping to them advance the play forward. On the other hand, Bryzgalov would make between 1 and 5 good passes per game.

I won’t pretend to know exactly what the difference is between Reimer and Bernier’s ability here, but it is clear a difference exists. If Bernier can utilize his stick handling and work cohesively with Leafs blueliners he could add a nice wrinkle to their defensive strategy.

For a team that was out shot 32 to 26  last season (2nd worst in the NHL), it certainly wouldn't hurt.

Darren is editor of The Man Advantage, a fantasy hockey blog, and contributor to Blue Chip Prospects. You can follow him @TMA_Hockey_blog 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I agree completely with your premise. I enjoy watching Reimer play and think that he is a very talented goaltender. However, I also think that he has to be talented because of his poor puck handling skills. I'm not talking about just his ability to pass the puck. He has difficulties in all aspects of puck management (catching pucks, smothering pucks, rebound control and stick handling). His poor puck management skills give the opposition an increased number of scoring chances. To his credit, he ends up saving many of these scoring chances. But it also creates havoc in the Leafs end when everyone is constantly scrambling trying to follow errant pucks. Much of this could be avoided if Reimer could simply manage the puck better.