While a number of question marks continue to dog the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jonathan Bernier is firmly established as the club's No. 1 goaltender.
Bernier was excellent on most nights in 2014-15. He had never been a full-time NHL starter until last season, but the 25-year-old native of Laval, Quebec, developed into one of the league's best by the end of the season.
The Leafs haven't earned a Stanley Cup since 1967, but the Vezina Trophy drought is even longer. The last Maple Leafs goaltender to win the Vezina was Terry Sawchuk in 1964-65.
One of the highest hurdles facing Bernier in this pursuit is the fact that the Leafs have not been very strong defensively in the recent past.
It is a rare goalie that wins the Vezina while playing for a team that is as weak defensively as the Leafs were in 2013-14. The team gave up 3.10 goals per game in 2013-14—good for 26th in the NHL.
Despite the defensive shortcomings, Bernier's save percentage was .922 last season, which earned him the No. 5 ranking among NHL starters. For people who watched a lot of Leafs hockey, it should be clear that Bernier faced not only a high volume of shots, but a high number of quality shots.
Vezina Trophy winners rarely come from teams that don't play well defensively. It is challenging to post good numbers or look like a great goalie when your team is challenged to keep the puck out of its own end.
Metrics like save percentage—and, to a much greater degree, wins and goals-against average—correlate to team defensive play as much as the goalie's individual play.
What is clear from the past number of seasons is that Vezina Trophy winners must play on playoff teams or teams on the cusp of making the playoffs. Here's a list of the past six winners of the trophy:
Bernier's individual play should be on the upswing based on his age and the fact that he's played relatively few NHL games. There is room to grow here.
He's coming back from offseason surgery, but he's played just 117 NHL games in his career. There is no reason to believe that he's near peaking as an NHL goalie.
Looking at the goalies on the above list, only Bobrovsky had played a similar number of NHL games as Bernier when winning the Vezina.
The biggest issue will be the Leafs' team defence. The National Post's Sean Fitz-Gerald reports the club just signed defender Cody Franson to a one-year deal. While the defence corps doesn't look like a group of giant-killers, it is arguably stronger defensively than the group that ended the 2013-14 season.
Adding restricted free agent Jake Gardiner and a young, defensive-minded defender would help as well.
The team has also made some good depth signings for the bottom six. These are players who should be able to play defensive hockey when called upon. The depth chart at forward should be improved from 2013-14 as well.
With head coach Randy Carlyle's ongoing commitment to defensive play, it is difficult to believe that the team will be outshot to the same degree in 2014-15. Sporting Charts indicates Toronto was outshot by a league-worst (tied with Buffalo) average of eight shots per game last season.
Finally, the Leafs do need to shore up their backup goaltending situation. Talented James Reimer has filed for arbitration and remains in limbo, per James Mirtle of the The Globe and Mail.
Bernier needs a strong partner to form a duo for the Leafs. He is clearly the No. 1 starter, but rest—especially on back-to-back nights—is key in the NHL.
Almost no goalies have success playing on successive nights, with Broad Street Hockey demonstrating a drop of 20 save percentage points in in some instances.
If the Leafs can play better defence, be a legitimate threat to earn a playoff berth and Bernier has strong support from his backup, he could well be a Vezina Trophy candidate in 2014-15.
It will be challenging to do so for the talented former Los Angeles King, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
All stats can be found on NHL.com unless otherwise noted.
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