There has been much consternation about Jonathan Bernier in Leafland lately. His stand-out performance in the 2013-14 season, where he posted a .923 SV% in 55 games, raised hopes that he could be the long-term starter to lead the Leafs back to contention. The following season saw his SV% fall to .912, dimming those hopes a bit. This season he's posted just .888 in 9 starts, often allowing goals that left fans in disbelief.
The result is that many fans have left their faith in Bernier's talent behind. James Reimer's resurgence has rekindled hopes that he could be the goalie to carry the team forward, reminding fans of how he carried the team into the playoffs just a few short years ago. This situation culminated in Bernier being assigned to the AHL on a conditioning stint, a situation highly unusual (perhaps unprecedented) for a healthy goalie making $4M+.
But while Bernier's performance this season has unquestionably been sub-par, Leafs fans should still have some faith that he'll rebound. Goalie performance is notoriously volatile, and there's good reason to believe that a goalie like Bernier can still play at a high level.
Case Studies: Price and Dubnyk
Let's take a look at a couple of goalies whose teams had very different reactions to their down-seasons.
In 2010-11 Carey Price posted a .923 SV%, the best of his career. The following season his SV% was .916. His career SV% at that point was also .916. Jonathan Bernier's career SV% prior to this season was . . . .916. In 2012-13, Price tied his career low, with a .905 SV% in 39 games. The parallels to Bernier are easy to see.
How has Carey Price done since then? In the subsequent 137 games, Price's SV% has been .931, the best of any NHL regular over the past three seasons. Montreal kept the faith in Price, and he rewarded them.
How about another goalie with a similar past, Devan Dubnyk? In 2012-13, Dubnyk posted a career high SV% of .920 for the Edmonton Oilers in 38 games. His career SV% at that point was .913., about average for an NHL goalie at that point.
In the following season Dubnyk's SV% was just .891, and Edmonton shipped him out of town to Nashville. After two games, Nashville sent Dubnyk to Montreal, where he didn't play at all. He then signed as a free agent in Arizona, who for some reason traded him to Minnesota even though his .916 SV% was quite respectable. We all know how well he played in Minnesota, and he was rewarded with a 5-year deal.
Since Dubnyk's awful 2013-14 campaign, his SV% has been .926 in 81 games. Edmonton has struggled to find quality goaltending, and clearly would have been better off showing some patience.
None of this is to suggest that Bernier is going to become one of the league's best goalies, as Price has and as Dubnyk is on his way to doing. But they are good examples of why fans and teams ought not over-react to a bad year from a goalie who had previously proven themselves to be a capable starter.
The Bigger Picture
Price and Dubnyk are just anecdotes, however, so we need to look a bit more broadly if we want to have a better idea of how common Bernier's situation is and how often goalies bounce back.
I pulled a list of every goalie with at least one season of .920 goaltending between 2010-11 and 2013-14 (minimum 35 GP). The list includes Bernier, Price, and Dubnyk, as well as several other goalies. In total, there were 27 goalies who fit the criteria.
Of those, 20 subsequently had at least one season of below .910 goaltending. 2 additional goalies on the list are below that figure right now, but this season isn't done, so they may yet improve.
Of the 20 goalies who had at least one season below .910, 8 went on to have at least one more season of .920+ goaltending. That number jumps to 10 if you include Jaroslav Halak and Jimmy Howard, both of whom had a season of below .910 goaltending in the year prior to the criteria I listed above.
This all suggests that what Bernier is going through is pretty common. Three-quarters of the goalies in my list followed up a great season with a poor one shortly afterward. Of those goalies, half returned to their previous level of play within a couple of seasons.
Of the goalies who did not rebound, I'm including Tim Thomas and Ilya Bryzgalov, two older goalies who are not really comparable to Bernier. There's also Cam Ward, another goalie now into his 30s, and Mike Smith, a mediocre goalie who had one lucky season, and who is also well into his 30s.
One interesting angle for Leafs fans is that the list includes James Reimer, who was above .920 in his rookie season, then down to .900 in his second season, then back up above .920 the next year. Reimer subsequently fell to .907 last year, and is way back up at .935 this season. The Leafs are reaping the rewards of patience (or a lack of a trade market) with Reimer right now.
All of this is to say that the odds of Bernier being good again in the future are quite high. Most of the goalies I looked at here who weren't clearly declining due to age were able to rebound from their poor seasons and return to the level that their teams expect of a starting goalie. Some, like Price and Dubnyk, have even exceeded those expectations to play like stars.
Maybe Bernier won't be the next Carey Price, but he will probably be the next good goalie to return to form after a bad year. As frustrating as it is to watch pucks that should be easy saves wind up in the back of the net, Leafs fans shouldn't lose faith in Bernier just yet. He's probably still a good goalie.