MONTREAL – The question was posed to Jonathan Bernier, perhaps the busiest netminder in the National Hockey League this season and a man who has witnessed the strength of terrific defensive hockey in Los Angeles firsthand en route to a Cup in 2012: Can his Toronto Maple Leafs, currently the top wild card in the East, threaten a deep playoff run without raising their substandard level of defensive play?
"Goalie's got to be good," Bernier said with an almost uncomfortable laugh.
"I personally don't think so," he continued frankly. "Because some games [the goalie] won't get those bounces and [the puck is] going to go in somehow. But we know we've got it in this room. We've just got to pay the price to play better defensively and, if we do, I'm pretty sure we can be one of the top teams in this league."
It's an uncomfortable truth for a team that wrung up 11 wins in 14 games before the Olympic break and has designs on making noise in the playoffs after a long-awaited return last spring. This is a hockey club that struggles badly to defend and relies most nights on terrific goaltending and an incredibly potent offence to win. It's a formula that might yield success in the regular season, and it has for the Leafs thus far, but is unlikely to gain much steam when the hockey tightens in mid-April.
Head coach Randy Carlyle has been beating the drum loudly on the topic all season, but doesn't have much to show for it. His group remains a work in progress.
"We've been trying and stressing that defensive hockey is what's going to give your team the best chance to qualify for the playoffs," said Carlyle after an instructive practice in Brossard, Quebec. "[But] we're in the qualification mode. We're not in the playoff mode [yet]."
Only five teams have been worse than the Leafs defensively this season and only one of those teams, the Ottawa Senators, has any hope of qualifying for the playoffs. Toronto has allowed a bloated three goals per game despite boasting some of the finest goaltending in the league with the 25-year-old Bernier.
No team, in fact, puts more pressure on their goaltender to be great than do the Leafs. Only Mike Smith in Phoenix has faced more shots than Bernier thus far and he's started 10 more games than the native of Laval.
"I think we've seen it," said Bernier of sturdy defensive play. "I think everyone's seen it, but I don't think we've seen it consistently enough."
Hurting the effort is a bad penalty kill, one that's allowed the most goals (tied) in the league this season, an unstable defence which includes young and growing parts like Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner and a high-end forward group that has shown only spotty attention to defence.
A pile of goals and timely goaltending have been required most nights to win. That was true during an 11-2-1 run before the 18-day Olympic stoppage. Running, then, behind the all-world efforts of Phil Kessel, who has been the hottest player on the planet in 2014, the club scored 51 goals – 3.64 per game – but also allowed 41 on the other end.
They've won despite being outshot in 36 of 48 games – they have a record of 21-10-5 in those games – and despite the fact that they've allowed a league-high of more than 36 shots per game.
Cody Franson, second on the back-end in minutes, believes the instability is tied to confusion in the defensive end, too much thinking rather quick instinctual reaction.
"I think we're still a little indecisive on things sometimes," he said. "We try and play a quite aggressive style of defence and sometimes when you think too much you end up being a half second slow compared to where you should be. That comfort level just isn't quite there with us yet. I think we still think about things too much."
They allowed five in their most recent affair against the Islanders on Thursday night, an overtime loss to a struggling club that was without its best player and leading scorer, John Tavares, and their third leading point-getter in Frans Nielsen.
Two of the goals came by way of short circuiting on the power-play with Michael Grabner scoring twice shorthanded in a span of 48 seconds on the same power-play. Another found the back of the net via the aforementioned penalty kill with two more coming on defensive breakdowns, including the overtime winner.
"Gifts," said Carlyle after the 5-4 defeat. "I've got no other word to describe the goals that we gave up."
A drastic reversal at this late stage in the year seems unlikely, though Carlyle and the coaching staff continue to push and prod. They did so with any available ice during the Olympic break and continued at practice Friday, narrowing their sights on a tighter neutral zone and improved forecheck – efforts aimed at spending less time in the defensive zone.
But with just 21 games to play, including a division clash with the Canadiens on Saturday, it's probably safe to say that this is what these Maple Leafs are. The question now is whether they can, as currently constructed, make a little noise in the postseason (assuming they get in) or whether their defensive liabilities will prove too onerous to overcome. Last spring, they nearly toppled a Bruins giant, but required some lightning in a bottle and forgotten brilliance from James Reimer in Games 5 and 6.
History points emphatically in the direction of those that can defend. In fact, the last three Stanley Cup winners finished the regular season as either the best or second-best team defensively. And though the Leafs are not yet in the Cup conversation, that remains the goal somewhere down the road.
Dave Nonis and the Toronto management team have to be mindful of that fact as it relates to the larger construction of the roster, both now with the Mar. 5 trade deadline looming and over the longer term with the core that's being put into place. Are these the foundations of a club that can eventually win the ultimate prize?
"You always see it every year, strong defensive teams win," said Jay McClement. "I think we have the make-up for it. But not without being strong defensively. Obviously, you're not going to win a lot of games 5-4 in the playoffs. We have the goaltending for it and have had it all year. We've just got to cut down on these mistakes and we'll be fine.
"We're not changing the way we do it, we've just got to do it better."