Jonathan Bernier knew after he was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Anaheim Ducks in July that this could be a make-or-break season for him, which makes his ability to stay in the moment throughout it all the more impressive.
In addition to a couple of key style adjustments with Anaheim goaltending coach Sudarshan Maharaj, Bernier credits his work since being reunited with Ducks sports psychologist Dana Sinclair, and their renewed focus on the present, for his turnaround over the past three weeks.
Bernier, 28, has been a big part of Anaheim's late-season run to the top of the Pacific Division. He is 8-0-2 with a 1.68 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and one shutout in his past 10 starts, and 11-2-2 with a 1.98 GAA and .936 save percentage in 15 starts since John Gibson sustained a lower-body injury in a game against the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 20.
"All year, even when I had a couple bad games, I always focused on the process and that's what I learned in Toronto," Bernier said. "I was looking at the bigger picture there and looking too far ahead instead of just going day by day, work hard in practice, feel good. Even during the game, just focusing on my own job instead of focusing on if we're going to win or not."
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Whether you're a professional golfer or an NHL goaltender, having that "next shot" mentality is important. It's also often easier to say than do, especially when you enter the final year of your contract coming off a season that included four games in the American Hockey League.
But Bernier spent time in the summer talking to Sinclair, who also worked with him during his first and best season in Toronto (2013-14, when he went 26-19-7 with a 2.68 GAA and .923 save percentage) on ways to stay in the moment.
"I did change a few things working with Dana," Bernier said. "I would be lying if I said nobody was thinking in the summer about what is going to happen when you are up as a free agent but not doing that has been a big part of my success lately. Dana and I had some long conversations when I got traded here.
"A lot of people ruled me out but I kept believing in myself and just focusing on my own process. I knew I could get back to this."
Bernier has also benefitted from another reunion: Maharaj worked with him as part of an early attempt at a goaltending development program with Hockey Canada more than a decade ago, which helped when they met at Bernier's offseason home shortly after the trade.
"We had that to draw upon so I felt comfortable with the image of how I felt Jonathan played his best," Maharaj said, "and when I met with him in Montreal we talked about what he felt his best game looked like, and together we sort of drew this picture of how we wanted him to carry forward his game. If you can reinforce the things you believe will make a goalie successful and also let them maintain their fingerprint, that's the blend I hope for."
For Bernier, it's a blend that took him back to his early days in the NHL, and maybe even junior, before the Los Angeles Kings picked him in the first round (No. 11) of the 2006 NHL Draft. The focus was on finding the patience on his skates that made Bernier, at 6 feet, such a highly touted prospect despite being undersized by today's standards for goalies.
"He's very good on his feet so the more than Bernie can be on his feet, the more effective he is," Maharaj said. "And let's be honest, at that size you can't be sliding around all over the place because you are going to get caught."
Video: WPG@ANA: Bernier stones Wheeler, keeps game scoreless
Despite his size, Bernier is playing less aggressively in Anaheim than he did in Toronto last season. Though it might seem to make sense for him use his great skating ability to take more ice, the reality is Bernier often felt like he was behind on plays when he was playing out farther with the Maple Leafs. Rather than moving into plays from his skates, he'd start reaching and stretching out prematurely.
"I felt I was always late because maybe I was too high so I was just pushing right away," Bernier said.
Bernier is also moving more now despite playing deeper, reinserting some in-and-out flow. Extra movement can leave goalies more reliant on timing, but Bernier is trusting his play-reading skill and using that flow to build momentum into movements, which allows him to push with better rotation and more power from a narrower base while still staying compact, rather than waiting and reaching, which often left him moving "flat," or off angle, in Toronto.
"They wanted me to attack pucks instead of receiving the play, to hold my ground," Bernier said. "I am a guy that needs flow in my game, I know that."
Bernier has plenty of momentum after a stretch when he played three full games in the 26 leading up to Gibson's injury. It should be enough to carry him into free agency without worrying about his future, but that's something Bernier has worked hard not to think about anyway.
With the help of Sinclair and Maharaj, Bernier is focused on being his old self in the now.