TORONTO - It was very early in the Maple Leafs tenure of Jonathan Bernier and he had noticed that his new goaltending coach, Rick St. Croix, was lingering quietly in the background, doing his best to thoughtfully calibrate an assessment without much interference.
"At one point, I told him Rick, 'You need to tell me things that you see that I'm doing wrong'," Bernier recalled in conversation with the Leaf Report. "Some goalies don't like to get judged or anything like that, but I like to know where I'm at in my game. I like when the goalie coach will push me to get better."
No single aspect of the Leafs season at the midway point has been quite as reliable, and at times brilliant, as that of the goaltending. And the quiet, driving and highly influential presence behind the recently found success is the 58-year-old St. Croix, now in his second season with the team.
Between Bernier and 25-year-old James Reimer, the Toronto tandem ranks fourth in the NHL with a .924 save percentage - after finishing seventh-best last season - and third-best with an even stingier .942 mark at even-strength - of critical importance considering the bloated number of shots the team has allowed this season.
Years of futility, which plagued the Leafs crease following the departure of Ed Belfour (see table below), are finally being forgotten under St. Croix, who captured a Stanley Cup with Belfour in Dallas in 1999 and found later success with the Vancouver and Winnipeg organizations.
"He really understands the position because he played it," Reimer told the Leaf Report of St. Croix, who played in the NHL with the Leafs and Flyers, "and that's really valuable."
The goalie coach is equal parts teacher, motivator and therapist, a sounding board for the game's most solitary position, a leaning post in times of turmoil and success.
"A goalie coach is a resource to help the goaltender in his area of need and it might be off the ice, it might be on the ice, it might be just going post to post, it might be how he reads the game, maybe it's stuff related to flexibility," said St. Croix, shortly after he replaced Francois Allaire as the team's goaltending coach in the fall of 2012.
"I'm a resource to help them become a better version of themselves."
He has found quick success in that regard where his predecessor could not.
Dubbed at one point by former Leafs President and GM Brian Burke as "the best goaltending coach on the planet," Allaire, who owns two Stanley Cup rings, never found much success during his three years in Toronto.
His rigid style of goaltending - a blocking approach that was highly successful in the slower pre-lockout era - rarely translated into fewer goals against with the Leafs. It also allowed for little in the way of creativity or athleticism.
[Allaire is currently working as the goaltending coach for the Avalanche, where has rediscovered considerable early success with Semyon Varlamov and former Leaf Jean-Sebastien Giguere.]
St. Croix, in definite contrast, employs a considerably more accommodating approach to the position, a hybrid style that is dependent on accentuating the strengths of the individual.
"I think with his style of coaching maybe there's more flexibility in there, a little less rigidity," said Reimer, an Allaire loyalist who is careful not to compare the two coaches. "You can play around with stuff a little bit more maybe [under St. Croix]. Maybe it allows you to be a little bit more athletic."
"It's all your style of play and he'll see your game and see those little things that will affect your game and it'll be different than what he might tell Bernier in essence."
Bernier, who worked with the highly lauded Bill Ranford previously in Los Angeles, agrees that St. Croix is "pretty open on techniques" and will advise, rather than demand, his goaltender on potential tweaks for game situations.
"He won't change my style, won't change my position - that's who I am," said Bernier, whose .938 even-strength save percentage ranks behind only Ben Bishop among regular NHL starters this season.
Unlike Allaire, who could be unyielding in his approach to goaltending, St. Croix is intent on molding the shape of the individual to a better version of itself.
Reimer, who finished eighth in the NHL in save percentage last season, his first with St. Croix, and sits 12th this season, concedes that his goalie coach has "just allowed whatever it is that makes me good to rise to the top per se".
"It's like a skilled player being able to make a few mistakes," Reimer explained of the increased flexibility being afforded under St. Croix, who was not made available to be interviewed for this story. "If you tell him as soon as he gets across the red line that he has to dump the puck you're going to take away a bit of his [talent]. He might be a solid player and he might still be great, but when you allow [him] to cut back or toe-drag every now and again then something [special] comes out. With Ricky, I think maybe that's what it's allowed me to do."
Goaltender and goalie coach meet after every game to review that night's work, determined to assess the good and bad on video. St. Croix, in such situations, is looking not just at the individual goals allowed but at the bigger picture, intent on finding tendencies and trends that may need strengthening.
"If you let in a goal here," Reimer said, "you look at it and say, 'Was it a freak thing? Did you do something wrong? And if it was, is it because we haven't practiced it or is just because you made a mistake?' Either way you work on it."
Prior to games, he and the two goaltenders will assess the incoming opponent, trying to better understand how they generate offence and what situations may be on deck that night.
In addition to the teaching and advisement is the equally important role of motivator and therapist.
"It's funny that you say that because I think that's the biggest thing for a goalie coach," said Bernier. "He's almost a therapist in a way just because he's there for you mentally and keeps you positive. You don't want to be too high or too low and he's there to help you find that right level of emotion."
Bernier needed such a pick-me-up from St. Croix earlier in the year, the losses piling up in rapid succession for the Leafs despite continued performance in goal. And because he has a history of playing the position at the NHL level, St. Croix carries a certain credibility for his two young netminders, an understanding of the often solitary life in goal.
"You can say stuff to him because he'll understand," said Reimer, "whereas if you said it to somebody else [they] would be saying 'Oh my goodness, you're thinking that?' but in the goalie world that's just normal."
A big believer in the role of a goaltending coach, Bernier actually approached Leafs VP of Hockey Operations, Dave Poulin, early in the season and requested that St. Croix be with the NHL club more often.
"I think it's important as a goalie to have a goalie coach," Bernier said, "and talk to someone about [goaltending], bring your confidence up. He helps you to get that routine in your game and in practice which is really good.
"He's been really good mentally to keep me positive … And working on little things he sees in my game. I think more and more we're going to get adjusted to each other, more comfortable. I think we're making a big step."
A look at the considerable leap in Toronto goaltending under St. Croix in the past two seasons.