It has been a rough season for Devils forward Steve Bernier. Through 66 games, the 28-year-old winger has only 3 goals and 11 points, despite getting a fair amount of time playing time alongside Patrik Elias. With his production down and him looking utterly unable to score at times, it’s reasonable to wonder whether his days in New Jersey are numbered. His play has fallen enough that some fans are looking for him to take a seat up in the press box. So what’s going on with him? No one is expecting the world from Steve Bernier (he is Steve Bernier, after all), but I think people were hoping for him to show up on the scoresheet a little bit more than he has.
Bernier, as recently as last season, had the look of a player who was a valuable fourth-liner and a serviceable stopgap in a second- or third-line role for the Devils. He was a guy who was putting up a decent amount of points and solid possession numbers for a fourth-liner. His 0.32 points per game (PPG) output (15P in 47GP)wasn’t necessarily just due to running hot for a stretch of a short season, his on-ice sh% at evens was low (like most Devils that season) at 6.3% and he himself was shooting 9.1%, a reasonable number given his career 10.5% shooting. Plus, he was putting up even-strength shots at the fourth-highest per-game rate on the entire team (second in 5v5 shots/60minutes). On a team starved for shots, he wasn’t a bad guy to have around. So what has happened to him this season?
The obvious starting point here, is that Bernier is just not producing compared to what the Devils are hoping to get from him. Last season’s 0.32 PPG has withered by about 50% to only 0.17 for this year’s campaign. When you consider that he has played a quarter of his minutes with Patrik Elias, who can make almost anyone look good, that is not a very good output. Down percentages or not, it’s just not enough from a guy who’s getting 13 minutes a night.
He has been especially silent of late. He doesn’t have a goal since he scored in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Montreal on November 30 and December 2. Over three months without a goal, even from a guy who is not expected to do a ton, is an extremely long time and others have certainly been benched for less. He has 3 points total in 2014 and, despite a lot of it being due to coldness, some of his underlying numbers have started to slip as well, as he has only put up more than 2 shots in a game once in 2014 compared to 10 times from October to December.
The dip in shots/game is definitely one of my biggest concerns. From last season’s 1.87 SOG/game, he has dipped down 1.37 in only a shade fewer minutes overall. Anecdotally, I can think of a fair number of chances he has flubbed in the past few months and it seems like being snake-bitten has started to eat into his actual productivity (as well as his minutes as he has started to see them fall since late January). Bernier can forecheck decently, but his defense isn’t necessarily stellar, so him putting pucks on net was probably one of his biggest value-adds for this team, given how little they shoot. Him continuing to fall off in that department would not be a good sign for his future here.
All that said, there is a big caveat to all of the slowing production numbers we’ve seen this year. Bernier is ice cold this season. And it’s not your run-of-the-mill cold that various Devils seem to enter at points in each season, it’s all-world coldness. Right now, Steve Bernier is the human embodiment of that polar vortex the east coast keeps getting bludgeoned with this season.
I KNEW IT pic.twitter.com/3kgXvRkj7c— Mike Stromberg (@ColdSportsTakes) March 2, 2014
Of all NHL players with 80 or more shots on goal this season, no forward has a lower shooting percentage than Bernier. And this is from a guy who is a career 10.5% shooter. It’s just not likely that he continues to have this type of luck. Even if you figure in the Devils Factor™, I would expect his shooting to regress at least to 7- 9% in the long run. He is also suffering from the worst on-ice sh% of any regular on the team (the entire CBGB line is having a pretty rough run of luck, to be honest). Maybe we can’t expect that number to regress all the way to league average, given the general makeup of the CBGB line, but I don’t think 4.6% is real either.
Bernier is also maintaining decent territorial numbers, despite his production struggles this season. He’s running at a pretty healthy 53.2 in 5v5 Corsi percentage this season and has superior numbers to both of his CBGB linemates, overall. Some of that is attributable to better zone starts and spending some time on better lines, but not all of it. In fact, any forward that has spent over 100 minutes with Bernier at 5v5 this year has seen their possession numbers increase at least modestly. Even Patrick Elias has seen a big boost in his Corsi % with Bernier out there (59% when they’re on the ice together). Obviously, I’m not going to say Steve Bernier somehow makes Elias a better player, but he hasn’t been the anchor some perceive him to be when he’s been called upon to fill in on higher lines.
It’s also worth considering the work that Ryan has done with passing stats and zone exits this year when looking at Bernier. Bernier has proven – at least somewhat surprisingly, in my view – to be one of the more adept passers among forwards this year. He lead the team in shot attempts generated per pass through the Olympic break and held his own in a number of other passing categories like accuracy and d-zone turnovers committed. Evidence points to Bernier actually doing a lot of the little things right this year, he just hasn’t gotten rewarded at all.
So what to make of Bernier’s woes this season overall? There are certainly a few troubling signs as it pertains to his production. His points are way down, and now in the midst of this long drought, his shot totals have started to suffer as well. He needs to snap out of it soon or he might not get many more opportunities. That said, I think there is ample evidence to support continuing to run him out there. I know it’s tough to pin things on luck, and there have definitely been times where Bernier seems to whiff on golden opportunities, but I think this really just is a guy in a bad slump right now. Sometimes the puck just isn’t quite bouncing your way or your timing is a little bit off and you’ll suffer for it, but usually these things tend to even out over the long run. Maybe a night or two in the press box would do him some good and clear his head, but I think he is good enough to stay in this lineup moving forward, especially as a fourth-liner.