TORONTO – On nights off, when Nazem Kadri is lounging around home, he likes to throw on a hockey game involving a former teammate just to see how he’s doing.
So the Toronto Maple Leafs centre is well aware that the goalie he’ll face Monday night is the hottest in the league.
Half punching bag, half punchline a year ago, the Colorado Avalanche have now won a head-scratching nine straight and accelerated into the playoff race despite a prolonged injury to No. 1 goalie Semyon Varlamov.
The backup backbone of this remarkable run is a face familiar to Kadri and any Leafs fan who tuned in when things went from bad to worse: Jonathan Bernier.
“Any teammate of mine is always a teammate,” Kardi says. “I couldn’t be more happy for him.”
Lured from Los Angeles to Toronto in 2013, Bernier cost the Leafs three pieces in the trade, and then-GM Dave Nonis signed his newfound No. 1 goalie to the two most lucrative contracts of his life.
When Toronto dealt Bernier to Anaheim upon the acquisition of Frederik Andersen in 2016, he flew back west richer, yet so much worse off in terms of his NHL stock. The 30th-place team in the league decided he wasn’t good enough to dress for them but still had to pay his annual July 1 signing bonus in order to facilitate the deal.
“It seemed like he was seeing a barrage of shots every night,” Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk says. “It’s good to see him having some success, and it’s not by accident. He wants to be a player.”
Goals seeping through him from centre ice, twice as many losses than wins, shattered confidence, a career-worst .908 save percentage, a demotion to the AHL Marlies — Bernier’s final season as a Leaf was an unmitigated disaster set to a soundtrack of Bronx cheers.
“The hardest years in my career because of the rebuild,” is how Bernier described his Toronto tenure before embarking on a bid to revive his career.
“I just had him in the year where we didn’t win any games, when we were the worst team in the National Hockey League. So if you’re the goaltender on that team, how much fun is that?” Leafs coach Mike Babcock says. “The good thing about Bernie, he’s been mentally tough enough to find his way back and get his career going again the way he wants.
“It’s one of the toughest spots, for sure, in sports to be a goalie and be consistent year-to-year. So to find that, good for him.”
Nathan MacKinnon has sped to second overall in NHL scoring and won First Star of the Week honours Monday, but he points to Bernier as the Avalanche’s most valuable player in January.
With Varlamov on the shelf, Bernier has come out victorious in his past eight appearances, posting a .957 save percentage this month.
The streak began midway through a Jan. 2 game against Winnipeg. Varlamov suffered a groin injury in the middle of a Jets power play.
“So his first few shots were [Patrik] Laine one-timers. That’s not easy,” says MacKinnon. “He’s been unbelievable. He’s a warrior.”
Bernier’s been so solid heading into his first game against his old team, Colorado coach Jared Bednar may have a tricky decision regarding whom to ride when Varlamov does return after the all-star break.
“Bernie’s been patient waiting for his opportunity, filling in some games here and there,” Bednar says. “Now with Varly going down with a longer injury, he’s been outstanding, especially over the home stand. It’s good to see a guy like him have success because he’s been a great teammate, supporting Varly.”
After a respectable showing as John Gibson’s backup in Anaheim, Bernier secured a one-year, $2.75-million deal from the Avs — a 34 per cent pay cut from his last Leafs days. Bernier reached out to Tyler Bozak, who summers in Denver, for advice on his new city.
“I’m definitely happy for him,” Bozak says. “It’s nice to see the turnaround the team has had, and he’s been playing unbelievable.”
Help get the Avs into the playoffs, and Bernier, 29, will be an intriguing free agent on July 1. Varlamov (also 29) still has one more season at a hefty $5.9 million, but Colorado doesn’t have a goalie signed beyond 2018-19.
Is there a chance Bernier moves on to his fourth team in four years?
The goaltender declined all interview requests after Monday’s skate at Air Canada Centre.
“You have all eyes on you in Toronto. As a goaltender, the spotlight’s on. It can be difficult to play sometimes. Distractions can get in the way. With Bernie, he’s pretty mentally tough and rises to the occasion for the most part. He’s an athletic guy with all the tools to be a great goalie, and maybe he needed the scenery change,” Kadri says.
A mental reset and clean slate were in desperate order. The piling losses show up in the goalie’s stat line, no one else’s. The losing, a few Leafs say, ate at Bernier mentally.
“That’s what happens, especially when you play in a market like Toronto. Everything is magnified 10 times. Everyone feels they know what’s best for you,” Kadri says.
“Sometimes you have to tune everything out and decide what makes you best as a person and a player. For Bernie, I know it was tough on him sometimes, but he’s a great teammate.”
Jonathan Bernier is on over his last 8 starts. He’s back in Toronto tonight as the #Avs try to win their 10th straight.
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