It had only been a few hours since Dean Lombardi shipped Jonathan Bernier to Toronto and the Los Angeles Kings general manager was already talking like a man who lost the deal.
“It’s very difficult to get market value for a guy who is going to be a No. 1,” Lombardi said on a Sunday afternoon conference call. “You do the best you can and this was the best deal. Toronto was certainly aggressive.
“If you get a No. 1 goalie you can’t put a price on that.”
Lombardi, of course, went through something similar back in his days with the San Jose Sharks when he had to choose between Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff.
It was not something he wanted to have to do again.
While Jonathan Quick had clearly established himself as the No. 1 man in Los Angeles, there was still a feeling within the organization that Bernier could become a star. If it happens now, they’ll have to watch it happen somewhere else.
That helps explain why the transaction took several months to consummate and left Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall lamenting Bernier’s departure on Sunday as “bittersweet.”
You can trace the roots of the trade all the way back to the 2011 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Slovakia, where Leafs GM Dave Nonis was in charge of the Canadian team and added Bernier to his roster midway through the tournament.
In a strange piece of symmetry, Bernier promptly bumped James Reimer out of the No. 1 job — a situation that will likely be repeated this fall in Toronto — and was given the final three starts.
At the time, there was a feeling among those involved with Hockey Canada that Bernier outperformed Reimer and was the main reason the team nearly pulled off an upset win over Russia in the quarter-finals.
Clearly, Nonis saw something he liked in the young goalie during that event.
“It’s a short tournament so it’s always hard to be certain,” he said.
Nonis was a little more certain by the time he took over the Leafs GM job from Brian Burke back in January. One of the first things he did was phone Lombardi to inquire about Bernier, who had asked the Kings for a trade during the 2011-12 season and been convinced to stay.
However, the whole hockey world knew that Bernier wouldn’t be content to remain behind Quick for too much longer.
“David was very aggressive on this back at the beginning of last year as soon as the lockout was ended,” said Lombardi. “I don’t blame him. This is a good young goalie.”
Bernier could actually have become a Leaf during the lockout-shortened season. Perhaps the only thing that kept it from happening was how good he was playing and how much the Kings were relying on him while Quick struggled to find his game.
“We were close a couple times, but there was always something that kind of stopped the deal,” said Nonis. “Most of it was in place months ago and we just found a time that was right for both sides.”
When the Kings were eliminated from the Western Conference final a little over two weeks ago, Lombardi let it be known he was finally ready to move Bernier.
He gathered a master list of interested teams and gradually worked at paring it down. It was a grueling process that Lombardi was anxious to complete before travelling to Newark, N.J., for the June 30 entry draft.
“It was a very difficult deal to make,” he said. “There was a lot of due diligence, a tremendous amount of phone calls to narrow it down to the teams that were serious. And then we finally pulled the trigger when (we) were convinced this was the best deal you were going to get.”
The priority for the Kings was making a trade that would ease some of the burden on their salary commitments — something that was necessary with the cap dropping to $64.3-million next season and a number of their current players in need of new contracts.
They were also keen to land 25-year-old winger Matt Frattin.
Lombardi scouted him back when he was a star at the University of North Dakota and had previously made a push to trade for him two years ago. Toronto’s willingness to part with Frattin helped get talks going.
“There’s a lot to work with here,” said Lombardi. “This is an unfinished product, but universally on our staff we really tracked this kid.”
Backup goalie Ben Scrivens was a natural fit to replace Bernier and got thrown into the final deal along with a second-round pick in either 2014 or 2015 (Toronto’s choice). The real clincher came when the Leafs agreed to retain roughly $500,000 in salary owed to Scrivens and Frattin, meaning they’ll both come at a bargain basement price next season.
“It fits within the scheme of what I’m trying to do,” said Lombardi.
Bernier is a restricted free agent, but contract talks with the Leafs aren’t expected to be too challenging. His agent Pat Brisson had a preliminary chat with Nonis on Sunday and told sportsnet.ca that the goalie is eager to get something done as soon as possible because he doesn’t want to be a distraction.
No trade comes with certainty — especially one involving a goaltender — but industry sources seemed to think Toronto had made a wise decision.
“Love him,” said a NHL coach from the Western Conference. “Great trade for the Leafs.”
Even Lombardi seemed to agree.
While there was some hand-wringing from fans who felt that Nonis had either overpaid for Bernier or undervalued Reimer, the Leafs GM seemed extremely confident in his decision. After months of chasing Bernier, he was thrilled to roll the dice and bring in a 24-year-old goaltender that could soon become a star at the Air Canada Centre.
“I don’t think you can be deep enough at that position,” Nonis explained. “We got younger and deeper today and we feel our team is stronger because of it. …
“We feel we’ve got two of the top young goaltenders in the league right now.”