“We feel we have two of the top young goaltenders in the league right now. Both we feel have the potential to be solid No. 1s.” —Dave Nonis, June 23, 2013
Jonathan Bernier was given every chance in Toronto become the No. 1 goaltender that his 11th-overall draft status in 2006 purported him to be, and was given away Friday, to the Anaheim Ducks, for a conditional draft pick.
So much hope and promise — albeit misplaced hope and promise — dwindling to shattered confidence and the transnational version of a bag of pucks. Which the Ducks only handed to the Leafs after they paid Bernier his $2 million signing bonus on July 1.
How far had Bernier tumbled?
The Calgary Flames had the worst goaltending in the league last season. They contemplated trading for Bernier, who has been on the block for at least seven months, back in December but thought better of it.
The softies from centre ice or tone-setting gaffes on the first shot of a game provided touch points for local fans’ agony and Reimer-woulda-had-that examples for the believers in James. But the goaltender’s cold, hard numbers — a 12-21-3 record and .908 save percentage last season — were worse than those of Reimer, who was bumped to 1B status without a say.
Bernier’s results were just not OK for a guy making $4.15 million a year, a guy who was handed the reins on a silver platter when the cheaper Reimer had helped Toronto snap its playoff drought.
“We felt this was the best thing to do,” Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said of the Bernier trade. “He’s a pro. Certainly understands why. Anytime you make that type of phone call, it’s tough.”
You can break out charts and graphs, but two simple facts explain Bernier’s demise in Toronto. The starting goalie failed to secure a regulation victory from March 3 through Dec. 18 of 2015. Head coach Mike Babcock loves winning.
“I’ve been through probably the hardest years in my career in Toronto because of the rebuild,” Bernier said after the Leafs picked up Anaheim netminder Frederik Andersen to replace him. “I feel like we’re heading in the right direction, but if it comes down to a business decision and they feel they need to move me, I can’t control that.”
The flight to Anaheim marks a reunion on four levels for Bernier. To sunny California, where he impressed Nonis enough as Jonathan Quick’s understudy to warrant two roster players, a second-round pick and an immediate $8.3 million commitment. To not-quite-so-sunny Randy Carlyle, under whom Bernier played his best Toronto hockey. To the firm No. 2 role, as the Ducks have placed their faith in All-Rookie Team goalie John Gibson. And to shelter behind an elite defence: the Ducks’ defence was the NHL’s best last season, as was its penalty kill.
All of these factors — and the fact he’s only 27 — place “Conditioning Stint” Bernier in the ideal setting to improve on his solid finish to 2015-16 (he won five of his last eight games as a Leaf when no one was watching) and become again what he is: a decent No. 2.
Surely this deal was discussed at the time of the Andersen trade, which explains why Anaheim sat out of July 1’s backup goalie feeding frenzy and, just maybe, part of the reason why the Leafs have delayed handing Auston Matthews his bonus-laden entry-level contract.
With Bernier off the books, Toronto has a projected $3.56 million in cap space to spend. The Leafs still need to pay their No. 1 pick, and there have been whispers of a veteran UFA defenceman (James Wisniewski? Kris Russell?) joining the fold.
Lamoriello had no comment on Matthews’ contract other than to say it wouldn’t take long to get done.
Toronto must also secure a backup for Andersen, and Lamoriello assures he’ll have one before training camp.
Garret Sparks (.893 big-league save percentage) is one year removed from the ECHL and not NHL ready. An affordable option could be plucked from a picked-over UFA pool that includes Jhonas Enroth (my choice), Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, Anders Lindback and potential sideshow Ilya Bryzgalov.
Yes, on a day when a goaltender with once-high hopes ends his Maple Leafs tenure humbled, Toronto is going goalie shopping again.