Sober second thoughts: Jonathan Bernier a gamble Leafs didn't need to make

Cam Charron
June 24 2013 11:30AM

There are still a lot more moves for the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, but I'm wondering if any will be met with the polarized reaction of the Jonathan Bernier trade. My initial reaction was the same as Emily's. The Maple Leafs have been looking for a goaltender for years and years, and they finally had one come up through the system that was good enough to take the team to the playoffs and all of a sudden he's no longer good enough?

Troubling to me is that Dave Nonis has been pulling strings on a Bernier trade all season and decided now was the time to do it. Nothing he saw during last season convinced him that James Reimer was a goaltender who deserved at least a shot at a starting job during an 82-game season.

An optimist will look at this deal and suggest that the Maple Leafs are better in net than they were last week, and that optimist will be true. Jonathan Bernier offers an upgrade to Ben Scrivens, with a slightly higher NHL save percentage (.912 to .910) and a higher AHL save percentage (.927 to .924). The pessimist will see those gains as not being enough to justify the cost of Matt Frattin and a 2nd round selection.

Oh, and $500K in cap space. As noted yesterday, with buyouts to Colby Armstrong and Darcy Tucker still on the books and Colton Orr's re-signing, that is $3.425M counting against the cap on things that will not play hockey for the Maple Leafs this season. I thought withholding salary in the Matt Lombardi trade made some sense to free up a roster spot for Nazem Kadri, but does it on the gamble that Bernier is a better goaltender than James Reimer?

To clear up some issues from yesterday, I don't think that Bernier is a crummy goaltender that is indicative of his .912 save percentage. Last summer, I wrote out an argument that Bernier would maximize the Leafs' chances at finding a starting goaltender, and that Bernier's career sample size is not big enough to conclude whether he's good or bad at this point. He's a goaltender that we've been told has a much higher ceiling than Ben Scrivens, but as Steve noted in his video breakdown of the deal yesterday, Scrivens is an immensely likeable human being who was completely comfortable with his backup job.

Bernier? Well, the Kings never did too well when they had a Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier goalie tandem. After his Memorial Cup year with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, the Kings had him as their opening day starter in London in 2007. As the 11th overall pick in 2006, he was destined to be the Kings starter and it just never worked out. He never played more than 25 games in a season in LA and like Reimer, has never been tested in a long season.

That 25-game season was after LA was through their period of goaltender searching and they settled on Quick. Quick started 60 games and all six in the playoffs while Bernier started just 22 and didn't see a minute of playoff action. The next year which was the Kings' Stanley Cup season, the starts were split 89-13 for Quick. This past season, they were 54-12. If the Kings had visions of Bernier's ability as a No. 1, they never showed it as any attempts to go with a 1-1A goaltending system ended with Quick going on a run and ending with the job.

Overall in the last three years in the tandem system in LA, Bernier started just 18% of the Kings' games. Like Reimer, there are some longevity concerns because Bernier has never faced a heavy workload. I think there are already lots of people—including Randy Carlyle—that have already pencilled in Bernier as the team's starter already. Why do you suppose this is? Why are the Leafs banking on the guy they can dream on rather than the guy they have? Why did nothing that Nonis see out of James Reimer this season make him believe that perhaps he was worth giving a shot in an 82-game season.

At worst, the Leafs goaltending is marginally better. The problem is the rush to accept that this was an area of need for the Leafs.

Some Reactions:

I'll start with James Mirtle, as I usually do, who quoted Dave Nonis as saying that the job for the No. 1 goaltender is still up for grabs. Healthy competition? Again, is Bernier ready for a tandem system?

Toronto’s biggest needs are obvious – they need help down the middle and in the top four on the blueline – but adding in those areas is never easy, especially with the cap declining by nearly 10 per cent.

The only place the Leafs really are set is in goal, even though there’s an argument to be made that was the case prior to landing Bernier, too.

Now, the two young goaltenders – one old and one new – will be expected to push one another and continue the organization’s newfound success in the crease.

“This shouldn’t be looked as a knock on James at all because it’s not,” Nonis said of adding another netminder. “I believe that when you have someone pushing you, you get the most out of yourself. And I think that’s the situation here where these guys can push each other and we’re going to see some good goaltending because of it.”

Chris Johnston at Sportsnet wrote an excellent breakdown of what the LA Kings and Maple Leafs went through to get the deal done:

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.

The idea of a master list is pretty compelling, but this piece reads like the Leafs were always in on Bernier and Bernier was destined to be a Leaf, with the only thing holding it back was literally a back, specifically Jonathan Quick's malfunctioning one.

Still, the whole thing reeks of Nonis, like most of the hockey world, falling in love with Bernier's potential over his actual ability. Remember, Bernier will be 25 by season's start. He's not that young anymore. He's a couple of months younger than me, and I've been beating myself up over not having accomplished what I wanted to before turning 25. Like Bernier, all I have to show for it is a messy apartment and not being an NHL starting goaltender.

How much does the hockey world love Bernier? Allow Pierre LeBrun to explain:

Like the Kings, I’m extremely high on Bernier. I think he’s got star No. 1 written all over him. He’ll have to fight for his starts with James Reimer, but that’s a healthy competition. The Leafs’ front office was just never totally comfortable giving the keys to the kingdom solely to Reimer. Now they feel they’ve doubled their bets. 

A good gamble, Ranford said. 

"I don’t think he’s any different than Quickie, I think he can prove to a lot of people that he’s a legitimate No. 1 goalie for a long time in this league," said Ranford. "He’s a very fit individual, he’s very passionate about this position. The one thing about his game is that there’s not a lot of maintenance that needs to be done to his game. It’s just little tweaks here and there throughout the season. He’s just a real quality guy and teammate and he wants to be a No. 1, and that’s the big thing." 

Bernier really opened eyes this season when he stepped in some for important games while Quick got his act together.

Let's be clear. Bernier started 12 games for the Kings this season. Los Angeles were the best Corsi Tied team in the NHL from wire-to-wire, so I'm doubting they had to rely on their backup goalie to make the playoffs.

Actually, funny statistic: The Maple Leafs' goalie tandem of Reimer and Scrivens combined for an even strength save percentage of .9239, per Hockey Analysis. Quick and Bernier? Merely .9149. Those numbers are far too small a sample to be predictive, but it's outrageous to say that LA's two goaltenders had more of a hand in helping the Kings make the playoffs than the excellent play of Reimer and Scrivens all season.

And Darren Dreger:

Yes, because finding teammates that talk about how good their goalie is is a rarity in the NHL. I think the only NHL player who thinks about forecasting future player performance is Ben Scrivens. (He reads work written by smart, handsome people)

I'm going to link to the Toronto Star here (even though they don't link to us) to highlight the worst thing written about the trade, bar none. This is Dave Feschuk:

This is a franchise whose record of goalie-for-goalie moves includes Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft, the scorecard on which currently sees Rask within two wins of the Stanley Cup and Raycroft last employed in the Italian league. And as for the chatter among NHL insiders that Bernier is a can’t-miss star who could one day surpass L.A.’s Jonathan Quick as one of the league’s premier puck-stoppers — on that front, Leaf fans have heard plenty of historic hot air about the impending greatness of this new netminder and that one. To be fair to Jonas Gustavsson, who won two games in four starts with the Detroit Red Wings a year after he was finally jettisoned by the Leafs, the Monster didn’t hype himself.

So, what Feschuk is about to say is that caution should be implied on the Bernier trade, right?

Wrong.

Let’s not forget the essential truth: for all the intoxicating fever that surrounded Toronto’s first playoff run in nine years, this was a unit that only assured itself a berth in the final week of a truncated regular season before it got bounced in the first round of the playoffs after authoring one of the saddest choke jobs in the history of pro sports. It says something about Toronto that segments of the fan base yet wail: Don’t change a thing!

Wow, Feschuk went full Rosie DiManno on this one. If there's anything predictive about previous choke jobs, I'm, er, not seeing it. After his two worst outings ever in Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, I watched Roberto Luongo turn in his signature career game in Game 5, shutting out the Boston Bruins and giving the Vancouver Canucks a 3-2 series lead over Boston. A year ago, that same Bruins team gave up a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in what was also a historic collapse. They won the Stanley Cup.

Can you think of other collapses? How about the New Jersey Devils blowing a one-goal lead in Game 7 of their 2009 first round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, with the considerably clutch Martin Brodeur letting in goals with 1:20 on the clock and again with 0:32 on the clock to give the Hurricanes a 4-3 lead in both the game and eventually the series? Nope. According to Feschuk, he is "the greatest Devil of them all", even after Feschuk has seen Brodeur allow two goals in the exact same span of game time as Reimer did in the exact same situation: Game 7 of a first round series.

Feschuk is right in that Toronto was not as good as their record indicated, but, uh, their issues weren't in net. At 27th in shots against and 17th in goals against, how on earth does Feschuk conclude that the Leafs major issue was in goal?

To the blogosphere, mORRganRielly wrote about how the trade satisfied a need for a goaltender that could steal games:

Overall, the trade as a whole smells from a distance and perhaps it was a move the Leafs didn’t need to make. There’s also the question of whether Tim Leiweke had a hand in forcing Nonis to make this trade. However, the deeper we go, the more sense it makes when we’re thinking about the concept of winning games rather than keeping the team in it. Goals may win games, but goaltending can steal games we don’t deserve to win.

For evidence Mr. mORRganRielly quoted a scouting report from 2006. I understand the desire to have a goaltender steal games, but how many games did Bernier steal when he was with the Kings before they became a vaunted force with the additions of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards? I hate, hate, hate using goaltender wins as a statistic, but I always like to point at Reimer's 34-28-9 record during 2011 through 2012 during an absolute period of crisis for the Leafs. That is an 89-point pace, very close to playoff calibre, during a time when no other goalie had the Leafs even close to contention.

Bernier, before the Kings went out and got Carter, was 14-11-3. Much smaller sample, and hardly even better. That's a 91-point pace, but the Kings were able to make the playoffs without him in 2010 and 2011 quite handedly. I think Reimer is a goalie who has stolen games. He doesn't look flashy while doing it, but he's a strong positional goaltender that doesn't have to make highlight-reel saves to be successful. He just stops pucks.

Hope in the Big Smoke also touched on experience as an issue:

 have yet to hear a bad word said about Bernier. I remember how highly thought of he was heading into the draft and he was a highly regarded prospect ever since then. He was considered a franchise goalie and all reports say that he still will be. If the Leafs acquired a goalie of those capabilities then I am certainly on board with the move. The problem is Bernier’s lack of experience. The Leafs acquired a goalie that wants to be a number 1 goalie, while already having Reimer in that role. Could Bernier be better than Reimer? That is a definite possibility, but Reimer has played 104 NHL games to Bernier’s 62. Reimer’s career .915 save percentage (on an inferior Leafs team and in more games) is slightly better than Bernier’s .912. Reimer has also tasted NHL playoff action while Bernier has only watched from the bench in the NHL’s second season. While nobody has anything bad to say about Bernier, the issue of his inexperience still exists. Was wasting three valuable assets necessary with Reimer already in the fold?

That's what it comes down to. The cost to upgrade marginally in net was potentially too high. It's a good move that was made at simply the wrong time. Bernier could be spectacular, but Reimer has just as good of a chance at this point to be the guy. Even if Bernier comes through with a dazzling .935 EV SV% next season in 60 games, it's still a hollow accomplishment because you never quite know what Reimer could have done when handed the reins.

Anybody who tells you that they can predict goaltending performance is lying. Goalies are easy to judge because their statistics are pretty straightforward, but they are insanely impossible to predict. Were the same hockey insiders that are so high on Bernier real big on Craig Anderson when Ottawa traded for him? What about Sergei Bobrovsky? What did the scouting reports say about Henrik Lundqvist when he was drafted at 205 in 2000? Were they as glowing as Bernier's? That year, the goalies taken in the first round were Rick DiPietro and Brent Krahn.

This deal was made for the wrong reasons, and while there's a non-zero chance Bernier could become a star in Toronto, there is just as good of a chance that Reimer could have been the guy as well. "Wait and see" is off the table. What matters is the information we have now, and Dave Nonis paid a serviceable depth winger and a second round pick for potential. Now comes signing Bernier, and we'll get to that tomorrow.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 matt
June 24 2013, 11:43AM
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I still dont see the problem with having two good goalies. Worst case scenerio for the team is they both suck haha but most likey one will run with the ball and the team will be winning. Who cares whos in net, I think Reimer is an awesome guy but if bernier steals the crease with outstadning play, then so be it. I like this move, both players traded were unproven, not a big deal, liked them both, but not a big deal

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#3 Chuck
June 24 2013, 02:24PM
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@Matt

I'd be ok if the Leafs pickup Bernier for nothing.

But they didn't.. Frattin will be hard to replace based on his cap hit and production. Not many 10-20 goal scorers are available for under $1 million.

Scrivens has potential - only played 32 NHL games and had a save % of 0.910 (Bernier's lifetime save % is 0.912). I would have liked to seen him grow.

And the worst part of this trade is that the Leafs will be retaining salary. With the Salary cap going down, this will further hamper the Leafs from acquiring a #1c or #2D.

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#4 jasken
June 24 2013, 05:33PM
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I dont like the cost of Bernier, however what is Nonis's agenda. What if some team comes along offers Bernier an offer, Leafs decide to take picks instead of matching it which depending on offer could be a substantial benefit for future. What I mean is Leafs trade Frattin, Scrivens, and a 2nd round pick and Cash. End result maybe 3 first rds and a 2nd rd for Bernier. We wont know until we find out if Bernier signs with Leafs or not and for how much he is an RFA. So really speculating before we find out what Nonis motives really are is pointless GM's have never really been truly honest with their game plan or motives.

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#5 Jeremy Ian
June 24 2013, 07:01PM
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jasken wrote:

I dont like the cost of Bernier, however what is Nonis's agenda. What if some team comes along offers Bernier an offer, Leafs decide to take picks instead of matching it which depending on offer could be a substantial benefit for future. What I mean is Leafs trade Frattin, Scrivens, and a 2nd round pick and Cash. End result maybe 3 first rds and a 2nd rd for Bernier. We wont know until we find out if Bernier signs with Leafs or not and for how much he is an RFA. So really speculating before we find out what Nonis motives really are is pointless GM's have never really been truly honest with their game plan or motives.

Agreed -- it does raise the issue of motive and plan. Either there are none (in which Nonis is starting sadly), or there's a larger project. If the latter is the case, then the main loss might have been a good complementary backup for Reimer. Assuming Reimer is still part of the Plan. But who knows?

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#6 captainlupul
June 25 2013, 09:50AM
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So now a serviceable depth winger and a 2nd round pick are too much to pay for potential? The truth is you can't pick and choose when something becomes available. If Nonis had a choice to land a potential #1C vs Bernier, he probably would have spent his assets on the center, but that's now how it works. Nonis had to make a decision, deal for Bernier now, or hold on to Frattin and the pick (and Scrivens) in the hopes that he could use them in another trade to get a C/D. Players with the potential to be ALL-STARS don't get traded everyday, and if you can land one (for a depth winger and pick), you almost always have to do it.

Think of it this way - has anybody EVER said that Frattin or Scrivens will be an All-Star/Elite player in the NHL? Well, people can at least talk about Bernier in that way. Did we NEED another goalie? No, probably not. Did we trade away anything of REAL IRREPLACEABLE value? No. Simply put, even if the Leafs had a very strong group of 7 defensemen and somebody offered you Dion Phaneuf for Stajan/White/Mayers/BoxOfHammers, you take the deal and sort out the puzzle pieces afterwards.

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#7 Derek
June 25 2013, 11:40AM
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"What if some team comes along offers Bernier an offer, Leafs decide to take picks instead of matching it which depending on offer could be a substantial benefit for future." Why would we want to trade our backup who was ready (meaning we'd need to bring Rynnas or Owuya up probably) and a 3rd line winger (who can score, which we aren't exactly rolling in) for people who won't be ready for 5+ years? Why are people hellbent on the eternal rebuild?

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#8 dan
June 25 2013, 05:03PM
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Excellent article! Glad you slept on it!

Just a reminder : Dregher/LeBrun & Ferraro were also all embarrassingly high on MAF - Even though his underlying stats clearly showed he was & is simply an average goalie?

Reimer IS a B goalie. He has the potential to be an A but must cross the final hurdle - top performance over 65+ games . (Like King Henrik/& Lui)

JB IS at best an unknown - Nonis just gave up cap space a fringe player? & a 2nd rounder at for a roll of a loaded dice -

Most likely JB is a C goalie - LA has had one of the lowest SA in last 4 yrs - If you believe in Shot quality - or that it IS easier to play behind better Corsi teams - Then (you are correct to point out) that Quick & JB's #'s ARE inflated...

The fact that so many in MSM are in favor of this move is a reminder how ignorant they are in terms of numerical analysis and critical thinking! Well Done!

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