Ultimately, the players that the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up in the Jonathan Bernier deal weren’t extremely valuable, but they’re still likeable players that we’ll miss so we’ll have some individual breakdowns on their best moments throughout the week.
What Toronto did give up in the trade was mostly opportunity cost. James Reimer has been the starter of the Toronto Maple Leafs for three half seasons. In two of them, he had all-star calibre numbers and in the other one, he was concussed. The trade does two immediate things for Toronto, the first being that the departure of Matt Frattin means that Colton Orr will get more ice time, and the second being that Reimer will get fewer starts with Bernier in the system. The Leafs wouldn’t have traded three pieces for a backup goaltender, so you have to think that there’s a plan to run a tandem goaltender system.
Now, there’s no problem with a tandem goaltender system and I’d even suggest that having two above average goaltenders is better than having one true starter and one true backup. If Bernier is all that he’s cracked up to be, Toronto’s goaltending situation is much better this season than it was last season.
The problem is that you have no way of knowing it. Goaltending is a very tough position to predict. It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror and tell which goalie had the better statistics, but nobody can possibly pretend to know what goaltenders will do down the line. Perhaps Los Angeles had designs on Jonathan Bernier being the proverbial “goaltender of the future” when they drafted him 11th overall in 2006. Seven years later, Bernier started 54 games for the Kings.
But the list does go on. There’s a desire among hockey executives to look at pedigree when trading for a goaltender. Not a single person in hockey denies the importance of goaltending, and not a single statistical outsider denies the importance in goaltending. Pedigree, does not equal future performance. Ask Paul Holmgren how that Ilya Bryzgalov contract is working out. Or Mike Gillis how Roberto Luongo is working out. Or Garth Snow how happy he is that his owner was so infatuated with No. 1 overall pick and All-American Rick DiPietro. Dan Bylsma took a lot of flak in the playoffs for starting Tomas Vokoun instead of former No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury. Ken Holland and the vaunted Detroit Red Wings draft machine once took a goaltender named Thomas McCollum in the first round. When Darryl Sutter was general manager in Calgary, he drafted Leland Irving in the first round.
Goaltenders for me fit into two categories. Goalies who “will probably be pretty good next season” and goalies who “will probably not be pretty good next season”. If you used career save percentage numbers, you could ballpark about 60-70% of NHL goaltenders without ever looking at a highlight or a game. If you looked at a game or a highlight, you probably wouldn’t be much better off.
Reimer has two seasons with a .920 save percentage and probably belongs in the first camp. If there are any doubts about him at this point, they’re strictly related to his health. There isn’t an awful lot of evidence that would suggest Reimer isn’t on the path to be an NHL starter for the next five or six seasons, except for perhaps that his maximum games played in any one season is 40—and that’s counting playoffs.
So the Leafs trade for Bernier, who is more pedigree than experience at this point. He’s an easy player to dream on, given that he’s been the Goalie of the Future for the Los Angeles Kings for years now. Now he’s the Goalie of the Present of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll trend more towards the goalie that was a force with the Lewiston MAINEiacs during their 2007 Memorial Cup year or the one that has just 54 NHL starts since 2008.
This isn’t a bad trade because Bernier is a bad goaltender. It could work out exceptionally well but it still doesn’t mean that the thought process behind this trade isn’t flawed. What does Nonis know about Bernier better than we do, or potentially that Dean Lombardi didn’t when he signed Not Jonathan Bernier to a 10-year contract?
Even compared to Ben Scrivens, Bernier’s statistics aren’t mindblowing. In three AHL seasons, Bernier had a save rate of .927. Scrivens in a same amount of time posted a .923. That’s a difference of about one goal per month. Perhaps he wasn’t the veteran backup the team needed as insurance, but he was very serviceable when Reimer went down to injury in 2013, posting five quality starts in eight appearances and the Leafs went a respectable 4-4 in the stretch. That’s the goalie the Leafs need, not one to take starts away from a healthy Reimer.
It could work out, but just like the Korbinian Holzer and Colton Orr contracts, the trade represents a significant flaw in the Leafs’ thinking. Ryan Fancey put it pretty well on Twitter. “Strange deal, but not exactly catastrophic”. Neither Frattin or Scrivens or a second round pick or $500K in salary cap space are probably going to turn out to be much above replacement level, but I’m not sold that the hockey people that like this deal know more about Jon Bernier than we do. If they did, maybe hockey people wouldn’t consistently make bad bets on goaltenders year after year after year.