Nothing gets the sporting world in Toronto going like a Leafs trade. On Sunday afternoon the Leafs traded 25 year old winger Matt Frattin, 26 year old goaltender Ben Scrivens and a conditional second round pick (in either 2014 or 2015) to the Los Angeles Kings for (soon to be) 25 year old goaltender Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs also retained $500,000 of cap space in the deal. In a vacuum this trade really confuses me. With all due respect to Bernier, the Leafs currently have 25 year old James Reimer in between the pipes. Reimer was the Leafs MVP this past season and a major reason they were able to finally end their nine year playoff drought. Reimer was also spectacular in the playoffs as he – and the Leafs – were 90 seconds away from eliminating the Boston Bruins. Reimer posted the 8th best save percentage in the NHL this past season. In a market where competent goaltending was nothing more than an unattainable dream it seems odd to not recognize it when it emerges. However, Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis has never appeared to be confident in Reimer. Nonis attempted to acquire both Roberto Luongo and (bizarrely) Miikka Kiprusoff at the trade deadline this season. Having struck out (thankfully) on those two veterans, Nonis was determined to not miss out again on ‘upgrading in net’ as he used three very good assets (and valuable cap space) to win the Bernier sweepstakes.
My confusion has nothing to do with Bernier. Since he was drafted 11th overall in 2006 Bernier has done everything that has been asked of him. He posted spectacular numbers in the QMJHL and followed that up by being even better in the AHL. In his brief time in the NHL Bernier has been very good as well (click here to see the numbers that Bernier has put up throughout his career) . Stuck behind 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier had voiced his displeasure at being a backup goalie and was promised by Kings GM Dean Lombardi that he would be traded. I have no problem with Bernier looking for an opportunity to be a starting goalie in the NHL. He paid his dues in both the AHL and as a back up for three seasons. He is reportedly a very confident and competitive athlete that wanted to play. That’s a positive attribute, not a negative.
The great thing for fans of the Leafs is, I 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?
Nonis has been banging the drum regarding cap flexibility over the past week, yet he has retained $500,000 in this deal and will need to sign Bernier (who is currently an RFA) before the season begins. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun is reporting that Bernier won’t be looking for much. Bernier will certainly be more expensive than Scrivens’ $612,500 salary (he’ll probably fall in somewhere between $1.5-$1.8 a season). The newest Leaf is also only three years away from unrestricted free agency. Complicating matters even worse is the fact that Reimer will be a RFA next summer. If Bernier is seeking a short term deal to prove himself how is he going to handle sitting on the bench while Reimer continues to be the number 1? If Bernier supplants Reimer will the current Leafs top goalie be happy to be riding the pine in a contract year considering all he did for the blue and white this season? The Leafs will also need to replace the cheap Matt Frattin (who the Leafs still had RFA years in the bank with). Despite Nonis’ focus on cap flexibility this move definitely puts strain on a cap that has dropped.
It feels like the situation will not be one that will last for long. I can’t see Reimer being a member of the blue and white past this season. This tandem may work for one year, but Bernier has already expressed his desire to be a number 1 and Reimer has already proven capable of being one. This quote from LeBrun’s article on ESPN.com demonstrates the Leafs thinking when it comes to Reimer:
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.
If the Leafs front office isn’t totally comfortable giving the keys to Reimer (despite his results proving otherwise) then I can easily see them trading him and bringing in a veteran to complement Bernier. Nonis can pay all the lip service he wants when it comes to saying how great it is to have two young and capable netminders. The reality is that the clock has begun ticking for the Leafs. As Bernier proved in LA, that situation can only last temporarily. Eventually one of those talented netminders will seek an opportunity to carry the mail on their own. Funnily enough, both Reimer and Bernier were the two goalies on the 2011 Canadian roster at the World Hockey Championships. Reimer began the tournament as the number 1 goalie but was replaced midway through by Bernier who took over the reigns the remainder of the way. Canada eventually lost 2-1 to Russia in the quarter-finals.
If the Leafs really believe in Bernier then this is a good move. Screw what everyone else thinks and who cares if you have a guy currently occupying the net. Goaltending is the most important position in hockey and if Nonis thinks Bernier is the franchise guy that many claim he is then do what you feel is right. It is a very big gamble though. I said earlier that in a vacuum this move confuses me. The Leafs have obvious areas to fill both on their blueline and alongside Phil Kessel. Wasting assets on an area that was shored up certainly raises eyebrows. However, all indications are that the Leafs are going to be very busy in the next 7-10 days. Nonis may have other moves up his sleeve that will provide clarity as to why moving pieces for Bernier makes sense. Time will tell I guess. In the meantime the Leafs will enter the 2013-14 season with their most stable goaltending tandem in years. Reimer has earned the nod as the starter to begin the season, interesting to see if history repeats itself and Bernier once again takes away his starting job.