Leafs deal takes pressure off Jonathan Bernier
If Jonathan Bernier is to be clear-headed to help the Maple Leafs the next couple of years, he can’t be playing under a contract cloud.
That’s what both goaltender and general manager eventually agreed upon Sunday morning in a new deal that headed off the arbitrator and gives the Leafs a measure of protection in net until the summer of 2017. With so many questions about how the on-ice product performs under new bosses in the early stages of renovation, Lou Lamoriello wanted no headaches in net. That meant giving a decent stopper a chance to rebound from last season.
“What we’re trying to do is get everybody feeling the past is in the past,” Lamoriello said after a summer stalemate ended with a two-year deal for $8.3 million US, split at $4.15 million a season.
“But subconsciously it’s going to be there. So having that (extra) year is both good for Jonathan and the organization, whether it’s the organization evaluating (him) or Jonathan proving it. There’s no pressure.”
Around noon, a couple of hours before the deadline to decide on a one-year award based on Friday morning’s hearing, the two-year pact was announced. Lamoriello, who just came aboard a couple of weeks ago, met Bernier for the first time on Friday and said there were cordial conversations with him and agent Pat Brisson before and after the hearing.
But the three-hour presentations by each side had a distinctly different feeling, at least for the restricted free agent Bernier. The Leafs had established a $2.89 million figure as their base, as low-ball as they could go under the CBA, 85% of last year’s $3.4 million salary. Brisson went for $5.1 million. But Bernier’s drop-off from 2013-14 was definitely going to be used against him.
“There’s obviously things they say you don’t want to hear,” Bernier said of the hearing. “But at the same time I think you grow from those experiences. I won’t be sour about it. I know it’s part of the business. They’re trying to get the best deal possible, we’re trying to do the same.”
Now he has two years to make a case for the long-term deal he’d hoped would come his way by now. Bernier’s record last season was 21-28-7 with a .912 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average, a departure from the .923 save percentage that was a Leafs record since the NHL began keeping the stat in the early 1980s. His confidence seemed shaken at times and he gave up far more early and soft goals, though he wasn’t the sole reason the Leafs missed the playoffs again.
“(Two years) makes sense personally,” Bernier said. “With a lot of changes this year, I didn’t know how the year was going to turn out.
“Obviously we don’t have a crystal ball. I want to be part of the Maple Leafs, especially the rebuild. I think that’s something amazing. I’m pretty sure they have a good plan and we’re going to go in the right direction.
“Two years gives me a little bit of comfort and I don’t have to think this year about re-signing next summer. I can just really focus on playing hockey.”
The extra season also takes Bernier out of a year of unrestricted free agency, as he reaches age 27 this week. Stablemate James Reimer will be in that UFA position next summer and the Leafs were likely concerned about both leaving before they can develop someone on the farm.
Before Lamoriello was hired, the Leafs were taking a bit of a gamble had the arbitration gone to the decision phase, knowing they might pay a higher figure than they wanted without the option of walking away from an unfavourable ruling.
“In my opinion, the organization made the right decision going to arbitration so that with the whole new coaching staff, there was no questions on who would be in training camp,” Lamoriello said. “Right now everything is stable. It had been a while since I had been to an arbitration. They seem to get settled these days. But I thought it was very good to hear exactly what both parties had to say as far as Jonathan, but more importantly, where the team is at.
“The thought process is trying to get a goaltender, and hopefully it’s Jonathan, to be the stabilizer for this franchise.”
GM CONFIDENT IN GOALIE DUO
In his first glance at the Maple Leafs goaltending depth chart, Lou Lamoriello knew he wasn’t going to see Martin Brodeur’s magically appear.
As general manager of the Devils, the crease was the least of his worries with Brodeur such a big part of three Stanley Caps and five appearances in the final overall, winning more games than anyone. Now Lamoriello starts with Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, who are getting into their late 20s with mixed success. Yet both are now under contract and the boss is ready to see what they can offer.
“I’m going in (thinking) they’re the best in the league right now,” the new GM said. “I think that right now, I have a total open mind and certainly I know Mike (Babcock) has the same. These are our goaltenders, these are people we believe in and now we just have to go out there and give every support mechanism to have the success that’s needed. Coming in, I feel very comfortable.”
Having just made an $8.3-million US investment in Bernier, Lamoriello was asked what he still has to prove on the ice.
“I don’t like the word ‘proving’, He is a National Hockey League goalie. He doesn’t have to prove anything. I think what we want collectively is get everybody doing what they’re capable of doing — together. The goaltender, yes, he can steal games at different times. But if you don’t (play as a team), the goalie takes the brunt of it.”
Bernier said the change in team systems after Randy Carlyle was fired in January did not have the desired effect for him or the team. Bernier and Reimer already have spent time with new goaltending coach Steve Briere in Minnesota last month.
“We worked together for five days,” Bernier said of the unheralded Briere. “He’s a really hard-working guy. It went really well. I think he can bring my game to another level.’
The Leafs now have $2.51 million of cap space remaining. According to The Hockey News, with $6.45 million of cap money invested in goal, the Leafs rank 18th in the NHL in that department.0