The Toronto Maple Leafs have filed for salary arbitration with goaltender Jonathan Bernier, the 26-year-old netminder who is eligible for restricted free agency on July 1.
Acquired by Toronto two years ago for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick, Bernier posted a 21-28-7 record with a 2.87 goals against average and a .912 save percentage last season as the Maple Leafs hit the skids and finished as one of the worst teams in the league.
While the move is basically a formality - any player worth their salt gets offered arbitration when they’re eligible – it’s also a tremendous sign that the Maple Leafs understand how important a franchise goaltender is to both the rebuilding process and a championship team.
And Bernier has the potential to be a franchise goalie, even if he hasn’t exactly shown it yet.
More often than naught, goalies take longer to develop than position players; it’s a challenging position that carries a ton of weight and sometimes, even the best young talents at the position need a few more years to figure it all out.
Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price, who is a year older than Bernier and a candidate to take home both the Vezina and Hart Trophies next week at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, got replaced by Jaroslav Halak in the playoffs and was inconsistent during the early stages of his career.
Over the last two years, he’s posted 78 wins and become the best goalie in the league.
Could Bernier get there? Perhaps – a lot of it will depend on the team that Toronto puts in front of him beginning next season. At the very least, he has the skills to be the undisputed No. 1 goalie in Toronto and a vital piece of the rebuilding process in “The Big Smoke.”
Putting pen to paper with Bernier on a new deal – either through arbitration or by agreeing to something before the process plays out – crosses off one of the key elements required of this rebuilding. Every team needs a top-flight goaltender and Bernier should be Toronto’s going forward.
The next few chips will fall in the next few weeks as the team prepares for and makes its way through the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Most people expect Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf to be moved some time this summer, and though that very well could be the case, they could also stay in Toronto and become part of the rebuild. Goal scorers like Kessel don’t come around that often and though Phaneuf isn’t the elite, top-line defenseman his contract makes him out to be, the current captain would be a very solid third or fourth man on the blue line. If the Toronto brain trust can get the combination of prospects and picks that they want for either player (or both guys), then they’ll move them, but this isn’t a “Gotsta Go” situation.
Kessel and Phaneuf aren’t the kind of guys you take $0.50 on the dollar for in deal simply to get rid of them – they can contribute, especially Kessel. Yes, he bottomed out with the rest of the squad last season under Randy Carlyle and then interim coach Peter Horachek, but with a proven winner and quality motivator like Mike Babcock walking the bench, maybe the American winger gets back to playing to his potential and becomes an integral member of Toronto’s plans going forward.
The Leafs have a big decision to make come Draft Day. With the fourth overall selection a couple weeks from now, they will need to choose between adding another blue chip prospect on the blue line, Noah Hanifin, or a speedy, skilled forward, Mitch Marner, but that decision will all play out in the next few weeks.
For now, they’ve made the right move in taking steps to keep Bernier in the fold and build from the crease out.