One of the great unknowable factors in NHL development circles is anticipating correctly when a young goaltender steps from promising prospect to legitimate No. 1 status.
Consider a trio of goalies in the spotlight during the first fortnight of the season, all of whom are approaching important crossroads in their respective careers – the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier, the Colorado Avalanche’s Semyon Varlamov and the Edmonton Oilers’ Devan Dubnyk.
Two are in the news for the right reasons – both Bernier and Varlamov are off to fabulous starts, as the Leafs and the Avalanche posted a cumulative 10-1 record in the early going. The other, Dubnyk, is at the opposite end of the goalie spectrum – lugging around a 5.43 goals-against average into Monday night’s date with the Washington Capitals and forcing people in Edmonton to wonder if, at the age of 27, he will ever be the legitimate starter that will carry the Oilers to championship heights.
The uncertainty over how good Bernier was/is was the primary reason the Maple Leafs were able to acquire him from the Los Angeles Kings for a relatively modest price: goaltender Ben Scrivens, forward Matt Frattin, plus a second-round draft pick.
Bernier was the 11th player selected way back in the 2006 NHL entry draft and the biggest stumbling block to his development was the fact the Kings took Jonathan Quick in the third round one year earlier. L.A. was a pretty terrible team back then – the Kings had three top-five picks between 2007 and 2009 – but when the team started to come around finally, Quick was given first shot at the starter’s job and he made the most of it. It forced Bernier to patiently wait, a la Cory Schneider, for his chance to play.
Around the NHL, the conventional thinking was that no one had seen Bernier play enough to justify giving up any assets of consequence for his rights. Never mind that last season, when Quick struggled in the early stages, the Kings turned to Bernier more frequently and he was excellent. In all, he put together a 9-3-1 record, with a 1.88 goals-against average. L.A. made the playoffs by just four points last year and most people will tell you privately that if Bernier had faltered in any meaningful way, they could have missed them altogether.
The Leafs saw that where others did not. So when Toronto pried him loose for the price they did, it seemed like a steal of a deal. Frattin wasn’t going to play a top-six role on the team and the Leafs projected Scrivens as a backup. To get a No. 1 goalie for that package puts a guy in line for GM of the year honors. Dave Nonis, take a bow. Nonis made his bones as a general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, sending a similar scattershot sort of a package (an aging Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld) to the Florida Panthers for Roberto Luongo. All Luongo did was win 30 games or more in his first six seasons with the Canucks and once won 47.
Even after having a so-so night Saturday, Bernier’s numbers are still spectacular – 1.75 GAA, a .946 save percentage. That’s great, but not as great as Varlamov, who is 4-0 in the early season, with a 1.00 GAA and .970 save percentage, tops among NHL starters.
The difference between Bernier and Varlamov is Avalanche paid a far heftier price to acquire Varlamov from the Washington Capitals two years earlier than the Leafs did for Bernier. Colorado gave up future first– and second-round picks and for a time, as the Avalanche stumbled around in the first half of the 2011-12 season, that 2012 first rounder looked as if it could be a lottery pick. In the end, Washington settled for the 12th pick and drafted Filip Forsberg.