Jonathan Bernier has a short NHL résumé but the expectations from those familiar with his work are long – long enough this off-season acquisition is projected as the trade that finally ends a 10-year search by the Toronto Maple Leafs for a goalie with the star quality of Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour.
“If he lives up to the expectations of what I think he can do, he is going to be big,” said Los Angeles Kings goaltender coach Bill Ranford, who worked with Bernier from the summer of 2006, when he was picked 11th overall in the NHL entry draft, until June, when he was traded to the Maple Leafs for forward Matt Frattin, goaltender Ben Scrivens and a second-round draft choice.
“He’s been a star at every level he’s played at,” said Ranford, a two-time Stanley Cup champ as a player, plus one as a coach. “In my books, he’s already a star.”
Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Clément Jodoin was the head coach of the Lewiston Maineiacs of the QMJHL when Bernier arrived in 2004 as a 16-year-old backup to Jaroslav Halak. Even then, you could see Bernier had his eye on bigger things.
“Sometimes, you get a feeling like, ‘yes, this one’s going to be a player,’” Jodoin said. “He was dedicated, he was serious, he knew where he wanted to go. He already had his own routine established, he was able to stay in the zone, in the bubble, even at 16.”
However, being a star in the QMJHL or AHL does not resonate with the denizens of Leafs Nation. Not after three seasons in Los Angeles as a backup to Jonathan Quick. Many of them expect James Reimer will hang on to his job in the fight to be the No.1 goaltender this season, even if all of the subtle indications from Leafs brass are the position is Bernier’s to lose.
Then again, winning the top job is often not the biggest problem for the long line of would-be successors to Joseph and Belfour. Keeping it while dealing with a loose defence and the merciless scrutiny of the largest fanbase in hockey-mad Canada has driven off far more experienced goaltenders than Bernier. He has a mere 62 NHL games to his credit with a 29-20-6 record, a .912 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average, numbers not dissimilar to Reimer (.915, 2.71 GAA), who is also 25, but has a whopping 42 more games played.
Those who know Bernier say in addition to his considerable talent, the native of Laval, Que., has the mental approach to not just survive in the intense atmosphere around the Leafs, but thrive. The same words come up in every conversation.
“One thing I noticed from the very beginning was how cool, calm and collected he was,” said Kings pro scout Alyn McCauley, who well knows the Toronto pressure cooker from his six seasons as a Leafs centre. “He never gets rattled. He has a plan and follows it. When he’s on, he makes the game look easy.”
Both Ranford and McCauley say learning how to deal with the frustration of being stuck behind Quick, whose Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012 when the Kings won the Stanley Cup meant he wasn’t going anywhere, will help Bernier in the competition with Reimer. Bernier is a believer in controlling what you can and not worrying about what you cannot, which is why he has a different view of the job fight than most.
“To be honest, I’m not going to compete against Reimer,” Bernier said. “I’m competitive enough that I want to be the best. That’s not something I’m focused on, to beat Reimer. I just focus on being the best. That’s the only thing I can control.
“I feel more ready that I ever have to step up my game. Hopefully, I will play more. That’s up to the coaching [staff]. I can’t really control that. What I can control is my game and make sure I’m prepared every day and every game.”
Something else Bernier can’t control is the NHL, which recently shortened goaltenders’ leg pads in a bid to increase scoring, just a few seasons after their width was cut by an inch. Bernier, who plays a hybrid style between a butterfly and stand-up goaltender, like his idol Martin Brodeur, says he had to change his style slightly, mainly because it’s more difficult to cover the same area when he goes down and stacks his pads. But he shrugs it off as just another challenge.
“Everyone is starting from scratch,” he said of NHL puck-stoppers. “That’s the way it is. They’re trying to get more goals and we have to live with it.”
Bernier has the same attitude toward his time in Los Angeles. He is not bitter about never getting a real chance to compete with Quick for the No.1 job. The way Bernier sees it, Quick was called up from the Kings’ AHL team before he was and made the most of his chance.
This thinking extends to last season, when Bernier stepped in and starred in 14 games for the Kings when Quick struggled in the aftermath of back surgery. Both Ranford and McCauley said the Kings would not have made the playoffs without Bernier. But he did not mind going back to the bench once Quick found his legs.
“It’s not like I was there and he took my job,” Bernier said, unwittingly drawing a parallel for what may lie ahead with Reimer. “That would have been a different situation.”
But it does not mean Bernier resigned himself to life as a backup. It was not a new situation for him, as he had to wait out Halak in Lewiston, and there was a promise from Kings general manager Dean Lombardi to trade him by the summer.
“It’s a fine line because if you tell yourself you’re a backup, then I think you take it more easy,” Bernier said. “If you tell yourself you shouldn’t be a backup then you get frustrated and your game is not at the highest level.
“You just have to find that line between and that was probably the hardest part. I think I did a good job controlling my emotions and I had a really good season last year.”
Now, Bernier implies, it is his turn.
“I’m really confident in my ability and I’m ready to play some hockey. I’m still young. I’m 25 years old and, hopefully, I’ve got a lot of years in front of me. I think I’m in a great situation right now.”