Goalie Jonathan Bernier seems more likely than most Maple Leafs to stick around during a rebuild – and he’s mentally prepared for it.
There’s often a disconnect between rumor and result as the NHL trade deadline approaches. No so with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the month of February. Name the rumored departure and it’s happened so far like clockwork. Unrestricted free agents-to-be Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik were supposed to go, and they did. Early. No dillydallying from GM Dave Nonis. Off they went for picks, a prospect and warm bodies Zach Sill and Olli Jokinen.
The moves signalled the beginning of a rebuild but not a demolition of the team’s core just yet. It was obvious Nonis would ship out the UFAs to ensure he got something with his team way out of playoff contention.
Then came the David Clarkson bombshell. Essentially buying out Clarkson’s contract by acquiring the injured Nathan Horton, who doesn’t count against the cap, sent a message to the rest of the team: Toronto truly wants to shake up its nucleus. The operation is broke and needs fixing.
Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier played arguably his best game of the season Thursday night, turning away 47 Philadelphia Flyer shots in a 3-2 victory, and it was all the more impressive considering he and his teammates learned of the Clarkson news shortly before game time.
The team called a meeting and Clarkson wasn’t there. Bernier said he and the players knew something was up at that point.
“Obviously, we’re down a little bit,” he said. “It’s never an easy moment when you go through this before a game. But I thought we managed pretty well. We had a good start, and that’s what we wanted.”
Even if he’s saddened by the changes, Bernier seems to understand.
“In the room it’s been tough lately, with the rumors and stuff like that,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s out of your control, so you just have to focus on your game and do your job.”
About that job of his. Bernier in all likelihood finds himself in a unique spot. He’s one of the safest bets to return next fall as a Leaf. Rumors will swirl wildly around Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and Roman Polak before Monday’s deadline, and big tickets Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel will attract wild speculation about blockbuster deals approaching June’s NHL draft. But Bernier belongs to a select category alongside defenseman Morgan Rielly, center Nazem Kadri and left winger James van Riemsdyk. Each is young and talented, each has a first-round draft pedigree and each has not yet reached his ceiling. The Leafs will never say never, but it will take a doozie of an offer to pry one of these players away. Jake Gardiner may or may not qualify for that group as well.
Bernier will command a raise on his $2.9-million cap hit as a restricted free agent this summer, even if the Leafs qualify him and go to arbitration. Still, he’s just 26 and has a .920 save percentage over 97 appearances as a Leaf. He’s not someone Nonis has to trip over himself to trade. Bernier still has a chance to be part of the long-term solution.
Speaking to him after Thursday’s game, it appears he’s ready for that. He expressed discomfort at the term “rebuild” when asked by one reporter, but Bernier denies nothing else.
“When you’re not doing so well – I’ve been through this – they’re going to take players,” he said. They’re going to try and bring some energy into the room. Obviously it’s a sad day to see ‘Clarky’ leave. But if it’s better for the team, I think, as a group, we’ll take that.”
Bernier’s been here before in that he was part of the pre-competitive Los Angeles Kings, who finished low enough in the standings to draft, well, him. Bernier went 11th overall in 2006 before the Kings bottomed out and took Drew Doughty with the second pick of the 2008 draft.
So Bernier is young enough and adaptable enough to endure whatever scorched-earth roster blowup lies ahead. Assuming he’s part of it, that is. The Clarkson trade proves anything is possible.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
With files from Jennifer King