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Siegel: Leafs gamble on Bernier, add competition for Reimer

Jonas Siegel
6/23/2013 8:50:50 PM
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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis wasn't able to reach James Reimer on Sunday, leaving only a voicemail after the splash acquisition of Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles. But when he does reach the 25-year-old in the next day or so he'll relay a message similar to the one he expressed to the newest Toronto goaltender.

"Nothing is being guaranteed to anybody," Nonis said via conference call early Sunday evening. "If Jonathan Bernier becomes a No. 1 goaltender because he plays better and stronger and Randy [Carlyle] feels more comfortable, then that's what happens. If James won't give up that net and he's the guy who's our starter then that's fantastic, too."

Long in the hunt for another goaltender to complement and perhaps even overtake Reimer, Nonis sold the trade for Bernier as one that would strengthen the club considerably in goal, lending further security and higher upside to a position that had been in flux for the organization prior to the 2013 campaign.  

"It's my hope that both these guys are prepared for the job," Nonis said. "Both guys have the potential, both of them want it, and that can only make your organization stronger. It's funny how some people look at things; either you don't have enough depth in net or you have too much. I subscribe to the notion you can never have too much."

In exchange for Bernier, the Leafs sent Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second round pick to the Kings.

Selected 88 picks after Bernier in the 2006 draft, Reimer did all that was asked and more for the Leafs this past season, tying for the seventh-best save percentage in the NHL, albeit in a 48-game schedule. But as was evident in their attempts to land Miikka Kiprusoff at the trade deadline, Nonis and the Toronto management team were hunting for more security in their crease beyond the Manitoba native, a competitor with upside, one who could potentially assume the reins and even thrive in the event that Reimer steps backward next season. 

Toiling behind Jonathan Quick for the past three years in California, Bernier has played in just 62 career games – far fewer than the 111 Reimer has amassed – but posted a sparkling 1.88 goals against average and .922 save percentage this season.

"This is clearly not a knock on James at all," Nonis stressed, though Reimer will now clearly have to compete for the starting job with Bernier. "We feel we've got two of the top young goaltenders in the league right now. Both of them we feel have the potential to be solid number ones.

"I also believe that when you have someone pushing you, you get the most out of yourself. And I think that's the situation here where these guys can push each other and we're going to see some good goaltending because of it."

The first goaltender selected in the 2006 draft (11th overall), Bernier could never escape the shadow of Quick in Los Angeles, never playing in more than 25 games. Heading into restricted free agency this summer, he made it clear to Kings general manager Dean Lombardi that he wanted an opportunity to start, a chance to prove that he could live up to the hype and become a viable No. 1. 

"It's kind of bittersweet for us," Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall said Sunday. "He's been a great soldier for us and a very good player for us. Unfortunately he's stuck behind Jonathan Quick which is a tough situation for [him]. And as a sense of fairness to him and the timing that we felt was best for the organization we made the move."

"He's still young and I still think he's got a long way to go in terms of development," Nonis said of the former Lewiston MAINEiac, noting the tendency of goaltenders to grow well into their 20s and early 30s. "There's always a gamble when you're taking a young player. But we felt that the gamble was worth taking with the upside that we think that Jonathan has."

It's uncertain if Bernier can reach that upside, but in theory, the Leafs have improved their viability in goal with the addition. Bernier has never held a starting job in the NHL and managed back-to-back games just twice for the Kings last season, but he offers the intrigue and potential to assume the role or at the very least, complement Reimer as a secondary option for Carlyle.

Reimer rarely wavered in his first extended go-around as the Leafs No. 1, posting an impressive .924 save percentage in 33 games. But it's clear the organization is unsure of his ability to be their guy over an 82-game haul. And had he not been capable of such a task next season, they would have been forced to turn to an even more uncertain option in Scrivens, which they undoubtedly had no interest in doing.

The gamble assumes that with more opportunity in Toronto, Bernier may just thrive, thus offering the organization two budding goaltenders capable of starting as opposed to just the one.

"James has done a very good job," Nonis said of Reimer, who posted 19 wins last season. "He's improved every year and we're expecting that to continue next season. He's made some significant strides, he's done an excellent job for us … I don't think you can be deep enough at that position. We got younger and deeper today and we feel our team is stronger because of it."

Nonis and Lombardi began trade talks on Bernier as early as the first week of the 2013 campaign, coming "close" on a couple occasions but never following through. After the Kings were knocked out of the playoffs by the Blackhawks in the Western Final, Lombardi reached out to Nonis and suggested that Bernier would be available once more.

In Frattin, the Leafs lose a 25-year-old with the ability to score and impact the game physically, but one who was inconsistent last year. The potential to be a 15-20 goal-scorer is certainly there. Scrivens meanwhile, filled in capably for Reimer when the latter went down with injury in 2013 and while there certainly is potential for him as an NHL netminder – his .915 save percentage ranked in the top-25 – the Leafs ultimately determined he would not eclipse nor ever seriously push Reimer as Bernier might. The Leafs also assume $500,000 in the deal along with a second round pick (either 2014 or 2015, their choice), two valuable commodities for the Kings in making the deal.

Nonis hinted in his comments that more changes may be in the cards in the coming days. With Mike Komisarek likely to be bought out in the very near future, the Leafs will have just 11 players signed for next season with choices to make on the likes of Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur as well as figures to agree upon with Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, and now Bernier among others.

"I think between now and July 5 you'll probably see a couple more moves from us," Nonis said, noting the open hole on the roster with the departure of Frattin. "We're going to work hard to do that anyway between now and then."

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