Following three years serving as the back-up in Los Angeles, newly acquired Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier says he's "ready for the challenge" of battling James Reimer for the number one spot in Toronto.
Speaking on Leafs Lunch with Bryan Hayes and Jamie McLennan on Thursday, Bernier said it was "very hard" at times being entrenched behind Jonathan Quick and is now excited at the prospect of getting an opportunity to compete with Reimer for the top spot with the Leafs.
"I'm ready for the challenge," Bernier said. "I've been waiting three years for that and now I finally get some playing time so I'm very excited to come and I'll be ready."
The 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft explained he learned a lot from backing up the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner for three seasons and although it was frustrating, he used it as a learning tool.
"It was very hard. Sometimes motivation was pretty low but I know at the end of the day, when I look back at this, it's going to make me a stronger person and a stronger player and it was good for me to learn from one of the best goalies in the league."
Coming off his best year statistically, in which he posted a 9-3-1 record to go along with a .922 save percentage and 1.88 goals against average, Bernier said he welcomes the competition with the Leafs incumbent goaltender and believes in having a supportive relationship with his fellow netminder, similar to what he had in L.A.
"I'm very happy, it's a great opportunity to come to Toronto with James I think it's going to be a good battle," Bernier said. "It reminds me a little bit of when I got to the Kings. We kind of grew up together. Obviously the chemistry is key when you want to win and you want to play for each other, so that's the right way to do it."
Reflecting on his most recent season, Bernier said he was excited to embrace a larger role with Quick nursing a back injury.
"This year was really good for me. Johnny had back surgery so I kind of stepped in and played a little bit more at the start and it was nice to play some back-to-back games and start feeling like you still got it."
Talking about Bernier's 2012-13 season, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told Dave Naylor on TSN Drive that "without Jonathan Bernier, I don't think we make the playoffs."
He went on to say that Bernier's play this season proved he was ready to make the leap to being a starting goaltender in the NHL.
"Clearly, (he has) the upside of a number one goalie," Lombardi said. "If you look at his pedigree to date, I don't think you could find another unproven number one who has done everything possible to prove he was a number one. Everything from what he did in the minors, to how he progressed at the NHL level and then certainly this year I think put him over the hump because not only did he play well, but he won big games."
Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis reflected on how he expects Bernier will fit into the Leafs' plans going forward earlier in the week when he spoke with Dave Naylor on TSN Drive, Tuesday afternoon.
"From our standpoint, it was the excitement about bringing in another top young goaltender into the organization and have Jonathan and James (Reimer) together," Nonis said. "I think it gives us probably, in my opinion, one of the top two punches of potential in the National Hockey League."
Nonis said he expects both goalies to compete for the number one spot and isn't worried about a potential conflict between the two.
"Well I think that's always a risk at any position," Nonis said. " It's a situation where we feel we have two guys with great potential and great character and there's no reason why they can't both compete hard for that job and push as hard as they can to keep control of the net."
Bernier said he's simply looking for an opportunity to challenge for a starting spot and believes Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle will give him that.
"From what I've heard, they're kind of similar in a way because they're fair coaches and as a player that's what you want," Bernier said when asked about the similarities between Carlyle and his previous coach, Darryl Sutter.
At 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, the 24-year-old is not among the bigger goalies in the NHL, but said he makes up for it with his hockey instincts.
"I'm not a very big goalie, so I need to be in good position. So I'd say reading the game is probably my biggest strength. When I'm on top of my game I can read two, three plays before it's going to happen and that's probably got me to where I am now."