The Toronto Maple Leafs asked an impartial arbitrator to award goaltender Jonathan Bernier the minimum amount possible in a brief filed to both sides on Wednesday, calling for an award of $2.89 million on a one-year deal.
The minimum award for restricted free agents in salary arbitration is 85 per cent of their previous season's salary, which for Bernier was $3.4 million.
Bernier, 26, is the only one of 23 players in the arbitration process this summer to receive a filed offer from his club below what he earned last season. The Maple Leafs did not issue Bernier a qualifying offer in June equal to his $3.4 million salary and instead opted for arbitration, where they had to option to offer 85 per cent.
Bernier's camp, led by agent Pat Brisson, asked the arbiter for an award of $5.1 million. The two sides are $2.21 million apart heading into the scheduled hearing on Friday morning.
Brisson said Monday the two sides would continue dialogue leading up until Friday, but added there was nothing new to report. New Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello was fond of Bernier in New Jersey and kicked the tires on acquiring him to replace Martin Brodeur, before ultimately trading for Cory Schneider.
Three other players - Washington's Marcus Johansson, Ottawa's Mike Hoffman and Minnesota's Erik Haula - are still awaiting settlements this week. Johansson was scheduled to appear in Toronto on Wednesday morning, attempting to bridge a $1.75 million gap with the Capitals.
Even Haula, who asked for $1.2 million, was offered a $10,000 raise by the Wild from the $765,000 he pulled in last year.
Since this is Bernier's last year of restricted free agency, the arbiter can only award a maximum of a one-year deal. Toronto does not have the ability to walk away from the award, even if it is more than $3.79 million, since the club elected to taker Bernier to arbitration.
While it may be procedural, perhaps the Maple Leafs' offer signals that they do not believe Bernier is worth $2- or $3-million per season more than his backup. James Reimer is entering the final year of a two-year deal which pays him an average of $2.3 million per season.
In fact, Bernier's closest comparable at the moment may indeed be Reimer.
Coincidentally, Reimer and Bernier have made the exact number of career appearances (175) and their statistics are in the same neighbourhood. Reimer has a career save percentage of .913; Bernier is ahead at .916. Bernier also has an advantage in goals-against average at 2.63 compared to Reimer's 2.90 mark.
Some other contract comparables for Bernier include Steve Mason ($4.1 million AAV) and also the previous deals for both Sergei Bobrovsky ($5.625 million AAV) and Schneider ($4 million AAV).
The new contracts for Bobrovsky, Schneider and Braden Holtby are inadmissible because they chewed up years for which the player was eligible to be an unrestricted free agent. Holtby, 25, went through with his hearing last week but signed a five-year, $30.5-million deal with the Capitals before the binding arbitration decision was rendered.
Bernier is not dealing from a position of strength, considering his save percentage dropped (.923 from .912) and his goals-against average rose (2.68 to 2.87) in his second season in Toronto. If he had become an RFA last summer, this deal might look markedly different.
The Maple Leafs have guaranteed they will have Bernier under contract for the 2015-16 season - at worst under a one-year deal at $5.1 million - by opting for arbitration.
In all likelihood, Bernier would receive an award less than $5.1 million, perhaps in the $4- to $4.7-million range. And in this upcoming season of "put up or shut up" in Toronto, Bernier will again be given every chance to prove his worth.
Player-elected arbitration hearing schedule:
July 29 - Marcus Johansson (Washington): Ask $4.75 million; Offered $3 million.
July 30 - Mike Hoffman (Ottawa): Ask $3.4 million; Offered $1.75 million.
July 31 - Erik Haula (Minnesota): Ask $1.2 million; Offered $775,000.
July 31 - Jonathan Bernier (Toronto): Ask $5.1 million; Offered $2.89 million.
Derek Stepan (New York Rangers): 6 years, $39 million.
*Braden Holtby (Washington): 5 years, $30.5 million.
Adam Larsson (New Jersey): 6 years, $25 million.
*Craig Smith (Nashville): 5 years, $21.25 million.
Gustav Nyquist (Detroit): 4 years, $19 million.
Colin Wilson (Nashville): 4 years, $15.75 million.
Michael Del Zotto (Philadelphia): 2 years, $7.75 million.
*Lance Bouma (Calgary): 3 years, $6.6 million.
Justin Schultz (Edmonton): 1 year, $3.9 million.
Mikkel Boedker (Arizona): 1 year, $3.75 million.
Eric Gelinas (New Jersey): 2 years, $3.15 million.
^Alex Chiasson (Ottawa): 1 year, $1.2 million.
Josh Jooris (Calgary): 1 year, $975,000.
Paul Byron (Calgary): 1 year, $900,000.
Magnus Paajarvi (St. Louis): 1 year, $700,000.
Taylor Beck (Toronto): 1 year, $875,000.
Mathew Clark (Colorado): 2 years, two-way, $600,000.
Philip Samuelsson (Arizona): 1 year, two-way, $600,000.
Phil Varone (Buffalo): 1 year, two-way, $600,000.
Brendan Shinnimin (Arizona): 1 year, two-way, $600,000.
Andrew Agozzino (Colorado): 1 year, two-way, $600,000.
^ denotes settlement reached via arbitrator's ruling.
* denotes player settled with club after arbitration hearing, but before arbitrator's decision was rendered within 48 hours.
Frank Seravalli can be reached at email@example.com.