Jonathan Bernier signs 2-year deal with Leafs
Goaltender, team agree to terms prior to arbitration ruling
As the Toronto Maple Leafs launch into a full-scale rebuild, they've signed Jonathan Bernier for two important years to see if he's their goaltender of the future.
Bernier signed a $8.3 million US, two-year deal Sunday after going to arbitration but before the ruling could come down. He'll count $4.15 million against the salary cap for the next two seasons as the organization continues to evaluate what they have in the 26-year-old.
"The thought process is trying to get a goaltender, and hopefully it's Jonathan, to be the stabilizer for this franchise," general manager Lou Lamoriello said on a conference call. "Having that one (extra) year is both good for Jonathan and the organization, whether it's the organization evaluating or whether it's Jonathan proving."
Bernier goes into his third season in Toronto with a 2.78 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 113 games since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings. After helping the Leafs to a playoff position in March 2013 before getting hurt, the Laval, Que., native struggled at times, during a rough season for the entire team, with a 2.87 GAA and .912 save percentage.
That performance, Bernier said Sunday, didn't put him in a good position to negotiate as a restricted free agent. He said a long-term deal was never discussed but instead the Leafs and agent Pat Brisson wanted to determine whether his new contract would be for one, two or three years.
"Two years it gives me a little bit of comfort, and I don't have to think this year about re-signing next summer," Bernier said. "I can just really focus on playing hockey and not have to worry about the following year."
What two years gives the Leafs is time as they are remade under president Brendan Shanahan, the new-look front office and coach Mike Babcock.
This will be the third straight season with Bernier and James Reimer splitting goaltending duties, and Lamoriello implied it's back to being an open competition.
"I think that right now I have a total open mind, and certainly I know Mike has the same," Lamoriello said. "These are our goaltenders, these are people we believe in, and now we just have to go out there and give every support mechanism to have the success that's needed."
Without the pressure of going into another contract year, the onus is still on Bernier even if the expectation isn't making the playoffs. A first-round pick, 11th overall in 2006, Bernier hasn't yet shown the Leafs that he deserves a long-term, big money deal.
In 175 NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings and Leafs, Bernier is 76-67-20 with a 2.63 GAA and .916 save percentage. Lamoriello said Bernier didn't have to "prove" anything but pointed to consistency as something the Leafs would like to see.
"I think I have to prove to my teammates and the organization that I can be the guy that can bring this team into the playoffs and deep in the playoffs, too," Bernier said. "I want to be consistent, and that's what I'm going to focus on all year."
Signing Bernier was the final piece of essential business this off-season for Toronto, which also hired Babcock as coach and Lamoriello as GM, traded Phil Kessel and signed a handful of unrestricted free agents. The Leafs hired a new goaltending coach in Steve Briere, who Bernier said he worked with recently for a few days.
Lamoriello said Bernier "has the ability, no question" to be a starting goalie. It's his hope that Bernier plays well enough this season that it's evident he's the man in net for years to come.
"Hopefully he has a year that pushes us, that is the organization, to speak to him next summer and looking for long term," Lamoriello said.