Jonathan Bernier, selected 11th overall in 2006, made his NHL debut at the tender age of 19, stopping 26 shots in a 4-1 victory over the defending champion Anaheim Ducks at the NHL Premiere in London.
He was named the game’s second star in a shutout bid that was lost with under seven minutes to play and then started Los Angeles’ home opener one week later.
It wasn’t exactly Olympic goaltending competition through training camp – Bernier beat out Jason LaBarbera, Jean-Sebastian Aubin and Dan Cloutier for the opening night nod – but with an encouraging early season performance that eventually gave way to an assignment back to the Lewiston MAINEiacs, Bernier’s name was uttered with a hopeful reverence by every Kings fan who could correctly spell Cechmanek and pined for the days of the shortlived Felix Potvin Era.
In the four years and nine months since Bernier’s London debut, Los Angeles’ gradual, constant improvement in net broke forth and finally culminated in a 2012 Stanley Cup that highlighted far and away the greatest season by a goaltender in franchise history. Goalie Jonathan Quick, a third round pick in 2005 and two and a half years Bernier’s senior, has never let his foot off the throat of the team’s goaltending competition since his emergence in 2008-09 and in June signed a 10-year, $58-million extension as Bernier was relegated to the bench for 56 of the team’s final 64 regular season and playoff games.
Bernier, who received either zero or one goals of support in eight of his 16 appearances in 2011-12, managed to improve his numbers over the course of the season despite the inconsistent playing time and finished with a 5-6-2 record with a 2.36 GAA and .909 save percentage. After 2,692 career minutes, Bernier’s status is that of a someone who has graduated from his role as Quick’s understudy and is ready for a challenge beyond that of what is currently available within the Los Angeles Kings.
According to reports, Bernier requested a trade at this year’s trade deadline and now hopes to be traded before training camp.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Bernier, who was also selected in the first round of the QMJHL draft and led the MAINEiacs to the Memorial Cup before being evaluated as the highest ranked North American goaltender heading into the 2006 NHL Draft, has been seen as among the premier Canadian goaltenders in his age group. He backed up fellow 1988-born netminder Steve Mason while winning gold at the 2008 World Junior Championships, and along with Mason, Semyon Varlamov and James Reimer, appears to have some NHL staying power amongst those drafted in 2006.
Bernier rightfully believes he has graduated and is deserving of a new assignment.
With one year remaining on a two-year, $2.5 million contract that ends in restricted free agency, the Kings are in no rush to hastily exchange an important insurance piece for Quick and a valuable bargaining chip during the regular season, when opposing teams are more accurately able to assess goaltending deficiencies and will be apt to surrender more of their own pieces.
Bernier was a valuable member of a Stanley Cup-winning team, and if he was at all disgruntled or unhappy with his situation, he did not show it. He appeared to enjoy playing 3,000 miles away from his Laval, Que. upbringing, chiseled out his own voice in a young but tight knit, character-heavy dressing room and had developed an excellent rapport with Quick.
“We still have that competitive side that we both want to do well, but at the same time we’re good friends off the ice, so it’s a really good relationship,” Bernier said last season of his relationship with Quick. “We try to push each other, but off the ice, we’ll hang out and stuff like that, so it’s great. Hopefully it makes everyone better.”
There do not currently appear to be a bevy of trading options for general manager Dean Lombardi. Earlier this offseason, Tampa Bay opted for Nashville’s 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback, who has produced similar stats as Bernier’s in over 700 fewer career minutes. Columbus, a team that has resumed kicking the tires on Bernier according to the Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline, curiously added Sergei Bobrovsky from Philadelphia earlier this offseason and have resumed their evaluation of whether Bernier would be the right fit.
Toronto has also inquired about Bernier, with forward Matt Frattin having been brought up in trade discussions, according to several reports.
Los Angeles will not be pressed to make a trade until its own needs in the 2012-13 season are more clearly identified and more potential trade partners enter the mix.
What happens if Ilya Bryzgalov continues to underwhelm in Philadelphia? It would not be a shock to see Lombardi re-establish his trade route with the Flyers, an organization able to offer assets more interesting than perhaps the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs.
What happens if another team loses a starter to injury and offers up a first round draft pick more appealing than the L.A. and New York-acquired picks that Columbus has stockpiled? Varlamov, though he was traded during the 2011 offseason, was exchanged for a first round pick that ended up being 11th overall when he was sent to Colorado after having logged only 3,416 minutes in Washington.
For the Kings, what happens if Simon Gagne, who has missed an average of 30.2 games due to injury for the last five years, suffers a long-term injury? What if that coincides with an uninspiring regular season from Dustin Penner, and all of a sudden there are openings for a quality top-six left winger that Tyler Toffoli and Dwight King aren’t ready to fill?
If Bernier’s unhappiness over his role with the team remains out of the locker room and more teams enter trade discussions to drive up his price, both Bernier and the Kings will be better served. If he chooses to force the issue earlier than is comfortable for the team, the rebuilding Blue Jackets become a prime target.
“It’s only natural as human nature when you’re not getting a regular turn, and when you get your turn, you want to succeed, you want to do well, especially when you’re a great goaltender like he is,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said of Bernier last year.
He’s on the verge of getting that turn – and if he can withstand his current rotation for a month or two of regular season play – all factors in the trade stand to benefit the Kings.