Nonis Undoubtedly Looking For No. 1

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 23) – As we told you following the Maple Leafs elimination by Boston last month, general manager David Nonis and his staff was not sold on the netminding tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens; unsold – more importantly – on Reimer as a load-bearing No. 1. I Tweeted this message at 2:29 p.m. on Saturday:

Howard Berger @Berger_BYTES Hearing that are still very much involved in Jonathan Bernier trade discussion w/. Matt Frattin could be in the mix.

Chalk one up – big time – for Mr. Nonis.

This is a trade that could elevate the Leafs from pretender to contender. Like a promising starting pitcher in baseball, a young goaltender with credentials and Stanley Cup experience is solid gold. Though Bernier has been primarily a spectator in the Kings’ rise to the NHL penthouse, he’s absorbed all the elements of a championship run while honing his craft alongside Jonathan Quick – nose-to-nose with Tuukka Rask as best goaltender on the planet right now. As such, this deal comes with virtually no risk for the Maple Leafs.

JONATHAN BERNIER OF LOS ANGELES KINGS WARMING UP (ABOVE) FOR GAME AGAINST MINNESOTA ON APR. 4, 2013 AT STAPLES CENTER, THEN MAKING SAVE (BELOW) ON RYAN SUTER IN 3-0 SHUT-OUT VICTORY OVER THE WILD. BERNIER IS NOW A MEMBER OF THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. JUAN OCAMPO GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

In a best-case scenario – one that Leafs believe they are justified to anticipate – Bernier develops into a front-line NHL goalkeeper along the lines of Quick, Rask, Corey Crawford, Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward and Carey Price. Reimer, then, becomes such a reliable No. 2 as Tomas Vokoun in Pittsburgh; Ray Emery in Chicago; Viktor Fasth in Anaheim, Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis; Robin Lehner in Ottawa and Peter Budaj in Montreal. Leafs cannot lose in the above arrangement. A middling scenario would have Bernier and Reimer as equals, splendidly sharing the load ala Fasth and Jonas Hiller in Anaheim; Halak and Brian Elliott in St. Louis.

In a worst-case scenario for the Maple Leafs, Bernier would prove to be no more effective than Reimer, thus duplicating the situation from last season – Bernier simply replacing Scrivens as the club’s No. 2 goalkeeper.

Neither the Leafs, nor I, expect the latter to prevail.

Until Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, Boston Bruins were proving that a champion in the NHL is the best team behind center ice. Suddenly, the Bruins stunk behind the checkered line for more than 60 minutes and  Chicago drew even in the series. Now, Claude Julien’s team must revert to its familiar posture and survive only its second elimination game of the 2013 playoffs. Prior to Saturday night, Bruins hadn’t lost in regulation time since Game 6 of the Leafs series on May 12. No team can put together such a streak without excelling defensively, and it begins in goal. It’s the reason Nonis made the deal today with Dean Lombardi, trading Scrivens, Matt Frattin and a second-round pick for Bernier – a sharp, proactive maneuver by the Maple Leafs GM.

Using a baseball analogy, once again, it’s the equivalent of acquiring a potential No. 1 starter on the mound for a middle reliever and a back-up infielder. Nonis and his staff wisely concluded that Leafs had no chance of burrowing deeply into the playoffs with the goaltending tandem of Reimer and Scrivens. Additionally – and as mentioned – I’m not remotely convinced that Nonis is sold on Reimer developing into a franchise puck-stopper in the Lundqvist/Brodeur/Rask/Price mold: one that can capably handle 60 to 70 games. Make no mistake about it: that’s why Nonis pulled off this trade.

Under the new arrangement, Bernier will be given every chance to prove he can become an irrefutable front-liner. This is not about providing Reimer an upgrade over Scrivens. It’s about Leafs venturing to move into the high-rent district among the game’s most important figures: those that stand between the iron pipes. Without unwavering prominence in goal, a Stanley Cup is out of the question. The Reimer/Scrivens tandem was okay – perhaps even a rung better than average. But, neither “okay” nor “better than average” will ever win a championship. That’s why Leaf fans are being implored not to fall unconditionally in love with the club’s first playoff qualifier in nearly a decade. Though improved, the 2013 Leafs are a major work-in-progress and it starts in goal. Nonis, today, provided his club an immeasurable boost.

No person with even remote knowledge of Reimer is concerned that the acquisition of Bernier will diminish his confidence and self-esteem. Optimus Reim – though perhaps a tad disappointed – is mature, knowledgeable; acutely aware of his place in the Leaf organization; shrewd enough to comprehend the unequivocal necessity for depth and superiority at his position. If anything, I suspect that competition from Bernier will make Reimer even better than he was last season – thus providing Leafs with potentially more options toward improvement down the line.

BEN SCRIVENS – IN ACTION, ABOVE, AGAINST WINNIPEG JETS – WILL CAPABLY STAND IN WHEN LOS ANGELES COACH DARRYL SUTTER CHOOSES TO REST JONATHAN QUICK. TORONTO STAR PHOTO 

The question most Leaf fans are asking is: “Why trade assets for a goalie [Bernier] that hasn’t proven himself?” The answer is simple – tied into the reason that NHL clubs pay managers and scouts big money to make critical decisions, often requiring foresight. In this case, the Leafs aren’t alone in concluding that Bernier has the potential to be a star in the NHL – something he could never be while standing in for Jonathan Quick.

Lombardi therefore knew he had to trade Bernier and he held out for a reasonable return, obtaining a netminder (Scrivens) good enough to handle 12-15 games during the regular season and a promising forward (Frattin) to play a third and fourth-line role in the deep Los Angeles line-up. Nonis understood he had more than enough firepower to relinquish Frattin.

So, trust me, Leaf fans, when I tell you that June 23, 2013 will be looked upon as a very good day in the annals of the Blue and White.

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