Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Bernier Question

As of Sunday, Jonathan Quick will be under contract with the Los Angeles Kings until the 2022-23 season. So everything in the Kings' crease is taken care of, right?

Not exactly.

Just what does Dean Lombardi do about the other Jonathan now, his back-up of two years, Bernier?

Lombardi made Bernier his first ever draft pick as General Manager of the Kings back in 2006 with the 11th overall selection. At the time, Bernier was seen as the obvious future goaltender for the franchise. Only one year later, after being sent back to juniors, he went over to London with the Kings as their starting goalie for the first NHL games in Europe, but he lasted only four games with the big club at that time, compiling a 1-3 record with a 4.03 GAA and .864 save percentage. But he was young and just needed some more time, so it was back to juniors where he finished the 2007-08 season before a short three-game stint with Manchester at the very end.

By the time the 2008-09 season began, Bernier had fallen behind several of the Kings' other goaltending prospects, and by the end of the season Jonathan Quick had established himself as the Kings' number 1 goalie. And so rather than spend his time sitting on the bench in LA wasting away, he went down to the AHL for two seasons, where he put up decent numbers, if not a spectacular record, highlighted by a .936 save percentage and 2.03 GAA in 2009-10, a season that earned him a short 3-game stint with the Kings, in which he went 3-0 with a 1.30 GAA and a .936 save percentage (but you know what they say about small sample sizes and all).

When training camp began for the Kings in September 2010, many people thought that Bernier might challenge Quick or even supplant him as the team's top goaltender. The year before, Quick had set a franchise record with 39 wins while putting up a 2.54 GAA and .907 save percentage. But after appearing in 72 games in the regular season, he had looked tired and burned out in the playoffs, posting a 3.50 GAA and mere .884 save percentage in a six-game loss to Vancouver that had looked to be the Kings' series to win but for bad goals and defensive breakdowns in the last three games.

But Quick elevated his game back up in the fall of 2010, and even though Bernier played well enough in the few starts coach Terry Murray gave him, he never looked ready to overtake Quick. Bernier ended up playing 25 games, in which he posted an 11-8-3 record with a 2.48 GAA and .913 save percentage.

The 2011 playoffs were a different story for Quick, as he brought his GAA down to 3.16 and lifted his save percentage to .913. But he had also collapsed like the rest of the team in the heartbreaking Game 3 loss that saw the Kings blow a 4-goal lead. And so there was more talk coming into this season that perhaps this year, Bernier would get his chance to push Quick from the Kings' net.

It was not to be. Jonathan Quick starred for the Kings from Day 1 and never even gave Bernier a chance. On the rare occasion when Bernier did get the crease to himself, he did not look like the stud goalie he was supposed to be. He looked nervous a lot, giving up early goals and even though he usually looked solid the rest of the game, he nonetheless forced a team that didn't score much to play from behind too frequently. His final numbers – 5-6-2, a 2.36 GAA, and a .909 save percentage – certainly aren't terrible for a guy who only got into 16 games all season, but they pale in comparison to his counterpart's 35-21-13, 1.95 GAA, and .929 save percentage.

So this brings me back to my original question. Now that Jon Quick is locked up long-term, what should Dean Lombardi do about Jon Bernier?

I see Lombardi as having three options:
1) Trade Bernier now
2) Keep Bernier until his contract expires next summer and then let another team snag him as an RFA
3) Try to extend Bernier

I would immediately ignore the 3rd option. For one thing, there isn't much incentive for Bernier to remain with Los Angeles beyond the end of his current contract. He wants to be a starting goalie in the NHL and all evidence points to the fact that he will be one. He certainly has the talent. But right now he doesn't project to be better than Jonathan Quick so at this point there is little chance of his ever being a starter for the Kings.

The choice then is between trading him now and keeping him as a back-up to Quick again next season. There are plenty of teams in need of a goalie who would be happy to trade for him, whether a rebuilding team like Columbus or a contender without a solid number 1 going into the future like New Jersey. If the Kings trade him, I think they can probably get at best a second round pick or another prospect at this point because he doesn't have a lot of NHL experience, so another team is still basically trading for a prospect. Of course, it might be possible to trade him and another prospect like Thomas Hickey, who is in a similar situation with regard to his place on the depth chart, and they might be able to get a better return (maybe Columbus's first round pick next year for the pair of them? The BJs could use a goalie and another blue chip prospect defenseman, after all.)

I think there would be benefits of keeping Bernier around next season, at least for a little while, say, until Christmas or so. One reason is that his stock is low right now thanks to his infrequent appearances. If Lombardi trades him now, he can't get full value for him, and the Kings get screwed on an 11th overall pick who has now spent 6 years in the organization.

That leads to the next reason, which is that between all his regular season starts and another 20 playoff games, Quick got an awful lot of work this year, so it might be nice to keep Bernier around to pick up a few extra starts in the early going. For one thing, it would give Quick a rest, and for another it would allow Bernier to increase his trade value through solid play.

Certainly, the Kings could call up Jeff Zatkoff, Martin Jones, or JF Berube to be Quick's new #2, but they have a combined zero games in the NHL, so I'm not so sure I want to entrust the team's fate to one of them should an injury befall Quick or he has an extended Stanley Cup hangover. At least we know what we're getting in Bernier, who, by the way, did not see a second of action in the playoffs, and thus shouldn't have any Cup hangover to speak of.

The final reason to hang onto Bernier would be that sometimes contenders will get desperate if they're not performing as well as they would like by January 1, and one of them might pony up with a bigger offer for Bernier's services than they'd currently be willing to. Assuming he plays well early and increases his trade value, he can only be worth more to an underperforming squad who thought they would be leading the pack at the All Star Break.

I would add one final addendum reason to keep him. Injuries happen. If Quick sustained an injury, Bernier is a nice insurance policy because we all know he can be a number 1. We don't know that about any of the other prospects in the organization or whatever backup might get included in a deal for him.

So my hope is that Bernier will still be with the Kings when training camp opens, ready to put on a show for potential trade partners. Hopefully the Kings can pull off a deal between Christmas and the trade deadline next season in which they can get full (or extra) value for their one-time future franchise goalie. If nothing else, let him walk as an RFA next summer, and get back a few draft picks that will probably be just as good as anything you'd have acquired in a trade for him this summer.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section!

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