Jonathan Bernier knew he was having a great year. He also knew he was tired of playing in games that didn’t matter. It was getting to him.
Not that he was miserable being a Detroit Red Wing. Signing there in summer 2018 turned out to be a great move for his career. As a father of three, he grew roots in Birmingham, Mich., alongside his wife, Martine Forget. They loved the neighbourhood and the schools. They were big family people. And, on the ice, by Bernier’s second season as a Red Wing, he earned his longest look as a starting goaltender since the days of his big opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2013-14 through 2015-16. Gradually earning a bigger share of the pie than Jimmy Howard’s, Bernier established himself as the backbone of a rebuilding Red Wings squad. This past season, sharing the net with Thomas Greiss, Bernier delivered the best work of his career.
The .914 save percentage didn’t do his 2020-21 campaign justice. His SP sat at .923 in 5-on-5 play. Among 43 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, none faced more shots per 60 minutes than Bernier, whose average of 35-plus was almost two more than second-place Braden Holtby's. Only two netminders faced more high-danger shots per 60 than Bernier. With the highest expected goals against per 60 in the NHL, he had the league’s highest degree of difficulty. Yet he still finished 14th in goals saved above average per 60. That he graded out as well above average while facing the most challenging workload in the league makes his season seem superhuman. He probably deserved some down-ballot Vezina Trophy votes. The Wings had the 27th-best record in the league with Bernier. What would’ve happened without him?
“I definitely felt good,” he said. “The confidence built from the year before. When I started to have the net more with Jimmy, that’s when my game stepped up. The difference from my last and first year here was my consistency was much higher. That’s when your numbers go up and you get noticed. You can have a couple good nights, but if you have a bad one on the third one, it’s up and down all the time, right? My first year, that’s where I struggled a little bit, but I really felt like last year was the most consistent I’ve been.”
Despite the pride in his individual effort, playing on a team going nowhere weighed on him. By his age-32 season, he’d started five career playoff games. It was hard to block out the notion that, despite his outstanding year, he was the tree falling in the forest that didn’t make a sound. He couldn't move the needle on a team in a scorched-earth rebuild, and that tested his morale.
“It is easy to get on that train, to be honest,” Bernier said. “Living in Toronto where expectations were very high, I was there through the rebuild, and I took a lot on my shoulders, and probably that’s why I was out of there – because I stopped focusing on my own job and worried too much about what was going on the outside. Coming into Detroit with the rebuild, I’d lived it in Toronto on a much bigger scale in a bigger market, and that gave me a lot of experience and confidence that I could just worry about my own job.
"But you’re playing every year to make the playoffs, so it’s tough when you hear that we’re just going to be OK and hopefully get a great draft pick and all these things. As players you don’t get many opportunities to win a Stanley Cup, but it’s really hard just to make the playoffs. So it’s tough mentally. You want to win, you want to play in the playoffs, you play 82 games just to make it in, so it’s not fun when you’re out of it at mid-season.”
Bernier, then, wanted a change once the off-season arrived and he became a UFA. The Carolina Hurricanes traded for his rights in a bizarre move that sent promising young goaltender Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit in July, and, as Bernier clarifies, it wasn’t just a paper transaction. Signing in Carolina was a legitimate possibility for him. He liked the team’s defensive system and was interested in joining the Hurricanes, but the two sides simply couldn’t come to an agreement as they had different numbers in mind, he said.
Bernier, then, hit the open market July 28. He had a good sense of what he wanted, because, even more so than the Detroit days, his Toronto tenure haunted him. He was there for the lean years and had to watch the team grow into a playoff mainstay once he’d been traded away. It saddened him. He was thus determined to sign with a competitive team this time around.
That’s when the phone rang. On the other end of the line: one of Bernier’s childhood heroes, the NHL’s all-time wins and shutouts leader, Martin Brodeur, who know works as the New Jersey Devils’ executive vice-president of hockey operations and senior advisor. He wanted Bernier to sign with the Devils. When your idol recruits you, how can you not listen?
“When a guy like him calls you and explains why they want you there and the ins and outs of the organization and the team and the city, to me, he just sold it,” Bernier said. “Sometimes you just go with your gut, and when he called me it just made 100 percent sense to go there. I know they’re still a young team, but for them to go and get Hamilton, Ryan Graves, they’re really trying to get to that next level now. They’re not just a team still looking for draft picks and rebuilding in that first stage. They’re going to that second stage where, now, results are important. That’s what I was looking for, a team that can compete and hopefully make the playoffs.”
For Brodeur, Bernier represented a chance at a do-over. Last season, Brodeur explained, the Devils acquired Corey Crawford because they wanted young starter Mackenzie Blackwood to have an experienced veteran partner to push and mentor him. The plan backfired when Crawford unexpectedly retired before the season started. The Bernier deal helps New Jersey retry its plan.
“We were looking into getting some support for Mackenzie, to challenge Mackenzie,” Brodeur said. “We feel he’s our goalie of the future, and we want to challenge him to be good and to be consistent and to learn to be a pro. He’s still a young guy, he’s still 24 years old with only two years of experience in the NHL as a starter. So we wanted somebody who had experience and still could play and at the same time can be a bit of a mentor to him. When we looked at a list of goalies, (Bernier) jumped out right away at us. I was able to talk to him when free agency started, and he liked what I said, because we don’t want him to come here as a backup. We need him to challenge and play some games for us and win some games for us. Because we’re a young team, you need stability in the net, and he brings that to the organization.”
Stability is important following a regressive and unlucky year for Blackwood, who showed a ton of promise in a breakout 2019-20 season. The 2020-21 campaign included an extended layoff when he landed in COVID-19 protocol, and he never seemed to get his rhythm. In the aforementioned 43-goalie sample, he finished 33rd in GSAA per 60, landing in the 23rd percentile. The season before, he sat in the 74th percentile. Between Bernier and Blackwood, the Devils have their most reliable tandem in goal since Brodeur’s late-career pairing with Cory Schneider. As for the platoon split, it remains to be seen exactly how the starts will be divided, but both goalies will have significant workloads.
“It’s too early to know,” Brodeur said. “Both goalies will play a share of their games. The NHL is a lot more demanding than my day. It’s so important that you have two goalies that are able to play, or if there’s an injury or a slump that somebody’s going to pick up the slack. So we feel that the tandem…I don’t think it’s fair for any of the goalies to dictate exactly before it starts where it’s all going to go, but we know we’re going to need both of them if we want to have any kind of success through March and close to the playoffs.”
And Bernier is fine with that level of uncertainty. As he explains it, he’s signed contracts where he was told he’d play 20 games and ended up playing 50. He’s at peace with letting the results determine his workload. He’s also at peace with his new environment. Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald was instrumental during the negotiation process because he pitched Bernier on the family fit, essentially describing the New Jersey neighborhoods that could replicate the family-friendly experience the Berniers held so dear in Michigan. In Bernier’s mind, the COVID-19 pandemic, for all its global horrors, strengthened his family bonds.
“As a hockey player, it’s a 12-month job,” he said. “You take maybe a couple weeks after the season, and you’re right back in the gym. Especially when COVID hit, we stayed home a good amount and just didn’t leave. We just played games with our kids and got super close because we didn’t have anything to do. I really enjoyed that aspect. Obviously it was a sad thing, but I felt like we really reconnected, even me and my wife. In the season, you’re there, but you’re not really there mentally and physically. You have a game, you practise in the morning, then you come home, you have a nap, then you go to the game and you get back at midnight. It’s a very active life that we have. Obviously I love it, but that was definitely a positive for us when everything shut down.”
The Devils, then, represent a franchise that will help him maintain that family closeness. With their arrow pointing up after signing top UFA blueliner Dougie Hamilton and left winger Tomas Tatar, they offer the playoff potential Bernier craves, too. And when your idol personally recruits you to boot? It’s no wonder he signed. Moving back to the unbelievably competitive Metropolitan Division won’t be easy for a Devils squad that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2017-18, but they’re clearly trending in the right direction with two sturdy stoppers in the crease.