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NHL free agency: Does Jonathan Bernier make sense for the Flyers?

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Our pre-free agency look at potential goalie targets begins with a guy that Ron Hextall is already pretty familiar with.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As we sit mere days from free agency, the Flyers have two pressing questions on their hands. The first is whether Jordan Weal, who suddenly finds himself as a popular target in free agency, will be back with the Flyers or not. The second is which goalie the team will bring in to play alongside Michal Neuvirth. With no real clues on how the first one may go, let’s turn our attention to the second one.

Steve Mason is, in all likelihood, not returning to the Flyers this year, which means they will need to find one NHL-level goalie pretty soon. The trade market is a possibility, but the most likely outcome here is that the Flyers end up dipping into free agency and choosing a guy from there.

We’ll take some time today and tomorrow to go through all of the guys that may make sense as potential targets for the Flyers, be it through free agency or a trade. Before we do that, though, let’s try and put together a quick rubric for what the Flyers are trying to find in their search for a goalie.

What are the Flyers looking for here?

While goaltending is obviously a significant need for a team that ranked towards the bottom of the league in save percentage this past season, there are limits to how much Ron Hextall can really attempt to improve the position in the short-term. For one, the current crop of goalie targets isn’t terribly inspiring. Additionally, even if it were, Hextall has made it clear he doesn’t want to spend a ton on the position this summer, going out of his way to mention in April that he was hoping to avoid a long-term deal. That could, in theory, also limit his options (even if the aforementioned uninspiring group of goalies could mean that a long-term deal was never really in the cards).

So what are the biggest priorities for the Flyers in a potential new netminder? Here are the five that seem most important, in order.

  1. Short-Term Commitment: Can the Flyers sign this guy to a short-term deal? As mentioned, Hextall has cited not wanting to give out a long-term deal to a goalie as a priority. As for specific numbers in mind, you’d have to think that Hextall isn’t looking to give out or acquire anyone with a contract that carries more than two years’ time on it (meaning, a contract ending beyond summer 2019), for a number of reasons. Getting into a long-term contract with a goalie can end poorly, the Flyers have prospects that they like in net and probably want to have the space if any of them prove to be NHL-ready by 2019, and right now the Flyers’ cap situation come the summer of 2019 looks like it could get a bit hairy (among others, Wayne Simmonds, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Konecny will all be up for new deals then). Not getting locked into a long-term deal that could turn bad is the biggest priority here.
  2. Ability: Duh. Is the guy a good goalie or not? With nearly everyone the Flyers will be choosing between, there will be at least some doubt on this one, but some guys’ résumés here will inevitably be superior to others’.
  3. NHL-level Durability: Is the guy in question someone who’s shown at some point that, if necessary, he can handle a starter’s workload at the NHL level? Right now the only goalies the Flyers have under team control for next season are Michal Neuvirth (who hasn’t played more than 32 games in a regular season since 2012), Anthony Stolarz (who has played in seven NHL games, total), and Alex Lyon (who has played in zero NHL games). While in some circumstances I’d be all for taking a gamble and pairing the established veteran (Neuvirth) with someone a bit more unknown who may have some upside, right now the Flyers are in a situation where they need certainty, not potential/upside. Someone who’s shown that they can play 50-plus games in a season at the NHL level (and do at least fairly well in them), even just once or twice in his career, would be ideal here, in the event that Neuvirth is unable to buck his career norms and play more than 30-ish games.
  4. Cap Hit: Can the guy in question be signed to a low cap hit? As suggested already, I think term is more important than cap hit at this point, but the team surely doesn’t want to pay a guy more than it has to. The Flyers have a bit of cap space — just enough that they should feel fairly comfortable heading into free agency with only Weal, Scott Laughton, and a goalie to sign — but keeping some cushion between their payroll and the cap ceiling is important.
  5. Tandemability: So I made up that word, probably. But is whoever the Flyers get someone who’s OK with playing in a timeshare sort of role? Steve Mason’s biggest complaint following the season was essentially that he didn’t want to spend time in a goalie platoon — which is the exact thing Hextall has said he expects the Flyers to have this coming season. Ideally, whoever the Flyers get is someone who’s excelled in that kind of a role before.

That’s a lot of things, and it’s unclear whether the Flyers will be able to confidently check off all five of those boxes with whoever ends up with them when the dust clears. But that’s the goal, and that’s the criteria by which we’ll be evaluating all of the team’s potential goalie choices over the next two days.

With that, let’s get started with the guy that, in my opinion, might make the most sense here.

***

Jonathan Bernier

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 29
2016-17 Team: Anaheim Ducks

Statistical Overview: Jonathan Bernier

Measure 2016-17 2014-17
Measure 2016-17 2014-17
All-Situations Save % 91.55% (20/47) 91.17% (34/46)
5-on-5 Save % 92.24% (26/47) 91.92% (37/46)
Quality Start % 57.6% (16/47) 51.6% (30/46)

(Rankings above are out of all goalies that played in at least 25 games per season during the timeframe in question. “Quality Start %” is the percentage of a goalie’s starts in which he allows 2 or fewer goals, or has a save percentage above the league average.)

Why is he available?

Because he’s been overtaken in Anaheim’s goalie depth chart by John Gibson. Bernier, who’s been on three teams in his NHL career, has been a solid goalie on the whole since first taking on a backup role with the Kings in the 2010-11 season, but he’s never quite lived up to his draft pedigree — he was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft — and emerged as an unquestioned No. 1 on a winning team. He was traded from Toronto to Anaheim last summer for Frederik Andersen, and while he was solid in a backup role, it won’t make much sense for Anaheim to pay him as a UFA with Gibson emerging as a star goalie, and it makes even less sense for him to stay in a situation where he’ll be a clear No. 2 guy.

Does he meet the Flyers’ needs?

Let’s look at the checklist we established in the last section and try and see how Bernier fits with it.

  1. Can the Flyers sign him to a short-term deal? Probably. Bernier’s signed three consecutive two-year deals prior to his current one that expires on Saturday, and while he’d likely want to change that trend, it’s unlikely he’s got the leverage to do so anywhere. Another two-year contract seems like his destiny at this point.
  2. Is he good? He’s not bad. In the four years since he really became more than a backup (starting with Toronto in 2013-14), he’s only had one decidedly below-average season, and that was behind a Toronto team in 2015-16 that was basically tanking. His career save percentage of .915 is solid — around average, probably slightly above-average for your typical timeshare-type goaltender.
  3. Can he handle a starter’s workload if necessary? His history suggests yes. He played in 55 or more games in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, and even played in 39 games last year as a backup with Anaheim. He hasn’t done it in a while, but at 29, it’s not likely he’s lost the ability to play a ton of minutes at this point.
  4. Can he be signed to a reasonable cap hit? Depends on what you define as reasonable, but probably. Hockey-Graphs’ Matt Cane’s free agent projection system pegs Bernier as likely to make around $3.1 million per year in free agency this offseason. That’s probably a higher amount than some of the other guys we’ll look at here, but it should still fit within the Flyers’ budget.
  5. Can he succeed in a platoon/tandem? Hopefully, but it’s fair to question this one. Bernier’s best year came when he was Toronto’s clear No. 1 in 2013-14, and when he was relegated to more of a backup role the last two years, his numbers took a bit of a dip. In fact, his worst season during that time came in 2015-16, when he and James Reimer more or less split time.

Would the Flyers want him?

It seems like it. Bernier checks off most of the important boxes on our list. And there’s a connection to the Flyers here, of course: Ron Hextall was an assistant in Los Angeles in 2006, the same year that they drafted Bernier, and he was the GM of the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL affiliate that Bernier played very well at before getting promoted to the NHL. If Hextall liked what he saw then, he’ll probably like what he sees now.

Final thoughts

Of all of the goalies Ron Hextall may potentially be able to sign beginning on Saturday, Bernier is probably the one that makes the most sense at this time. He’s got a decent track record, obvious connections to our front office, and he shouldn’t cost too much. The Flyers will probably be interested here.

Poll

On a scale from 1 (none whatsoever) to 5 (all for it), your interest level in the Flyers acquiring Jonathan Bernier is ...

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    1
    (52 votes)
  • 7%
    2
    (87 votes)
  • 28%
    3
    (311 votes)
  • 41%
    4
    (461 votes)
  • 17%
    5
    (190 votes)
1101 votes total Vote Now