The Maple Leafs have submitted $2.89 million as their ask, while Jonathan Bernier’s camp has filed for $5.1 million.

The $2.89 million the Leafs are offering is the minimum allowed, which is the common sense negotiation move; it sets the baseline in the window of agreement, and is the reason why the Leafs opted for team-elected arbitration (85% of last season’s salary as opposed to the 105% qualification scenario). Bernier obviously has also anchored his demand at something above a reasonable ask (no one needs the basics of arbitration explained at this point).

It may seem a little unnecessary at first blush to take such a hard line on Jonathan Bernier’s one-year contract in a year when cap space is plentiful, but there’s obvious reasons for it. Each contract builds on the last; what the Leafs give Bernier this season does impact what he gets on his next deal, which will of course be the Leafs’ problem, although he is going to be a UFA next July if the Leafs and Bernier do end up going through with the arbitration hearing on Friday.

“There is no chance the arbitrator will award Bernier less than the real dollars he made last year, which was $3.4 million, so the real gap is $3.4 million to $5.1 million. I still expect an award of between $4.4 million to $4.6 million.

– MLHS’ Elliot Saccucci in an interview with the Toronto Star

Elliot Saccucci laid out a pretty good case that put Bernier’s settlement in the $4.4 million to $4.6 million range. Reading that back over, there’s a few areas where the Leafs might be able to shave some off some dollars. There’s no doubting Bernier was excellent in 2013-14, but the Leafs will be pointing out he wore down as the season reached a critical point late in the year, contributing to the team’s collapse out of a playoff spot. He was out hurt for an important cluster of games in March, he didn’t appear to be fully healthy when he did come back, and he eventually got hurt again in early April, ending his season.

That year he started 55 games total, which isn’t a huge ask for a starter’s workload, and his body didn’t hold up. Last year, he was at 58 starts, and aside from some bumps and bruises he was relatively healthy; problem being his consistency wasn’t there performance wise, and his save percentage dropped significantly from .923 to .912. It’s fair to argue Bernier hasn’t had one truly convincing season as a starting NHL goaltender.

As a sidebar, while only “enhanced stats” maintained by the NHL are admissible in the arbitration case, there’s an interesting argument to be had about Bernier’s strongest season as an NHLer in 2013-14 (strongest based on the sample size of games played and his stellar save percentage number): Could the Leafs’ collapsing defensive system have inflated his save percentage figure of .923? Take a look at shot volume’s relationship to save percentage:

courtesy of Chris Boyle’s Shot Quality Project

This could, of course, work both ways. Bernier’s side could (hypothetically) point out that the Leafs taxed him into the ground with overall shots against — perhaps explaining the injuries — and he still faced a more-than-average amount of high-quality shots against; both very fair arguments. On the flip side to that, that the Leafs asked a little bit — although not significantly — less of Bernier from a shots standpoint and he performed notably worse last season isn’t a credit to the goaltender. Again, this isn’t admissible because Chris Boyle, not the NHL, maintained this stat. That said, this is information the Leafs, thanks to their hockey research department, may know and could try to raise via other admissible evidence.

While—from the outside looking in—it would seem that a long-term deal is out of reach at this point, there is still the opportunity to settle a short contract before the hearing. It would avoid an ugly process that will involve Bernier taking a front row seat as the Leafs tear holes in his game wherever possible.
Pat Brisson and his camp will no doubt rip the Leafs’ team performance and the play of Bernier’s teammates in front of him from a defensive standpoint (and rightfully so). Could it also be relevant that Bernier was working with a goaltending coach in Rick St. Croix who has since been fired and replaced?

In the end, the Leafs like Bernier and have hope for him as their future starter, but there just isn’t enough to go on yet to justify a long-term deal. They appear to need a show-me year before they’re ready to commit.

As for Bernier, it sounds like a long-term future in Toronto is something him and his family would love to cement.

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