Over the last 108 games, spanning across both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 season, the Detroit Red Wings have won just 29 of them. Of those 29, goaltender Jonathan Bernier accounts for 23 of them. Jimmy Howard, Thomas Greiss and Calvin Pickard round out the total with two victories each.
In a sport where the results are largely team-driven, you have to take notice when a single player has such a large say in whether or not their team will win a given game. Only the best of the best are truly able to tilt the ice all on their own. While nobody is going to confuse Bernier’s impact with the likes of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, there is certainly something to be said about how tied to Bernier’s success the Red Wings are.
With the Red Wings still stuck near the bottom of the standings this season, it goes without saying that the team will be looking to trade off players on expiring contracts in order to gather additional draft picks and prospects from around the league. Bernier is in the final year of a three-year pact he signed back in 2018, and his performance over the last two seasons is sure to spark some interest from teams that need to fortify their goaltending depth. However, instead of dealing him to the highest bidder, the Red Wings should instead look to keep the 32-year-old goaltender and extend him beyond this season.
Red Wings Goaltending Pipeline
It would be one thing if the Red Wings had somebody knocking on the door ready for an opportunity. Unlike their forward and blue line groups, Detroit does not have any goaltending prospects that are NHL-ready. Sure, there are some exciting names among the bunch, but most of them are still years away from making an honest attempt at cracking the Red Wings’ roster.
Keith Petruzzelli is the talk of the town when it comes to Red Wings goaltending prospects. In recognition of his play for Quinnipiac University this season, the 22-year-old is in the running for both the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s top goaltender, and the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
Petruzzelli has yet to even sign a contract with Detroit, let alone play a game of professional hockey. If he is the Red Wings’ long-term answer in net, there is still work to be done before that day comes. Let’s also not forget that it is far from a given that a goalie can jump from a successful college season/career and have success at the pro level right away.
Filip Larsson is proof of that. He joined the Griffins last season following a successful freshman season at the University of Denver where he posted numbers that were on par with Petruzzelli’s numbers this season. The hope for him was that he would gain some confidence over the course of last season and eventually stake his claim to the starting role in Grand Rapids. That did not happen, however, and he was eventually demoted to the ECHL after posting a .843 save percentage (SV%) through seven AHL games. This season, the 22-year-old has spent time in both Sweden and Denmark, playing lower level hockey than what the AHL can offer.
The Red Wings have plenty of other guys in the system – believe it or not, they have the most goaltending prospects out of any team in the NHL – but none of them are close enough that general manager Steve Yzerman needs to account for them as he’s making roster decisions for Detroit. So while the team continues to draft and develop goaltenders, they need somebody that can hold down the fort and deliver solid goaltending for the players that are with the Red Wings. Enter Bernier.
It’s easy to assume that Bernier has been “good” for the Red Wings in the same way that Cardi B has been “good” for rap music. Sure, he gets the job done and has had some success, but there’s no way he’s among the best, right? Well, like someone who doesn’t know what “WAP” stands for, you might be surprised what you find out.
Well, per Natural Stat Trick, from mid-December 2019 through the beginning of February 2020, no goalie had a higher even-strength goals saved above average (GSAA) than Bernier (12.11). This season, he sits seventh in the league in terms of even-strength GSAA (6.86) among goalies to play at least 15 games. That puts him ahead of names like Marc-Andre Fleury, Igor Shesterkin and Carey Price. Before a lower-body injury took him out of a game on March 18 against the Dallas Stars, he had a .929 SV% through his last 10 games. All of this while playing for a team that has allowed 386 goals since the beginning of last season, the most in the NHL during that span.
Essentially, when the Red Wings have Bernier in the crease, he often gives them top-tier goaltending. Every goalie experiences the odd rough game, and he is certainly no exception. That being said, it seems like whenever somebody not named Bernier is in the crease for Detroit, those rough games happen a lot more frequently. To that point, Howard had a -14.57 GSAA at even strength last season, and, well, take a look at what Greiss has done in all situations this season:
There’s a valid argument to be made that fewer people would be dunking on the Red Wings if Bernier were able to stay healthy and start every game for Detroit. While that’s (unfortunately) not possible, it is possible to ensure that the Red Wings have at least one solid goaltender heading into the turning point of their rebuild.
With a $3 million cap hit, Bernier provides immense value to the Red Wings. He steals games for Detroit, and he does it at half the cost of many other goaltenders around the league. Given his age and his overall pedigree, I don’t foresee him breaking the bank on his next deal either; while a raise isn’t out of the question, we’re probably looking at a deal with a cap hit in the $3.5 – 4 million range, not unlike Greiss’s current deal. Detroit are currently projected to have over $45 million in cap space heading into this offseason – they can definitely afford to sign Bernier at that price.
There are only two things that should delay both parties from coming to an agreement: the trade deadline and the upcoming Seattle Kraken expansion draft. In regards to the trade deadline, Yzerman is certainly within his rights to listen to offers for Bernier – in fact, he should be listening to offers on just about everyone on the roster. However, unless an offer that is too good to pass up comes along, it makes more sense to hang on to Bernier, keeping the relationship in tact as well as ensuring that the team has a goalie that they know they play well in front of. Playing competitive hockey is better for development than tanking; trading this goalie would be a big pro-tank move.
The expansion draft could be interesting because Bernier may very well be left exposed to the Kraken given his pending free agent status. Doing this would allow the Red Wings to keep Greiss while also betting that Seattle would rather take goaltenders that have term left on their deals. Look at the Vegas Golden Knights: arguably the most important expansion pick they made was picking up Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and that was made possible because he had a year left on his deal (Vegas eventually extended him.) While Seattle GM Ron Francis won’t follow the Vegas model to a T, this is something he probably will take from the Vegas playbook.
The other alternative is Yzerman extends Bernier and then exposes Greiss in the expansion draft, and I wouldn’t necessarily write-off that possibility.
Detroit’s Other MVP
It’s a pretty well-accepted fact that Dylan Larkin is the Red Wings’ most important player. However, playing goalie for the Red Wings can often be a thankless task – just ask Howard who, despite his relative success, was almost universally hated by the time last season came to a close. Despite that fact, Bernier has somehow figured out how to escape criticism despite an uneven first season in Detroit and an injury record that leaves you wondering where the Red Wings might be if he could just stay healthy. I guess when you’re responsible for 79 percent of your team’s victories over the last two seasons, you gain a little extra leeway.
By all accounts, Bernier likes it in Detroit. He doesn’t complain about the team’s competitive status. He stays humble despite being a key reason for any success his team has had over the last two years. Oh, and he does all of this on a bargain contract (shout-out to former GM Ken Holland for getting this one right.) This is the kind of competitor with a professional attitude that this team needs as it continues to rebuild. With any luck, he’s the kind of goaltender that would make for a great mentor should a goalie prospect burst onto the scene.
With trade season upon us, the Red Wings will be looking around for all the value that they can extract. When it comes to goaltending, however, they already have one of the best values in the league. Unless somebody wants to overpay, there’s little reason anyone else should man the crease in Detroit.
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.