Bernier shining brightly in Manchester

by A.J. Atchue || for

Manchester Monarchs goaltender Jonathan Bernier has established himself as one of the American Hockey League’s elite netminders and most highly-touted prospects this season, but to describe his journey over the past three years as uneven would be an understatement.

More accurately, you could make the case that Bernier’s approach to the game has undergone a 180-degree turn since he first arrived on the professional scene in September 2007.

For Bernier, who grew up idolizing Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, that initial arrival was short-lived.

Drafted 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2006, Bernier made his NHL debut in the Kings’ first game of the 2007-08 season at the tender age of 19. And that game didn’t take place at Staples Center, or in any other NHL arena for that matter.

No, Bernier opened the NHL season in London, England, against none other than the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. He earned a 4-1 win with 26 saves in that contest but then got torched for 15 goals in his next three games in Los Angeles.

The next thing Bernier knew, he was ticketed back to Lewiston to play a fourth season of junior hockey. For a guy who admits he thought he was NHL-ready – or at least AHL-ready – at the time, the return to juniors was a little different from the opening-night spotlight in London.

“Going from the best league in the world back to juniors was pretty hard, and it took me a couple weeks to re-adjust,” Bernier said. “But I tried to do well and finish the year strong, and I ended up finishing the season in Manchester.”

Bernier joined the Monarchs at the tail end of the AHL regular season and then appeared in a trio of playoff games. But Manchester suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of the AHL’s top team, the Providence Bruins.

Disappointing? Sure. But Bernier figured that after a summer of preparation and a solid training camp in September, he’d be ready to begin his first full professional season in southern California rather than southern New Hampshire.

Instead, the native of Laval, Que., was assigned to Manchester and began the 2008-09 campaign splitting playing time with fellow prospect Jonathan Quick.

Then, in what could probably be considered Bernier’s lowest point, the Kings needed to recall a goaltender in December 2008, but Quick got the call over Bernier and hasn’t been back to the AHL since.

“Last year, my season was pretty much all mental,” Bernier said. “I didn’t expect to get sent down after training camp, I was pretty upset, and it took me a little while to come back and play some good hockey. And then right after that, Quick got the call.”

The disappointment took some time to recover from. A frustrated Bernier stumbled to a 6-11-1 record in his next 18 appearances following Quick’s recall.

“He had a difficult time when (Quick) got called up and he didn’t,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “I think emotionally, he was distraught, thinking that it was his time.”

But beginning with a 34-save performance vs. Lowell on Feb. 28, 2009, the rookie managed to salvage his season.

Over his final 19 outings, Bernier went 10-7-1 with three shutouts and an impressive 1.89 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, allowing him to finish the year just shy of .500 overall (23-24-4, 2.40, .914).

“I think once he realized that you can only control what you can control, his game really started to take off in the last two and a half months of the season last year,” said Los Angeles goaltending coach Bill Ranford, who paid his own developmental dues in the AHL before spending 13 seasons between the pipes in the NHL.

Bernier agreed, and he took that new attitude with him into the offseason and the 2009-10 campaign.

“I just said to myself, ‘Just go out there and play, no matter where you are, just play and have fun,’” he said. “Last year, I didn’t really enjoy being on the ice, I was so upset.

“And for me, it was the biggest part, especially when you play a lot. If you’re not having fun, it’s a long season, and this year, I’m just coming out and playing the way I’m capable of playing, and I’m enjoying the game.”

The maturation process has paid big dividends in his second pro season. At 25-16-5 in 47 games for Manchester, Bernier has already eclipsed his win total from all of last year.

He currently leads all AHL goaltenders with a .939 save percentage and eight shutouts, his 2.03 GAA ranks third, and he is second in minutes played and first in shots faced and saves made. He was also voted as a starter in January’s AHL All-Star Game.

The impressive numbers aside, the 21-year-old Bernier is now the backbone for an injury-riddled Monarchs club which nonetheless finds itself in a race for first place in the competitive Atlantic Division.

“Without question, he’s been our most valuable component,” Morris said of Bernier. “He’s given a young team time to mature, and on nights when we’ve given up too many shots, he’s been our eraser.”

“If you look at the composure that he has, he’s the type of goalie that makes the hard save look easy because of his exceptional positioning and his ability to control rebounds. He’s a guy that never looks like he’s rattled, and I think we’ve seen tremendous growth in him.”

In the dressing room, it’s been easy to see the difference in Bernier from one year to the next, both in his play and his approach to the game.

“I think any guy that you talk to on our team would say he has the ability to steal a game for us, and he definitely gives us an opportunity to win any game that we’re in,” said Monarchs captain Drew Bagnall. “And I think he’s more cognizant of putting in his time, he understands that he’s going to get his opportunities.”

In addition to his mental adjustments, Bernier has had to adapt to the professional game over the past two seasons. Ranford, the Kings’ goaltending coach, cites better control of rebounds and improvement in handling pass plays from behind his net as two areas in which Bernier has particularly shown growth.

“Our defensive corps as a unit have so much faith in the fact that he can make the first save that we don’t stress too much about giving up an outside shot, and just try to focus on eliminating second shot opportunities,” said Bagnall.

Bernier has also adopted a slightly more conservative style, playing deeper in his crease more frequently than in juniors, simply because AHL skaters are usually sharper with their passes and quicker with their shots.

“Second year as a pro, I feel way more comfortable, and I feel confident in my ability,” Bernier said. “I learned a lot last year, too, and coming in this year I felt like I could be the guy to run with the ball.”

It’s often said that goaltenders require more development time than any other position in hockey, but everyone around Bernier is confident that before long, he’ll be guarding an NHL net. After all, he is still only 21 years old.

“He’s just one of those guys that you know that he’s got an exceptionally bright future in the game,” said Morris.

“I understand now that I’m still young, and there are still a lot of years ahead of me,” Bernier said. “I just said to myself that I need to have a couple good years (in the AHL), and they’ll give me my chance to be up. I have to prove myself at this level first, and then we’ll see what comes after that.”