- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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The scene was London, England, late September 2007.
Dean Lombardi had been on the job as GM of the Los Angeles Kings for just under a year and a half. As we watched his team practice at the 02 Arena before a regular-season game with the Anaheim Ducks, Lombardi pointed to the teenage goalie on the ice.
The kid was Lombardi’s first draft pick as Kings GM, 11th overall in the 2006 draft. His name was Jonathan Bernier.
It was an important decision, Lombardi would explain that day, because he felt the Kings had not drafted and developed their own bona fide No. 1 goalie in a very, very long time, if ever.
For some reason, I always remember that conversation with Lombardi. I just remember how glowingly he spoke of Bernier’s potential. So you can bet that the man who traded Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs is the last person on Earth to be surprised by the goaltender's hot start.
"It doesn’t surprise me at all," Lombardi told ESPN.com Friday. "We knew this guy. After the trade, he sent me a text to thank me for trading him. I replied back, 'I just wish I could have been Glen Sather and had Moog and Fuhr but that is impossible today.'"
In Lombardi’s dream scenario, Jonathan Quick and Bernier would play their careers together in L.A. and give the Kings the best one-two punch in the NHL for a decade, as the 1980s Oilers had with Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. But reality dictated otherwise. In the salary cap era with Bernier’s contract coming up this past summer, Lombardi knew he couldn’t keep both. He also knew Bernier had grown tired of his secondary role in L.A. and there was no way the Kings could ever placate the young goalie’s needs behind Quick, a Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup winner signed to a long-term deal.
So Lombardi promised Bernier a deal and he delivered, but the trade remains difficult for the Kings GM to stomach.
"I don’t think any general manager wants to be in that position where you have to trade a player and he’s a really good player," Lombardi said.
"What makes this tough is that it’s procedural, you have to move him, it’s not even a hockey deal, you’re looking for an asset deal."
What made it worse for Lombardi is that he doesn’t feel other NHL teams fully realized Bernier’s potential and value.
"You've got something that's valuable that you have to move, but the market doesn’t recognize it," Lombardi said.
"[Toronto GM] Dave Nonis was really the only one who was seriously interested in him. Everyone else was just tire-kicking. I was shocked at the lack of real interest. He had proven himself again last season. The other reason I think people overlook Bernier is because he is small; they overlook his hockey sense, which is his best asset.
"I give Nonis a lot of credit. A week after he got the [GM] job [in Toronto], he was all over Bernier."
At the time, however, Lombardi didn’t want to pull the trigger with Toronto early in the lockout-shortened season.
"We almost had a deal at the beginning of last season, but I was really nervous about Quick coming back from his back surgery," Lombardi said. "And thank God we didn’t make the deal then because sure enough, we don’t make the playoffs without Bernier. But I had to move him after the season."
Bernier was traded to Toronto on June 23 in exchange for forward Matt Frattin, backup goalie Ben Scrivens, a second-round pick in either the 2014 or 2015 draft, plus about $500,000 in retained salary by Toronto to help the Kings’ cap situation.
Given his lack of options, I think Lombardi did a decent job here. Frattin, in particular, can be a player.
But now Bernier’s start in Toronto shows the world why this was a tough pill to swallow for Lombardi.
"Like is said, I give Nonis a lot of credit, he saw the value in Bernier," the Kings GM said.
Musical chairs in goal for Flames
But between MacDonald, Karri Ramo and Reto Berra (currently in the AHL), the plan is that all three will get into the mix this season.
"Will it be musical chairs between three guys? Right now we’re just riding the wave," Flames coach Bob Hartley told ESPN.com this week. "Whoever we feel gives us a chance to win right now, we’re going to play. We are clear with those three guys that, unless someone really takes the steering wheel with his two hands, we’re not going to declare a No. 1. We’re just going to ride the wave."
The decision to send the Swiss-born Berra down to AHL Abbotsford to start the season was based mostly on the fact he hasn’t been over here very long.
"He had played very few games in North America. He had zero NHL experience compared to Ramo," Hartley said. "So that’s basically where we gauged our decision. But I watched Abbotsford two games last weekend, we are monitoring very closely what Berra is doing over there."