After ‘pain’ of Red Wings’ rebuild, goalie Jonathan Bernier wants to stay for the payoff

Detroit News

Detroit — Jonathan Bernier wants to see this through.

The last couple of Red Wings seasons have involved a lot of losing, many difficult nights, and a bright future that seemed a ways away.

After this past season, those rosier days look a little closer.

And Bernier, a veteran goaltender who can be an unrestricted free agent, wants to be here for the payoff.

Partly because Bernier has been through this before, in Toronto, where he didn’t get to be involved in the better days.

“When I signed, I didn’t see (Henrik) Zetterberg retiring that year, but I knew (the Wings) were going to that (rebuilding) stage,” Bernier said during his end-of-season interview with the media.  “It’s a great challenge. As a goalie, especially, you can make that rebuild faster if you’re playing well and get some wins.

“I lived that in Toronto, and the one thing I regret is going through the pain but not being there when they’re better. That’s one of the reasons why I want to stay here. All the pain we went through the last couple years, I finally see we’re getting better. We got some great, young guys that aren’t really young.

“I can see we’re headed in the right direction, so I’d like to stay here see the process towards the end.”

Bernier, 32, is completing a three-year, $9 million contract he signed with the Wings as an unrestricted free agent. He wants to remain here, and enjoys the organization, but the fact remains a player doesn’t get to be unrestricted often, and Bernier is doing so at an opportune time.

Coming off two consecutive stellar seasons, including backstopping a bad defensive team two seasons ago, Bernier could be in demand if he enters the free-agent market.

Pittsburgh, after a particularly dismal goaltending performance in the playoffs, likely will be looking for a change. Anaheim, Edmonton, St.. Louis, Chicago and Washington could reasonably be looking for a change.

Bernier could be in demand.

“If it’s not the right fit for me and the organization, I’ll go somewhere else; that’s hockey,” Bernier said. “I’ve moved quite a bit in my career, and I’m used to it. It’s not the end of the world.”

But all things being equal, there is a definite preference to remain with the Red Wings.

“There is, my family and I, we really like it here,” Bernier said. “I feel comfortable at the rink and on the ice. So for me, it’d be my No. 1 choice. But that all depends on where (general manager) Steve (Yzerman) wants to head next, if he wants to keep me or he wants to try somebody else.

“But I’d definitely like to stay here.”

And part of that is the unfinished business, the fact Bernier wants to be part of the solution, part of the roster that brings the Wings back into the playoff picture.

Living and breathing the rebuild in Toronto, experiencing the defeats, helped him get to where he is presently as a goaltender.

The losing used to wear down Bernier early in his career. But he’s learned to tuck away the negativity and concentrate on his own job.

“I kind of went through it in Toronto where it got to me when were going through the rebuild and we were losing a lot, and all the pressure you put on yourself to win games,” Bernier said. “I grew from that point on, and I brought that experience here, where I kind of block that (out) and I just play my own game, instead of getting frustrated if you lose two or three games in a row, or things like that.

“So I’m a better player because of that. Mentally, I’m stronger. And obviously as you age, you get more mature and you know how to handle a situation better.”

Bernier was 9-11-1 this season with a 2.99 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. Two injuries during the course of the season cost Bernier about 4-5 weeks, which put a heavier workload on goaltender Thomas Greiss, and obviously kept Bernier out of the lineup, weakening the Wings.

Bernier has thrived, and is thankful, for the confidence and workload coach Jeff Blashill has extended, and says he believes it’s a reason for his performance surge.

“I play hockey to not sit on the bench, so that’s definitely my goal every year is to play as many games as possible,” he said. “Unfortunately this year I got a few setbacks from injuries, but I felt my game was good when I was playing. I feel when I’m healthy I can play a lot of games and play some really good hockey.”

Bernier saw definite improvement team-wise.

The Wings were significantly better defensively, and had a respectable penalty kill for much of the season.  Offense continues to be a thorn for the Wings, but some young talent within the next couple of seasons could change that.

“We were much better than last year,” Bernier said. “Obviously COVID (which ravaged the Wings in the opening weeks), we had a good start and felt pretty good about ourselves coming out of training camp, and COVID hit and we kind of lost our confidence as a group when we lost so many guys (five regulars).

“But we battled to the end and I can definitely see we’re heading in the right direction.”

If the Wings and Bernier, or any of the team’s UFAs, do come to an agreement, don’t be surprised to see it come together until after July 21, the night of the expansion draft stocking the Seattle Kraken.

The Wings don’t have to use any of their protection slot on the potential UFAs, thereby being able to protect another player.

But, given the state of the goaltending position within the Wings’ organization, the Wings likely will find a common ground with Bernier, who would like to see the partnership continue.

“Original Six, it’s always special to play for a team like that, lots of history, it’s a great organization,” he said. “The setup we have at the rink is amazing, the way they treat us. And it’s a great group of guys. That makes a big difference when you’re having fun at the rink. It’s not every team you feel comfortable with, and for me I really like the group of guys here.

“I’m excited to see what next year brings.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

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