The Avalanche couldn’t come out and say it, but these are the trying circumstances Joe Sakic especially had in mind when he went after and signed veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier to a one-year, $2.75 million contract on the first day of unrestricted free agency last summer.
Semyon Varlamov, who was shut down for the 2016-17 season in late January and then underwent twin hip surgeries in the hope of ending his long-troublesome groin muscle issues, has not held up.
In a perfect world. Bernier would be Varlamov’s conventional backup, or perhaps a 1A, getting at most 27 or so starts. That would indicate that Varlamov was mostly healthy and also effective enough to hold down the No. 1 job.
But now with Varlamov again out at least through the All-Star break, the challenge is for Bernier, 29, to not only be the No. 1 … but continue to play like one.
Varlamov came to the bench and left the Jan. 2 game against Winnipeg, and that turned out to be the third victory in what now is the Avalanche’s six-game winning streak heading into the Martin Luther King Day home game against Anaheim.
In his three starts since, Bernier has allowed a total of three goals.
The Avalanche is playing it conservatively with Varlamov, still hoping he can be on the ice before the All-Star break, but his earliest return would be Jan. 30 against Vancouver. At this point, it would be naive to stake too much faith in that timetable.
As recently as two weeks ago, Varlamov again told Rick Sadowski of NHL.com and me that he believed the groin issues were behind him following the surgeries, but he forgot to knock on the wood of the locker room stall behind him. He is signed through the 2018-19 season, with a $5.9 million annual cap hit, and the Avalanche has a lot of money, faith and credibility invested in him over the years. But at some point, if the groin issues keep returning, Colorado won’t be able to count on him moving forward.
“Obviously, you never wish for anyone to get injured,” Bernier said after practice Sunday. “At the same time, that’s just sports. If I look back at last year (with Anaheim), Gibby (John Gibson) got hurt and I got the chance to play more games. You just never know. I didn’t (sign) here because I thought Varly was going to get hurt. That’s not true. In this league now, you need two good goalies to go deep. That’s why Joe signed me here.”
Bernier has had ups and downs this season, but now is 10-7-1 with a 2.77 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. He also got credit for the overtime win over Winnipeg after coming on for Varlamov, and hasn’t lost since the Avalanche fell 6-5 at Tampa Bay on December 16.
“I feel good, obviously,” Bernier said. “Once you win five in a row, you always feel good. But I think it’s the overall team success. We’re playing very good defensively, on the PK, and we score some big, timely goals.”
He’s also playing for a 2018-19 contract … either here or somewhere else.
“I played last year for a contract, I played (other) years for a contract, so you don’t rally worry about that,” he said. “You play your own game, you approach every day the same way and that’s the attitude you have to have.”
In three seasons with Toronto starting in 2013-14, Bernier played 55, 58 and 38 games before his 39-game season with the Ducks a year ago. He hasn’t given up on establishing himself as a long-term No. 1.
“I think that’s always the goal,” he said. “But sometimes you can’t control if there’s a spot for you like this, but at the same time, I’m just approaching every day hopefully the right way, work hard in practice and when I get a chance to play, play my game.”
He said he empathizes with Varlamov.
“I kind of went through the same thing when I was with Toronto,” Bernier said. “I just kept getting hurt and kept getting surgery after surgery. It’s never as easy spot. You feel you’re doing the right thing every day. You take care of your body and things like that and those things happen. You have to stay strong mentally. He’s going to come back and hopefully I can carry the load until he comes back.
“I feel good. To be honest, I think I feel better than when I was 20. I take care of my body better and I know what to do to be prepared the next day and things like that. You mature. You get older. It seems like it gets a little bit easier.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of the goaltending situation: “Having a tandem in net that you’re confident in, that your team’s confident in, is very important. Varly got sick, missed five games, and now he’s out with an injury, and you have to continue to be able to win hockey games. The teams we’re competing against are winning every night and we have to continue to try to do the same.”
Bernier’s backup is veteran Andrew Hammond, the throw-in from Ottawa in the Matt Duchene trade who was recalled from Belleville of the AHL. Hammond is intriguing because of how he backed up his “Hamburglar” nickname, which dates back to his collegiate career at Bowling Green, with an amazing 20-1-2 stretch run at the end of the 2014-15 regular season at Ottawa, enabling the Senators to rally for a playoff berth. He hasn’t played yet for the Avalanche in his stints on the roster this season, and it seems unlikely that he’ll get a start before Varlamov’s return to the active roster — if that goes as planned.
“‘Berns’ has waited and been patient for this opportunity,” Bednar said. “He’s making the most of it. He’s been a starter before, he’s been a backup, he understands the situation. This is his time to shine and continue to try and carry our team here, so we’re going to give him every opportunity to do that.”
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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