LOS ANGELES — After an incredibly brief nine-day training camp, the Los Angeles Kings left Southern California with 31 players remaining on their 2007 training camp roster heading for Denver, Las Vegas and then Salzburg, Austria and London, England.
The Kings will start the regular season with two games against the Anaheim Ducks on September 29 and 30 in London, and will not set foot on North American soil again until they return to Southern California on October 1.
A long, overseas road trip is certainly a tough way to start the season. But if you think that’s tough, it is nothing compared to the dilemma the Kings have in figuring out what to do with their goaltenders going into the 2007-08 season.
With Dan Cloutier still working to regain his form after spending most of the last three years recovering from serous injuries—there is no guarantee that he ever will, and with Jason LaBarbera and Jean-Sebastien Aubin unproven at the National Hockey League level, the competition for the position is wide open.
And then there is 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier, who has played the last three seasons with the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Despite not having any experience either in the NHL or the minor leagues, Bernier has clearly been the best goaltender in the Kings’ camp, and that fact has created a serious problem for the team.
Do they take the safe route and send Bernier back to Lewiston for the season, or do they take the risk and make him their number one goaltender, despite his youth?
At Lewiston, Bernier is likely to continue his stellar play and continue to build his confidence, not to mention his resume. On the other hand, the latter course of action could be disastrous, especially for a young goaltender. To be sure, if Bernier gets shelled in the early going with the Kings, it could forever destroy his confidence and stunt his development.
Further complicating the issue is that because Bernier still has junior eligibility, he cannot be assigned to a minor league team. He can only be assigned to Lewiston, and cannot be recalled or assigned to either of the Kings’ minor league affiliates until Lewiston’s season is over, except under emergency conditions, and that would be a temporary move.
From one point of view, this is certainly a nice dilemma for the Kings to have. After all, no general manager in his right mind would not want a young player with potentially elite level skills pushing to make his team’s NHL roster.
But as previously stated, especially with goalies, the risks of fast-tracking a prospect to the NHL are great. But for the time being, Bernier is making a strong, positive impression.
“I liked Jonathan tonight,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford after the Kings lost a 3-2 pre-season decision to the Anaheim Ducks at Staples Center on September 15. “He looks very poised. He really is square to the shooter and I like the fact that pucks stay with him. He doesn’t spit out a lot of rebounds. He looks like he’s going to be a great goalie.”
“He was great,” said Kings defenseman Tom Preissing. “To come in like that as a young kid—he had confidence. He played the puck with confidence. He’s going to be a really good goalie some day.”
Bernier got the start on September 18, a 6-5 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center, and he turned some heads once again.
“I thought he was very good,” said Crawford. “He had a lot of power plays to kill off. He looked very calm and sure of himself. I praise him because he’s really made our jobs very difficult, which is what you want from a young guy who we have to make a decision on.”
“I think the job of any player is to make it difficult for an organization to make a decision on you,” Crawford elaborated. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that [Bernier is] making it difficult for us.”
The NHL is allowing the Kings and Ducks to carry extra players on their roster to Europe. They will carry three goaltenders on their overseas trip, and do not have to make final roster cuts until after the second game in London.
That means the Kings have until then to figure out what to do with their goaltenders.
“We’re going to need all the time that we have [to make a decision on their goaltenders],” said Crawford. “We’re going to need, probably through the two league games in London. We get to carry three, which is a real blessing. Thankfully, we don’t have to make a decision until then.”
“We’re going to try to make the right decision,” added Crawford, stressing a point he has made repeatedly since training camp opened on September 10. “I learned last year that I didn’t make a good move. I take a lot of responsibility for that. It didn’t help anybody. We’re making sure we don’t make that same mistake again.”
But even if Bernier returns to Lewiston, all is not lost, as he is clearly the goaltender of the future for the Kings.
“It’s only a matter of time,” said Cloutier. “[Bernier is] a true professional, the way he carries himself and the way he practices. Just a great kid who’s fun to be around. The people in Canada all know about him, and we know his ability. I think he’s going to be a good goalie for a long time and one of the better ones.”
O’Sullivan Stepping Up
Last season, then-rookie forward Patrick O’Sullivan started the season with the Kings, but he struggled mightily before being sent to Manchester to work on his game.
The Kings told O’Sullivan that he needed to work on his physical play, his play without the puck, and his compete level, especially in battles for loose pucks along the boards and in the corners.
To his credit, O’Sullivan dedicated himself towards that end, and when the Kings recalled him on January 17, O’Sullivan was leading the Monarchs in scoring with 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points in 38 games.
And after his return, O’Sullivan showed the Kings that he had learned his lesson, looking like a different player.
“As the second half went on, I started killing penalties and playing in big, important situations,” said O’Sullivan. “That really got to me. I said to myself, ‘I can play at this level. I can make plays and do the things that I’ve been able to do at every other level.’ To realize that is pretty cool. It’s definitely something I’ve tried to build on.”
And in two pre-season contests this season, O’Sullivan has stood out, despite not getting his name on the scoresheet.
“He did everything but score,” Crawford said following the Kings 3-2 loss to the Ducks. “But we all know that Patrick’s got a great touch, and if he continues to get the amount of chances and power play opportunities that he got tonight, he’ll find a way to put it in the back of the net.”
O’Sullivan is getting quality scoring chances because he is taking the body and working hard without the puck, and he credits his strong play to his work last season and his off-season conditioning.
“It’s definitely confidence,” said O’Sullivan. “I felt pretty good the last 15-20 games of the season last year. I was making plays then, so I have a little more confidence. Combined with what I did over the summer, I feel a lot better out there.”
“I feel faster, and I feel a little quicker on the ice,” added O’Sullivan. “It’s from some of the training I did over the summer. The team wanted me to work on my conditioning, and I came to camp in a lot better shape than I did last year. I feel it on the ice.”
If O’Sullivan can continue to play as he has in the pre-season, he will be an impact player for the Kings this season and beyond, and the Kings will have developed another young prospect into a top six forward, something the Kings desperately need.
Still A Huge Question Mark
Although he is obviously quicker and more agile than at any point last season, goaltender Dan Cloutier still has a long way to go before he can qualify as a legitimate NHL goaltender again.
Indeed, the 2006-07 season was a complete disaster for Cloutier, who was never 100 percent healthy.
“I was first diagnosed with a slight tear in my labrum in Vancouver, the year before the lockout,” Cloutier explained. “I played through it, went to Europe during the lockout and played through it—no problem. Then against Pittsburgh last season, I felt I tore something. I was diagnosed with a torn labrum and torn cartilage and I had bone-on-bone contact.”
“Most everyone has tears that are like slices,” Cloutier elaborated. “Mine was peeled like when you pull open a can or tear carpet off a floor. It was all the way peeled. They went in and put anchors on it.”
That certainly isn’t a pleasant visual, to be sure. But it does explain why Cloutier was shelled in virtually every game he played in last season.
Plainly speaking, he did not have the mobility necessary to get the job done. Not even close.
In the 2007-08 pre-season, Cloutier has played in two games to date. At Anaheim on September 13, he allowed three goals on just ten shots, but looked better than at any time last season.
Cloutier got his next opportunity on September 18, when the Kings earned a 6-5 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center.
Cloutier allowed three goals on 18 shots, but once again looked light years better than he did at any time last season.
“Cloutier had his moments,” said Crawford. “He made a couple of big saves. Didn’t like the wrap-around goal for sure. There are a lot of wrap-arounds now. There’s so many, it seems that’s how the game is going. There’s lot of battles behind the net. You need to make sure you’re communicating well. We’ve got to be ready for those kinds of chances.”
“That said, it’s tough to coming in the latter half of the game,” added Crawford.
Cloutier saved his best for last, however, making three big saves in the shootout, including a diving save to secure the victory.
All in all, it was not a bad night.
“In the shootout, he made a great save to win the game for us,” said Crawford.
“I actually bit a little bit too much on his move but that’s just one of those things that you don’t give up and you try to throw any part of your body there,” said Cloutier. “He happened to throw it in my glove, which was nice.”
Cloutier attributes his improvement to being healthy…for a change.
“Physically, I’m where I want to be,” he said. “It’s just a matter of playing in games. I’ve only had two half-games. As a goalie, you want to play full games. You want to play as many games as possible. I know there’s only three left in North America. But that’s the schedule we have. We have to deal with it and approach practice like game situations.”
Despite declaring himself healthy, it is obvious that Cloutier is still a long way away from being at the top of his game.
“The hip is feeling pretty good,” Cloutier explained. “It’s just getting back to playing. Coming into training camp, it didn’t feel so great. But as training camp has come along, I’ve been feeling great in practice. It’s a matter now of bringing that into a game. I’ve had some great saves in both games, but I also had goals that I should’ve had. It’s getting there, but it’s a little frustrating.”
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get back to where I want to be,” Cloutier elaborated. “I felt a little better. I had a little more work in practice the last couple of days. We’ve kind of cut down the players in camp, so I’ve been getting more work in practice. Tonight, I did feel better than the last game, which is a good sign. I thought my movement from side-to-side was a lot better, too.”
Despite his dedication to returning to the form that made him a three-time 30-game winner in the NHL, another challenge might be overcoming hostility from Kings fans, most of whom appear to doubt his ability to make a comeback.
Indeed, whenever Cloutier touched the puck during the game against the Sharks, many fans at Staples Center booed him lustily when he made easy saves or just stopped the puck in the corners or behind the net.
But for Cloutier, it was “been there, done that.”
“You do hear it, but there’s nothing I can do,” Cloutier explained. “I can’t control what they do. I’ve been in that situation before. I can’t start to worry about what people are yelling or thinking about my play or what I’m doing. At the end of it, it’s going to make me better, once I work my way out of this.”
“I’ve been there in Vancouver my first couple of years, and then had a couple of successful seasons,” Cloutier added. “In order to get rid of it, you have to put up some numbers and get some wins.”
Johnson Adjusting Nicely
Rookie defenseman Jack Johnson was another standout against the Sharks, leading all players in the game with 33:32 of ice time, and looking like he is on the fast track towards becoming a top two NHL defenseman.
Johnson played in all situations and not once did he look out of place. He also contributed an assist on left wing Dustin Brown’s shorthanded goal at 1:05 of the third period.
“I feel like I’m getting there,” said Johnson. “I have pretty high expectations for myself. Hopefully, I’ll be there soon. I’m feeling great out there, not getting any jitters at all. I’m definitely feeling pretty close and that I could possibly contribute pretty well, night in and night out.”
“I’m feeling really comfortable with the systems, the way the Kings play,” added Johnson. “I don’t feel like my head’s swimming at all out there. I feel confident and I know where I’m supposed to be.”
But even with that confidence, Johnson understands that there is a lot of work ahead of him.
“I’m feeling more comfortable every day, especially getting to know the guys,” said Johnson. “Every day I come in, I’m not quite as hesitant around everyone—I’m feeling more at home around here. But I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll think of myself as an established player.”
“I’ve got a lot of learning to do on and off the ice,” added Johnson. “You have to really look up to the older guys, how they carry themselves. I’ve been around [veteran defenseman Jaroslav] Modry a lot, watching him—even some of the older forwards, watching what they do off the ice.”
Some might cringe at the fact that Johnson is learning from Modry, a name that probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence as “defense.” But that apparently doesn’t bother Johnson.
“Seems like every day I’m learning something new, whether it’s positioning on the power play or penalty-kill, neutral zone,” said Johnson. “Just learning how to play the game, being patient and letting the game come to me.”
Many people will likely be relieved to find out that Johnson is also learning from veteran defenseman Rob Blake, who won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in the 1997-98 season.
“Experience helps more than anything,” Johnson explained. “I watch some of the older guys out here—especially guys like Rob Blake. It seems like when they get the puck, the world stops and they can do whatever they want with it.”
Johnson said that getting a head start on his rookie season has been a plus.
“The five games I played last season really helped,” he explained. “I didn’t spend all summer wondering what it’s like or whether I’ll be able to hack it or not.”
“I was able to workout all summer, gearing up for that,” he added. “I came into training camp knowing what to expect, knowing what the tempo would be like. It was easier coming in like that as opposed not getting a taste of it last year.”
And to top it all off, Southern California certainly seems to agree with him.
“I think it’s awesome,” Johnson said about living in Southern California. “The sun’s shining. I love seeing Palm trees. In Ann Arbor [Michigan], we’d be wearing jackets and sweat shirts right now. I think you couldn’t ask for a better area to be around right now.”
Getting Down To 25
By the time the Kings leave for Europe after their game against the Colorado Avalanche in Las Vegas on September 22, they will be down to 25 players on their training camp roster.
To this point, there have been no real surprises in terms of roster cuts, although a mild surprise was the fact that right wing prospect Wayne Simmonds, who was selected by the Kings in the second round (61st overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft back in June, survived roster cuts until September 18, when he was assigned to the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League.
Also still on the Kings’ roster are defenseman prospect Thomas Hickey, who was the Kings’ first round pick (4th overall) in the June draft and Bernier.
The Kings are down to 31 players on their 2007 training camp roster, including 16 forwards, 11 defensemen and four goaltenders.
“Every guy in training camp is playing well, practicing well,” said Cloutier. “It’s good to see for the organization. It used to be a problem that we didn’t have a lot of depth. It’s definitely a good sign for the organization.”
Crawford said that sending players down to the minors or back to their junior teams is a tough task.
“Today was a tough day because some of our best young prospects had to go down,” he said after his team’s game against San Jose on September 18. “We know they’re not quite ready to play here yet. It’s better to get them started right now, and let the battles for the guys who are a little closer—guys who will probably make our lineup.”
“We’ve got some good players who we sent down today,” he added. “Marc-Andre Cliche is going to be a very good player in this league, as is Trevor Lewis. Teddy Purcell is going to be a real good player in this league. Joe Piskula is going to play for a long time as a solid, two-way defenseman. He’s shown great improvement for us this year. Matt Moulson is probably one of our better players in camp.”
“But on left wing, with O’Sullivan, with [Kyle] Calder playing as well as he is, and with [Michael] Cammalleri, that’s a tough left side to crack. We just don’t have a position available for Matt Moulson right now. If this had been another time, he certainly deserved a longer look. He’s done everything we’ve asked. He’s improved. We told him today, make sure you keep taking another step.”
Cammalleri, Frolov Hurt
Rich Hammond of the Daily News reported on the Inside the Kings blog that wingers Alexander Frolov and Michael Cammalleri are both suffering from mild groin strains, with Cammalleri being in better shape than Frolov.
Cammalleri suffered his injury during the game against San Jose on September 18. He did not play in the third period.
Frolov was hurt during practice at the Toyota Sports Center, the Kings practice facility.
Cammalleri is expected to play against Colorado on September 22 in Las Vegas, while Frolov will likely be held out of action at least until the Kings play in the Red Bull Salute tournament in Salzburg, September 25-26.
The good news for the NHL out of Buffalo is that the NHL Winter Classic, an outdoor game to be played at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sables, sold out 42,000 seats in just thirty minutes.
The bad news for the NHL is that outside of those 42,000 people, very few people, at least in the United States, will see it.
Indeed, the game is scheduled to be played on January 1, 2008, smack dab in the middle of the biggest day for college football with a myriad of bowl games being played throughout the day and into the night.
What genius in the NHL offices came up with the brilliant idea to schedule this game on New Year’s Day, in direct competition with all the bowl games? Does the league honestly think their game will compete favorably in the television ratings, especially when you consider that it is unlikely that any of the major networks will consider broadcasting the game with all the college football available for them to televise?
To be certain, even if Versus picks up the Winter Classic, barely anyone in the United States will be watching…of course, so many cannot even get Versus to begin with…but that’s another story.
Without question, this game should have been scheduled for another day. Of course, the NHL braintrust’s next choice was probably Super Bowl weekend.
Those at the league offices who came up with this plan certainly had brain-lock. With mental midgets like this running the show, it is no wonder that the NHL has such huge problems in selling the game and gaining wider exposure.
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