Los Angeles Kings: A Glimpse Of The Future?

LOS ANGELES — With the Los Angeles Kings mired in last place in the league standings and eliminated from playoff contention for the fifth straight season, the only thing left is to start looking at what might be for the 2008-09 Kings, and two young prospects are already making a case for roster spots with the big club next season.

Ersberg Exceeding All Expectations

Since he was recalled from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) on February 21, Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg has been, in a word, incredible.

To illustrate, Ersberg has played in eleven games for the Kings this season, earning a 5-3-3 record with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage—both eye-opening numbers, especially for a rookie who came into the Kings’ dressing room with no expectations of him whatsoever.

And to top it all off, Ersberg stepped up his game even more this week, with stellar efforts at Anaheim in a 2-1 shootout loss on Wednesday, followed by a 4-0 shutout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center on Thursday.

In the two games, Ersberg allowed just one goal spanning 123:10 of ice time. His shutout on Thursday was his second of the season, his first coming in a 2-0 win over the Ottawa Senators on March 6.

Indeed, Ersberg has been virtually unbeatable in his last two games, stopping a combined 77 shots. Even more impressive…over his last four games, Ersberg is 3-0-1 and has stopped 129 out of 137 shots.

“He’s been playing great the last couple of games,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar. “He deserved the shutout today. He was sharp all the way. He made some big saves, too. I’m really glad for him because coming into the league, not knowing how he’s going to play, the way he’s playing, it seems that he’s really comfortable. That’s really good for us.”

“I can’t complain,” Ersberg said about his performance against the Coyotes. “It was a good night for me. They had to give everything they’ve got to make the playoffs. They threw a lot of shots at me, but we played a great game defensively. I saw almost every shot and they were there for me on the rebounds, too. They helped me out a lot.”

Speaking of being unbeatable, Ersberg is now 2-0 against the Coyotes this season, having beaten them on March 20, a 6-5 shootout victory in Phoenix.

“You have to give him credit, he played well last game, he played well tonight,” said Coyotes forward and team captain Shane Doan. “He’s a good goalie. You have to get a little bit more traffic in front of the net, but you have to give him credit.”

Ersberg, who became the first Kings rookie to earn multiple shutouts in one season since Cristobal Huet did so in the 2003-04 season, has started to turn heads and make people stand up and take notice. To be sure, Ersberg has exceeded all expectations.

By a long shot.

“I don’t think any of us were expecting that he would play the way he is right now,” said Kopitar. “That’s really comforting to us, knowing that he’s going to make some key saves in the game. That’s really positive for our club.”

Crawford explained that Ersberg’s play has worked wonders for solidifying his team’s defensive play.

“[Ersberg] has really played well,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “What he’s done is allow our defense to become much more comfortable with the way they play in the defensive zone. We haven’t changed much of how we play in the defensive zone. Now, with the saves coming and not as many rebounds as we saw earlier in the season, it’s allowed our defense to play, knowing where the pucks are going to go, knowing what they have to do and not worrying so much about pucks spraying off the goaltender and going all over the place. That’s a difficult way to play in the defensive zone.”

“I think that’s been the biggest change and Erik has been largely responsible for that,” added Crawford. “He has found pucks that get shot from the point. I’ll bet there were seven or eight tonight that he found through the scrums and they didn’t result in rebounds. He just stopped them and held them in his body.”

Indeed, Ersberg has been a puck magnet since he was called up from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) on February 21.

“He’s like a sponge right now, he really is,” Crawford explained. “He’s sucking all those shots into him and they’re not spraying off of him. That allows your defensive coverage to be so much more well-executed.”

“Part of it, when he’s reading the play and he’s finding the puck, he’s catching them,” Crawford stressed. “The pucks on his body, he’s drawing them into him as opposed to blocking and spitting it out.”

“He is a very good movement goaltender and very good on his angles.”

The rookie from Sweden is certainly making an impression and is trying to push his way to the top (or near the top) of the Kings’ goaltending depth chart.

“I’m just happy to get a chance to play here and show everybody what I can do,” said Ersberg. “Hopefully, it’ll be good for me for next year.”

“The loss yesterday was kind of tough, but I can’t complain. It’s been great so far.”

Harrold Also Moving Up The Depth Chart

Although he certainly isn’t making the noise that Ersberg has, defenseman prospect Peter Harrold has not looked out of place since he was recalled from Manchester on February 19.

Harrold is not a big, bruising hulk of a defenseman, but the 5-11, 195-pound native of Kirtland Hills, Ohio has been able to hold his own by using his skating ability, positioning and his brain.

“Not being a huge defenseman, I’ve always got to make sure that I’m on the right side of the puck and in between my guy and the net,” said Harrold. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve got to take care of.”

“[I am a] puck-moving defenseman, more offensive,” added Harrold. “I try to make the first pass out of the zone and chip in on offense whenever I can. Obviously, I’m not a big guy so my defensive game is all about positioning and having a good stick.”

Indeed, Harrold cannot rely on his physical stature to help him as much as he can on his brain.

“Up here it’s a different game,” Harrold explained. “Things happen quicker and guys are in the right position all the time and that can help a lot. Smarter players can make it up here and I like to think I’m a pretty smart player and I can make that happen. I just have to make sure I’m in the right position and making smart plays.”

Harrold’s skating ability is the strongest aspect of his game.

“His skating is exceptional, especially when you look at the speed of opposition forwards now,” said Crawford. “You’ve got to have great mobility and you’ve got to have the ability to channel people in the right direction, to manage the ice, and he does that. Plus, he’s competitive. For a guy that’s not overly big, he battles against whoever he’s out there against, whether it’s Shane Doan or a bigger-body forward, he’s going to go in there first, he’s going to maintain his position and he’s going to give you as much compete as he can.”

Harrold knows that he has not locked up a spot on the roster next season, but he is hopeful.

“This is the goal,” he said. “You want to be here, you want to play and you want to play well. It’s great to be up here. There’s a learning curve. Things happen a lot quicker up here, but I think I’m adapting well and I’m looking to improve.”

“Right now, I’m focusing on taking advantage of this opportunity here, but this is where you want to be, so I’ll do everything I can the rest of this season and then worry about the off-season,” he added. “Hopefully, I’ll be here next year.”

Already though, it sounds like that might be the case.

“When you have good skating ability and a real desire to compete, then you’re going to play much like Peter Harrold has,” said Crawford. “He’s shown that he’s ready to play in the National Hockey League. He’s another young defenseman who will be our fold, along with Jack [Johnson], for years to come.”

Kings Could Set Dubious Record

Prior to Thursday’s game, the Kings recalled goaltender Daniel Taylor from Manchester after Dan Cloutier went down with a groin strain.

Taylor, 21, has played in 23 games with the Monarchs this season, earning a 13-5-2 record with a 2.40 goals-against average (GAA), a .921 save percentage and four shutouts.

The 5-11, 186-pound native of Plymouth, England was named the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month for January after earning a 5-0-0 record in six games, with three shutouts.

Taylor also played in three games this season for the Reading Royals of the ECHL, also a Kings’ affiliate, earning a 3-0-0 record, a 2.64 GAA and a .917 save percentage.

Taylor was selected by the Kings in the seventh round (221st overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He will wear jersey number 46.

Taylor had just earned his fourth shutout of the season, a 2-0 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Wednesday night when he got the call.

“I got it last night after our game,” said Taylor. “I was relaxing and then I got the call. It just sent chills down my spine. It’s kind of a dream come true for me.”

The next twenty-four hours was certainly a whirlwind for the young netminder.

“I left [Manchester] at 6:40 AM Eastern time, so it’s been a long day so far,” he said. “But I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.”

Taylor backed up Ersberg on Thursday, but he was still on Cloud Nine.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Taylor explained. “I don’t think it’ll sink in for another two or three days. It’s like ‘wow. I’m here. I’ve worked all my life to get here and it finally happened.’”

“I’ve been [in Los Angeles] a few times for [summer] Development Camp, but I think the biggest eye-opener was when I was headed out there for warm-up behind [Michael] Cammalleri and [Rob] Blake and then all the people who were out there—it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Moving up from the minor leagues to the NHL is a dramatic change for any young player, and Taylor was not an exception.

“It doesn’t compare, you can’t put it into words,” Taylor explained. “You get chills stepping out there, knowing that you’ve worked your whole life to get there. And when you finally get out onto the ice, you think, ‘wow. I finally did it.’”

At the same time, Taylor is not letting the bright lights and higher skill level of the NHL intimidate him.

“As you go along, you realize it’s the same game,” he explained. “You just have to compete the same way you did all your life. Everyone laces up their skates the same, everyone tapes up their sticks the same. It’s just a little quicker and the guys play a lot better.”

Taylor began the season with Reading and no one ever thought he would be wearing a Kings jersey this season, not even Taylor himself.

“Not a chance,” he said. “It’s kind of been a roller coaster season so far. You just take it one day at a time. I’ve learned a lot this year. It’s been something I’ll never forget for sure.”

But Taylor’s play at the ECHL and AHL levels have turned some heads, earning him this chance.

“[This season has] turned out well,” said Taylor. “The goalie coaches here did a lot of work with me over the summer and I made a lot of strides.”

Kings goaltender coaches worked with Taylor and told him what he needed to work on.

“Reading the play, having good focus, control on the rebounds—all the little things that will make a good goaltender great,” said Taylor. “You can never be satisfied with your game. There’s always something to work on.”

Back to that record…the Kings have had seven goalies on their roster this season, including Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Jonathan Bernier, Dan Cloutier, Erik Ersberg, Jason LaBarbera, Jonathan Quick, and now, Daniel Taylor.

Should Taylor play in a game for the Kings, he would be the seventh goalie to appear in a game this season, which would tie an unofficial record held by the 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques and the 2002-03 St. Louis Blues.

“It’s not very often that you have seven goalies under contract and you see all of them in one year,” said Crawford with a wide grin. “I think we set a record if we put him in a game, so we might put him in for a minute just to do it.”

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