Jonathan Bernier: Chomping At The Bit

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Even for those who follow the Los Angeles Kings, it is rather astonishing that they have developed their own number one goalie just once in their more than forty years in the National Hockey League.

That netminder was Mario Lessard, who won 35 games for the Kings and was named to play in the NHL All-Star Game in the 1980-81 season.

Lessard played four seasons as the Kings’ number one goalie from 1978-80 through the 1981-82 season, with his 1980-81 performance being his best by far. Lessard faded into obscurity after that.

Of course, the Kings best goaltender was Rogie Vachon, but he was not drafted and developed by the Kings. Neither were Kelly Hrudey or Felix Potvin, two of the Kings other notable netminders. As for the rest? The vast majority have reminded fans more of a sieve than a legitimate National Hockey League goaltender.

Moreover, the only one in that list who could be considered an elite netminder was Vachon, who often single-handedly won games. But that could change soon, as the Kings just might be developing, not only a legitimate number one goaltender, but a elite one at that.

In the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the Kings used their first round selection (11th overall) to claim netminder Jonathan Bernier, who was playing for the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and was lighting up the QMJHL at the time.

“This is an unbelievable goaltender with great skill,” said Clement Jodoin, who was Lewiston’s head coach at the time.

“Jonathan was the top-ranked goaltender by us all year long,” said then-Kings’ Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray. “He started off that way in August, and he carried on that way through the whole season. He was the top-ranked goaltender by Central Scouting all year long.”

“We have Bill Ranford [now the Kings goaltending coach] who we’re talking to,” added Murray, who spoke about Bernier during the 2006 draft. “Bill had been a goalie consultant with the Canadian World Junior Under-18 teams, and Bill had a chance to work with him and he spoke very highly of him.”

A little more than a year later, Bernier came out of the Kings’ 2007-08 training camp as the club’s best goalie. But the defense in front of him was so porous, having Georges Vezina or Patrick Roy in goal would not have helped the Kings, who lost six of the first eight games of the season, including a five-game losing streak.

And things just got worse from there, as the Kings stumbled and bumbled their way through the first three months of the season and found themselves out of playoff contention before the middle of December.

Back in October, the writing was already on the wall, so the Kings’ brain trust decided that it would be better for Bernier to return to Lewiston to continue his development rather than get shell-shocked with the Kings.

But for Bernier, who was 1-3 with a 4.03 goals-against average (GAA) and a .864 save percentage behind a putrid defense, the move sent him reeling—he played poorly upon his return to Lewiston.

To be sure, Bernier’s problems were all in his head.

“I don’t think going back to juniors helped me, because I think I was over with juniors, but if I could’ve played in the [American Hockey League], that would’ve been great for me,” Bernier explained. “It was tough for me because I thought I was able to play at this level, so as soon as I got sent down, for me, it was the timing. For the first week, it was kind of hard. I was always fast on the play.”

“I think the biggest thing was mental,” Bernier elaborated. “I was so down that I didn’t make it. Then everything just comes into it…the bus rides, the food. [In Los Angeles], the guys have their wives so they’re more mature…It just made it harder.”

A phone call from Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi got the young netminder back on track.

“Dean talked to me and said, ‘if you want to play here, you’ve got to play up,’ said Bernier. “That just woke me up and I started playing good and I think it was the right time because two days after I went to the World Juniors and made the team.”

But the World Junior Championship (under 20 years of age) tournament did not go as expected for Bernier, who played in just two games.

“It was really hard, especially in the first game I played, it was a great game,” said Bernier, who was 1-1 with a 2.00 GAA and a .947 save percentage in the tournament. “I thought I kept my team in. Then, in the second game [that he played in], the third period just didn’t bounce our way.”

Indeed, Team Canada fell apart defensively in the third period and after that loss, Canada head coach Craig Hartsburg decided to start Steve Mason over Bernier. Mason wound up leading Canada the rest of the way and was named the Most Valuable Player and Best Goalkeeper of the tournament.

“I should’ve played in the second game of the tournament, but he went with Mason,” said Bernier. “In those tournaments, it’s like the playoffs. You build momentum, so if I would’ve played the second game, I would’ve been pumped up for the third game. But he made his choice and we won, so there’s no bad decision or anything like that.”

To his credit, Bernier did not let the World Junior setback affect him. Indeed, he returned to Lewiston and played well. And when Lewiston’s season ended, he was assigned to the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.

In three regular season games with the Monarchs, Bernier earned a 1-1-1 record with a 1.63 GAA and a .946 save percentage. And in three playoff games (the Monarchs were swept out of the playoffs by the Providence Bruins), Bernier was 0-3 with a 2.76 GAA and a .908 save percentage.

Looking back, Bernier said that his experiences last season will help him down the road.

“I’d say, right now, [being sent back to junior hockey was the right decision] with the season [the Kings] had,” he said. “I’m not saying going back to juniors was good for me, but to have the experience mentally, to get sent down and go to the World Juniors, all those little things helped me in the long run.”

“The past two or three years I’ve been in a situation that’s going to help me if I make the team here,” he added. “The Memorial Cup, the Presidents Cup that we won, all those little things that brought me somewhere is going to help me in the long run.”

But with the outlook for the 2008-09 Kings looking bleak {and that is probably an understatement), is playing for the Kings next season the best thing for Bernier?

Whether it is or not, he certainly thinks it is.

“I played in the AHL at the end of the season,” Bernier explained. “I really think, with the experience I had here and the experience I had in the AHL, I think it would be good for me to stay here. For me, this year, I need to take that chance to make the team. It’s up to me this year.”

“I’m not saying that because i want to make it,” Bernier elaborated. “I think I’m ready for it. We can build all together. We’re a group of younger guys so I think it would be great if we can build together and play together.”

Bernier’s thinking comes from past experience on a rebuilding team.

“If I remember my first year in juniors, we were rebuilding and we had a rough year,” said Bernier. “Two years after, we won the [Memorial] Cup. I think the biggest thing is that we get good leaders and everybody pushes the same way and you come to the rink and everybody’s happy. I think, at the end, we’re going to have a great season if everybody’s on the same page. In two years, everybody will have played together for two or three years and it’s going to be great.”

“I spoke with [Kings assistant general manager] Ron Hextall and they don’t really have anything to comment about my game or my technique,” added Bernier. “It’s more mental, that young goalies have to be stronger. But it just comes with experience so that’s why I said if they can be patient with me and let me play here—it doesn’t matter where I play, but if they can be patient, that’s important for a goalie. Give him a chance and the experience.”

But the big question is, in September, when the Kings open their 2008-09 training camp, even if Bernier once again shows that he is their best goalie, will they give him that chance, knowing that they are likely to once again struggle mightily and compete for last place in the NHL standings (and the first selection in the 2009 draft that comes with it) as opposed to a playoff berth?

To be sure, if the Kings decide to once again send him down rather than expose him to another porous defense and another a losing atmosphere, Lombardi and Hextall will very likely have to do some damage control for Bernier’s psyche.

“I’ll be mad, really mad,” Bernier said about that possibility. “But it depends on so many things. If I come here and don’t deserve to stay here—last year, I thought I deserved to stay here. That’s why I was so mad. But if I come here and I have a bad camp, they have the right to send me down.”

Looks like whatever Lombardi and the Kings decide to do with their top goaltenders for the 2008-09 season, it will be very, very interesting, to say the least.

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30 thoughts on “Jonathan Bernier: Chomping At The Bit

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  1. Another great article Gann. I am glad Jonathon Bernier was able to overcome his initial disappointment. Although I am glad he wants to play for the Kings I really believe another year or two of seasoning in MAN would benefit him. His comments about being very angry if he did not make the club do concern me because I am afraid his impatience will adversely affect his playing in the AHL. Mostly I am worried he will develop a poisonous “Why am I not playing in the NHL yet ?” attitude.

  2. He has a point about all being together when winning, but I don’t think he understands what next season will be like. The defense will be young and will make errors. NHL caliber players on other teams will force many of these errors. Unless Jonathan earns #1 minutes and possibly even if he does, it would be best for him to play at least one full AHL season.

  3. Crawford should have been fired after leaving this kid in for 7 goals against in the Boston game. I’m sure Murray won’t be so foolish as to overexpose this guy to that sort of confidence-crusher.

  4. Lessard was developed by the Kings, drafted by them and never played for another team. He averaged over 50 GP for 4 years. People need to stop repeating this as fact.

  5. Interesting. I’ve seen several sources that said he was drafted in the WHA draft, not the NHL draft. But now I’m seeing sources, including hockeydb, that say he was drafted in both drafts. The Kings did indeed select him. And here I thought I had done my homework. Thanks for pointing that out.

  6. So, Gann, what was your take on his attitude from speaking to him? Arrogant? Confident?

    I like a little arrogance in a goaltender, as long as he’s got the work ethic to back it up…

  7. Much more confidence than arrogance. Even more obvious is that he has a big fire burning inside…his desire and drive to make it to the NHL, to meet that new challenge head on.

    But I guess we won’t really know until we see him in a Kings’ jersey for an extended period.

  8. Gann, do you have access to interviews with some of the players that have just left the team? i.e. Cammalleri, Blake, Stuart, or Tukonen?

  9. Would be rather difficult, until these guys come back into town to play the Kings. And you can bet Tukonen won’t be playing in Staples Center anytime soon.

  10. How do you go about getting interviews? Are you granted access through the Kings, or do you contact players on your own?

  11. Through the Kings, generally. Unless a player, coach, GM, etc. gives you explicit permission to contact them directly, it really wouldn’t be kosher to invade their private life like that.

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