COMMENTARY: It is time for fans of the Los Angeles Kings to take a deep breath, a step back and think before speaking.
LOS ANGELES — After a game in which he was embarrassed in the shootout and another in which he was anything but solid, fans of the Los Angeles Kings are calling for goaltender Jason LaBarbera’s head.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Indeed, after looking like a fish out of water in the shootout against the San Jose Sharks on December 15 (3-2 shootout loss) and looking rather shaky in a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers on December 17, a quick tour of the Kings-related web sites and message boards across the Internet reveals that LaBarbera just might be Public Enemy #1 among Kings fans.
In fact, after reading some of the vitriol spat in his direction, one might think LaBarbera was a mass murderer…or a thief who steals candy from babies…something like that.
Being rather porous in shootouts or playing poorly when the rest of the team is firing on all cylinders certainly doesn’t help his cause—in the last two games, the Kings skaters played very strong games and deserved wins instead of a shootout or overtime loss.
After the overtime loss to the Rangers, Kings head coach Terry Murray did not criticize LaBarbera specifically, but if you read between the lines…
“We played so well,” said Murray. “I don’t think we’re capable of playing any better as a team right now. We come out and do everything the right way at the start of the game. The shots are 13-3 at the end of the first period. We got the first goal of the game and we just continued to build on it.”
“I thought the team effort was tremendous,” added Murray. “With the puck movement out of our own end, attacking, getting pucks to the net, traffic to the net, we did a great job. I was really happy with how everybody responded to playing one of the top teams on the other side.”
In those comments, Murray was clearly referring to his skaters, not his netminder. But when asked if he thought his team would have won with better goaltending, Murray gave LaBarbera what was, at best, tepid support.
“The first one was a tough one,” Murray said about Chris Drury’s late-first-period goal, a weak wrist shot from the slot off a turnover by the Kings. “It’s just a loose puck and Drury just threw the puck to the net. He’s almost in a position where it’s ‘get the puck to the net, I’m going to get a line change.’ You catch people by surprise whenever you do throw pucks to the net.”
Again, if you read between the lines, Murray was not praising LaBarbera at all. Instead, he seemed to be criticizing LaBarbera—not in so many words—it was a weak shot that Drury just threw towards the net and LaBarbera should have made the save.
To be sure, watching LaBarbera this season often brings up the question: “When was the last time he stole a win or came up with big saves to preserve one?”
Can’t say that has happened in recent memory.
In short, despite being named as the unequivocal number one goalie by head coach Terry Murray at the start of the 2008-09 season, LaBarbera has not played like one, despite having a much-improved defense in front of him.
So far this season, LaBarbera has struggled, as his a 5-7-6 record with a 2.71 goals-against average (GAA), a less-than-impressive .899 save percentage and two shutouts indicates.
But now, with goaltender Erik Ersberg on the shelf for at least two weeks with a groin strain, LaBarbera is the man, but not by choice. Nevertheless, he must raise his level of play from the depths of where it currently is and, at the very least, give the Kings competent goaltending.
To be sure, no one should expect miracles. LaBarbera will never be the second coming of Georges Vezina, Patrick Roy, or Rogie Vachon. But he is capable of considerably better goaltending than he has provided to this point in the season and it is time for him to step up.
But can he do it? History raises serious doubts because LaBarbera has been given every opportunity to lock onto the Kings’ number one goaltender position. But now in his third season with the Kings, he has failed to do so and has not come close.
LaBarbera’s detractors have that history firmly in mind as they call for his head. Many have said that the Kings should get rid of LaBarbera and trade for Chicago Blackhawks netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who has been rumored to be on the trading block since July 1.
Khabibulin is 9-1-4 this season with a 2.47 GAA, a .921 save percentage and one shutout, and has been the Blackhawks’ best goalie this season.
But Khabibulin is earning $6.75 million this season and is in the final year of his contract, leading the ’Hawks to put him on the trading block over the summer.
Many thought the Kings should have traded for Khabibulin back then and the calls for Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi to pull off such a deal now are gaining steam once again as LaBarbera falters.
But is that a wise move?
Acquiring Khabibulin would be an upgrade over LaBarbera and Ersberg, but at what cost? Especially given Khabibulin’s strong play this season, he has likely raised his trade value and Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon is not going to give him up for bargain-basement players. Rather, the price will be considerably higher, meaning the Kings would likely have to give up a key cog in their rebuilding plan.
Knowing that what matters for the Kings is not this season, but the seasons beyond, trading away one or more of their key prospects for a veteran player who is likely to be a less-than-one-season asset seems unwise, if not downright foolish.
Indeed, history has proven that the Kings have mortgaged their future over and over again in attempts to win now—all have failed miserably. A deal to put Khabibulin in a Kings jersey this season would fall smack dab into that category.
Others in the Anti-LaBarbera camp have called for the Kings to call up goaltender prospect Jonathan Bernier and play him instead.
“What could it hurt,” some have asked?
Given the fact that Bernier has struggled this season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, his confidence and psyche—his future—could suffer a major, irreparable blow if he comes up and gets shelled with the big club.
That said, it is entirely conceivable that Bernier could see some time with the Kings, especially if Ersberg is out longer than two weeks.
Bernier’s partner with the Monarchs, goaltender Jonathan Quick, was recalled by the Kings on December 16 and backed up LaBarbera against the Rangers. After that game, Murray indicated that Quick could start one of his team’s weekend games at Buffalo on December 19 or at Detroit on December 20.
Some are wondering if Quick could be the answer? He couldn’t be worse than LaBarbera, could he?
The answers to those questions are yes and yes.
Although LaBarbera has struggled, making Quick the Kings’ de facto number one goaltender would be as wise as running across a busy Los Angeles freeway would be.
Keep in mind that Quick has virtually no experience at the National Hockey League level and has not exactly lit up the AHL this season. If he is up with the Kings long enough, sure. Give him a start and see how he does. If he plays well, and who knows…anything is possible, increase his workload. But rash moves like benching LaBarbera in favor of Quick immediately would likely end up being just another ridiculous move made by a franchise with a very, very long history of bad, both on the ice and off.
As of this writing, the Kings rebuilding plan appears to finally be reaping serious dividends. A rash, hasty move now could do far more damage to those efforts than the proverbial wrench in the works would cause.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult for many fans to be patient, given the Kings’ history and the air of distrust that surrounds their owner, the Anschutz Entertainment Group. But now, more than ever, patience is key.
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