LOS ANGELES — With the exception of should-be-a-Hall-of-Famer Rogie Vachon, Mario Lessard and Felix Potvin (for about one season), “goaltending” and “Los Angeles Kings” should not be used in the same sentence unless the idea is to cause uncontrollable laughter or crushing despair, depending on who you might be talking to.
But all indications are that the old joke that has been Los Angeles Kings’ goaltending is about to be put to rest, perhaps for the long-term.
Although it is way too early in his career to compare him to Vachon, Jonathan Quick could be the solid, number one goaltender the Kings have lacked for what seems like an eternity.
Quick, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (72nd overall) in the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft, was called up by the Kings after Jason LaBarbera proved to be a sieve to start the 2009-09 season. Quick stepped right in and played so well that not only did he become the team’s number one goaltender last season, but he also allowed Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi to dump LaBarbera onto the Vancouver Canucks for a seventh round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (this pick, along with an additional fourth round pick and a seventh round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers on June 27, 2009 for a fourth round selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The used that pick to select goaltender Jean-Francois Berube).
Indeed, the 6-1 223-pound native of Milford, Connecticut performed well last season, earning a 21-18-3 record with a 2.48 goals-against average (GAA), a .914 save percentage and two shutouts in 44 games.
As poorly as the Kings played last season, ending the season 14th in the fifteen-team Western Conference and way, way out of playoff contention, the fact that Quick had a winning record on a team that was 34-37-11 last year is impressive, to say the least.
Fast forward to the current season, Quick got off to a bit of an uneven start, but has settled down and especially in recent weeks, he has shined.
In fact, to say that Quick has found his stride of late would be quite the understatement, as he has won his last seven games (through games played on February 3, 2010), earning a 1.95 GAA and a .931 save percentage in that span.
On top of that, Quick is 12-3-0 in his last fifteen games, earning a 2.34 GAA and a .922 save percentage over that stretch.
Quick, 24, has certainly been one of the Kings’ best players this season, and that fact has certainly not gone unnoticed, as Lombardi is quite pleased that goaltending now appears to be a strength of his team rather than a huge liability.
“We’re not kidding ourselves,” said Lombardi. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. But, as we know, a goaltender is part of your team and we know what it’s like not to have a goalie. So, now that we have one and he’s doing his job, he’s showing the potential to be a bona fide number one on a contender. That’s what he has to get to, that’s what [center Anze] Kopitar has to get to—the whole crew.”
“That’s one of the things we saw in him last year, it’s part of his history,” added Lombardi. “He’s a competitor, and I come back to this group of kids we’ve got in there. They’re competitive kids who care about the right thing. Quick, from day one, has always been competitive.”
Lombardi acknowledged that he was a bit concerned when Quick did not get off to the expected strong start this season.
“[Quick has] had a lot to learn,” Lombardi noted. “He wasn’t very good early. “So I could go back and say we kept our heads above water when he was awful. But he wasn’t awful. But he wasn’t very good. He was average to below average.”
“That’s part of building a good team,” Lombardi continued. “I’m certainly not going to apologize for good goaltending at this stage. I’ve had it. I’ve suffered for three years without it.”
Quick has given long-suffering Kings fans more than a glimmer of hope for he future, but he is not the only promising goaltending asset in the Kings’ system.
“The irony is that the same thing is happening in Manchester,” said Lombardi. “We’re winning and every time I call down there, it’s [Jonathan] Bernier and last night, [Jeff] Zatkoff lights it up.
“It’s like, ‘gee, we actually have goaltending at every level,’” added Lombardi. “We’ve got one of the goaltenders on the [Canadian] World Junior team [Martin Jones]. We said we’d fix that. At least we’re getting some swings at it now.”
As well as Quick has played with the Kings this season, Bernier has lit up the American Hockey League since day one of the 2009-10 AHL season, earning a 21-11-5 record with a 1.90 GAA, a .942 save percentage and six shutouts in 38 games.
Bernier, 21, was named as the AHL’s Player of the Week for the period ending January 31, 2010, after stopping 85 out of 87 shots in three appearances, earning two shutout wins and a shootout loss that week.
The 6-0, 186-pound native of Laval, Quebec has apparently come a long way in terms of maturity since last season.
“He made tremendous strides last year as a man,” Lombardi beamed. “[Earlier that year], he pouted and somehow, in February, the light went off after we called up [Daniel Taylor, who spent most of the season in the ECHL]. We said, ‘we don’t care if you’re a first round pick.’”
“A lot of organizations wouldn’t do that because it makes your first round pick look bad,” Lombardi noted. “But I don’t care. You’ve got to fight your way through. But then, all of a sudden, February came and he started practicing hard. He almost got [the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings primary minor league affiliate] into the playoffs last year on his own.”
“He went down this year and there was not one peep versus the last couple of years.”
As the old saying goes, what a difference a year makes.
“Monarchs head coach [Mark Morris] told me that when [Bernier got to Manchester], he looked [Morris] right in the eye and said, ‘I don’t need to hear one thing. I know what I’m going to do and I’ve got to do it. We don’t need to have any of these talks where we’re saying ‘c’mon Jon…we need you to do this.’ He’s just taken right off,” said Lombardi.
Bernier started the 2007-08 season in Los Angeles and was the best goaltender the Kings had in their training camp, giving long-deprived fans a glimmer of hope.
Little did they know at the time that it was false hope…or perhaps just delayed, as the Kings got off to an awful start.
After just four games and despite pressure from fans to make Bernier the team’s starting netminder, Lombardi sent Bernier back to his junior team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he finished the season.
Although Lombardi was tempted to keep Bernier up with the big club, he is now counting his blessings because he stuck to his guns.
“I could think of keeping him that year—it was so against my all of my principles to keep him here and I shudder—to see him now to think how dumb I could’ve ever been to even think of playing him here,” Lombardi explained. “I feel like strangling myself for having been that stupid to have even thought of keeping him here versus where he is now because he’s dealt with adversity now.”
“He had no business being here,” Lombardi elaborated. “You’re trying to tell him at the time you’re building a team, it’s very different to say you’ve made this team and you’re ready, versus you’re the best of a bad lot. That’s not going to get you to where you need to go. Basically, that’s what it was. You’re as good as a bunch of guys who weren’t very good, but you’ve got upside, so let’s train you properly.”
Bernier was like many young prospect with boatloads of skill and potential. He had dreams of playing in the NHL right away and was bitterly disappointed to get there, only to quickly find himself back in junior hockey.
“They don’t want to hear [that they need to go back to junior hockey or the minor leagues],” said Lombardi. “But as a manager and personnel person, to think I even thought of that at the time, I should’ve had my head examined because I see the way he is now—he is so far ahead and he’s ready for the next challenge. Very similar to [San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni] Nabokov, who was down there and almost quit because there was adversity, ‘I’m going home.’ But he fought his way through and then it was nothing but up.”
“I’m so proud of [Bernier], added Lombardi. “Like I told him when I was down there, I called him in and he was really good the night I was there, you’re doing everything we asked, I’m so proud of you. Just keep it going and finish off your training. So good for him. Like I said, they have to become men as well as athletes.”
If he is ready for the next challenge, Bernier is likely to start the 2010-11 season with the Kings and battle Quick for ice time.
Although having two goalies in the lineup who could become legitimate number one netminders may be a cause for conflict, Lombardi is not concerned, at least for the short term.
“Nothing wrong with having two,” he said. “I got no problem with that. Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog did that [with the Edmonton Oilers] for years and won Cups. Nothing wrong with that. As you can see, with 82 games and the way the schedule is, I’ve got no problem with two guys at that level.”
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