EL SEGUNDO, CA — For much of the 2008-09 season, Los Angeles Kings goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier was not a happy camper.
First, he was upset that he was unable to crack the Kings lineup out of training camp, even though an injury contributed greatly to that.
“When we called up Quick, [Bernier] did not work hard in practice,” Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi said in an earlier interview. “He thought this was going to be an easy ride to the NHL.”
“[Bernier has] always been one of the top goaltenders in Canada his whole life,” Lombardi added. “It’s all been fairly easy because he’s so talented and he thought he would go right to the Kings. When it didn’t happen, he didn’t want to work hard. One of the biggest complaints we had was, ‘you’re not coming up here until you learn to work hard in practice.’ He didn’t do it. When we called up Quick, he kind of went the other way on us. We actually called up [former Kings goalie prospect] Danny Taylor. We played him in Manchester.”
A long talk with Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall appears to have straightened Bernier out.
“I had a long chat with Ron Hextall,” Bernier explained. “He’s an old goalie. He told me that if I want to get back [to the Kings], I need to work harder in practice and that’s what I did.”
“I remember Hextall [later] went down [to Manchester] and said, ‘wow…what a change,’” said Lombardi. “He’s working his tail off in practice, he almost got that team in the playoffs, he played really well down the stretch in some big games. Now we can say, ‘OK…now he’s starting to figure it out.’”
After almost getting the Monarchs into the playoffs last season, Bernier came to the Kings’ summer development camp for their young prospects and later, the Kings training camp, with a different attitude, and he took that mindset with him back to Manchester to start the 2009-10 season.
“He went down this year and there was not one peep versus the last couple of years,” said Lombardi. “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,’” added Lombardi. “He’s just taken right off.”
Talk about an understatement.
Bernier, who has a 26-18-5 record in fifty appearances for Manchester this season, is ranked third in the AHL with a 2.08 goals-against average. He also leads the league with a whopping .937 save percentage and in shutouts with eight.
On March 11, Quick left the Kings to be with his wife, who gave birth to their first child, a girl, Madison Mychal Quick, at 4:15 AM PST on March 12.
That left the Kings in need of a goaltender and Bernier got the emergency call up from Manchester. But a mild surprise was that he was not the backup goaltender when they skated at Dallas on March 12.
Indeed, Erik Ersberg, who has backed up Quick all season, but has played in just eight games this year, found himself in his all-too-familiar spot on the bench while Bernier got the start.
Although Murray discussed the situation with Ersberg, the rarely-used backup netminder was not pleased with the move, even though he has refused to say much about it.
Murray explained that even though Ersberg was deserving, he wanted to take the opportunity to get a good look at Bernier.
“I want to see him,” head coach Terry Murray told Rich Hammond of LAKingsInsider.com about his decision to start Bernier. “I think he has played very well this year in Manchester and he is very deserving of the opportunity.”
Bernier went on to play an outstanding game in a 2-1 shootout win over the Dallas Stars, earning the number one star of the game.
“It’s been awhile,” Bernier said in an interview with Frozen Royalty. “It felt good to be back, especially to get the win—it was my first shootout win this year.”
“I felt nervous at first, but once the game was going, in the second and third, I felt much better.”
Murray was impressed with his young goalie prospect.
“When you look at the game last night, what impresses you is that it was his first time to play [at the NHL level] this year, coming in the night before and all of the stuff surrounding that, and he settles in and plays very well,” said Murray. “He was very consistent in his game, I really liked his handling of the puck, playing with the puck, no rebounds, absorbed everything. He just had a superb game.”
“Goaltending is the key to your organization and we have, as we saw last night, a young guy in the American Hockey League who’s really getting his game in order and becoming a premier guy in the AHL,” added Murray. “That’s part of the process he has to go through in order to get his time in the National Hockey League. It’s moving along very quickly.”
But even before Bernier’s performance at Dallas, Murray was already impressed.
“I really liked his game in training camp and even going back to the development camp [in July],” Murray explained. “He came in in great physical condition. His mental approach—he was very prepared emotionally for the development camp and brought it all together at a very high level in training camp. He played extremely well.”
“He’s really a solid guy,” Murray elaborated. “He’s square [to shooters], and his fundamentals are terrific around the net. That’s the foundation you have to have in order to be a successful player in this league.”
The technical side of Bernier’s game has been sound for some time and he has shown the potential to become an elite goaltender since he was selected by the Kings in the first round (eleventh overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Indeed, what he needed to work on most was his attitude. But it now appears that he has made tremendous strides in that area, so much so that he may have turned the corner.
“I went through a lot of things last year that made me grow,” said Bernier. “I just feel more ready than I was at nineteen. I learned the game a different way, too, and I think it really helped my game.”
“[I have] a different mindset, a different attitude,” added Bernier. “I learned a lot from last year. I think I was just being a baby. I was complaining a lot, I didn’t want to work hard.”
That is rather strong criticism of oneself, especially coming from a 21-year-old. But it is a positive sign of things to come from the 6-0, 186-pound native of Laval, Quebec.
“I focused a lot,” Bernier explained. “Every day is like a game. I just want to be ready and if you work hard [in practice], it right away shows in your game and that’s what I’m trying to do. I feel good about my game.”
“I’ve seen a lot of pucks this year,” Bernier added. “They asked me to be focused, and go back down and show that I can be the best. That’s what I’m trying to do in every game and give my team a good chance to win every night.”
Bernier’s play at Manchester this season, along with his performance at Dallas, have given his confidence a big boost.
“I really feel more comfortable,” he said. “The way I played [in Manchester] just showed me that I can be a good goalie up here. It feels good to get that game yesterday and have a good start. It’s been awhile—two years. I was a little bit nervous, but it feels good to be back.”
“I think I just showed myself that I can play at this level,” he added. “If I put the effort in, I think I can be the goalie I’ve always wanted to be. For me, it was more to prove to myself, not to anyone else that I can play at this level. I think I showed in the AHL that I can be one of the best. To stay here, it’s going to take timing. When I get my chance, I just have to take it.”
“When I got called up last year, I felt like I was only one call away. It made me realize that I might be closer than it looks. I worked really hard since I got called up, all summer long. I understand what I need to do to get back here for a long time.”
That time is very likely to come next season when Bernier is expected to compete with Quick for ice time. But that is still a long way away and there is still work to be done down on the farm.
“I’m so proud of him,” Lombardi beamed. “Like I told him when I was [at Manchester], 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.”
Sure looks like Bernier is about to hit the home stretch on that road.
Audio Interview with Jonathan Bernier (5:00; raw, unedited)
Video highlights of Bernier’s (and the Kings’) game at Dallas on March 12 from NHL Video on YouTube
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