EL SEGUNDO, CA — After melting the ice in his crease last season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (primary minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings), not to mention three brilliant games with the Kings in 2009-10, goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who is expected to get the start against the Washington Capitals on February 12 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., has struggled to find his groove in this, his rookie season in the National Hockey League.
To this point in the 2010-11 season, the 23-year-old native of Laval, Quebec has a 5-8-1 record, a 2.84 goals-against average, a .894 save percentage, and one shutout—definitely not numbers one wants to see from an NHL goaltender, especially one who was selected by the Kings in the first round (11th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and who is thought to possess elite level skills.
However, Bernier’s statistics are a bit deceiving, especially when you consider five of his losses came when the Kings’ skaters did absolutely nothing in front of him defensively, leaving him to fend for himself.
In those games, Bernier allowed 25 goals on 143 shots, good for a .825 save percentage and a 5.52 goal-against average (GAA), all horrible numbers.
Although he got no help in those games, Bernier would be the first to admit that he was not on top of his game to start the season. He even admitted that after being a starter throughout his hockey career, having to adjust to being a backup for the first time was a big challenge, one that he was having some difficultly with (see Jonathan Bernier Is Making The Adjustment To Backup Role With LA Kings).
“I discovered that when you don’t play a lot, it’s kind of hard to get a rhythm,” said Bernier, adding that he felt rusty during a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on October 20, 2010. “It’s my first time being a backup, so I’ve got to find a way. It may take time. I’ve got to find something. I think the big thing that I’ve got to adjust here this year is going to be feeling comfortable right off the bat.”
Head coach Terry Murray was not pleased to hear that Bernier said that he felt rusty, and he issued a challenge to his young netminder.
“[Bernier has to] figure it out,” Murray said rather bluntly. “You can never come back to me at the end of the game and say, ‘I felt a little rusty.’ Work at your game in practice. Put that kind of game focus and work ethic into practice so that you’re prepared for your opportunity when the game is there.”
“You have to figure it out as a player,” Murray added. “As a professional athlete, you go through the process. You’re going to get a lot of coaching, there will be system and structure put in place. But there comes a time when there’s enough of that and you have to go play, and you have to play an instinctive game. It just clicks at times, and you do figure it out.”
“That’s a learned skill. I think that all goaltenders go through that process as young goaltenders. If you continually bring attention to it from me, from [Kings goaltending coach Bill] Ranford, it’s something [he’ll] learn and he’ll be better the next time.”
Despite his struggles, Bernier has also shined at times. Indeed, when the Kings did the job defensively, Bernier’s stats look pretty much like what one would expect, with a 5-3-1 record, a 1.68 GAA, a .938 save percentage, and one shutout—outstanding numbers.
On-ice adjustments to his game have resulted in improved play.
“I think the last little while, maybe four or five games, I’ve been feeling much better,” said Bernier. “It’s all about feeling good about yourself on the ice. I made some adjustments on my depth, and [they’ve] been working for me.”
They most certainly have. In fact, in his last six games, Bernier’s numbers have been more than stellar, earning a 4-1-1 record while allowing just seven goals on 153 shots, a miniscule 1.16 GAA, a .954 save percentage, and one shutout.
“At the AHL level, I was a little bit deeper [in his net], and I had a lot of success,” he explained. “When you’re coming from a year where you have so much success, you’re just trying to do the same thing.”
“At this level, guys are more capable of putting that puck in the right spot, so I had to [make an adjustment],” he elaborated. “Not a big one, but enough to, sometimes, think too much about it. It’s got to come naturally, and I think, especially in my last three games, I felt much better, and more comfortable playing a little higher in my crease.”
But an even bigger factor in his improvement is that he is maturing as an NHL goaltender.
“The biggest part—people always say it’s technical, but most of it—when a player is not playing up to his potential, it’s mental,” Bernier stressed. “For me, I think I was getting upset at times, and I think it was showing in my game. I was not as confident because, sometimes, I was putting too much pressure on myself [in terms of] playing more, getting the net, and stuff like that.”
“At the end of the day, I can’t control anything,” Bernier added. “It’s really an easy thing to say, but to do it, sometimes it can take a little more time.”
Every goaltender wants to be the starter, and Bernier is no different. But his growing maturity is helping him handle the situation properly.
“I’m not the type of guy who wants to be a number two at this level,” Bernier emphasized. “There’s some days when it’s going to be harder than others. Some nights, I want to be in. But [staring goaltender Jonathan] Quick has done a tremendous job for us.”
“So, for me, when I get my chance, I’ve got to step up and not worry about the end result,” Bernier added. “That was one thing at the beginning, I was trying to do so well, I wasn’t playing my game because I was thinking, ‘if I do well now, I’m going to play the next game.’ Now I go in there and focus on the present.”
Bernier’s improvement, both on the ice and off, has not gone unnoticed.
“At the halfway mark here, he’s starting to become more of a seasoned pro at the NHL level,” Murray noted. “He went through a time where he wasn’t playing a lot. Bill [Ranford] worked with him, Kim [Dillabaugh, who handles goaltender development for the Kings] came in and worked with him. He spent quite a bit of time on the ice, and in reviewing video of his game. That’s all part of the process for your first year player to start to figure it out at this level. There’s a different gear that you have to get to to play in the NHL.”
“Even if you had great success in the American Hockey League, everything’s a little bit faster, a little bit harder,” Murray added. “That’s the mental adjustment you have to make, and I think he’s getting there with that right now.”
With the recent success and off-ice growth, Bernier’s confidence is on the rise.
“I’ve been feeling more confident,” he said. “It’s all about that. It’s about feeling good in the net, feeling confident that you can stop anyone.”
“Having that game in Minnesota (Bernier earned a shutout in a 1-0 shootout loss on February 1 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul) was a big game,” he added. “I was trying to turn things around. Hopefully, I’ll keep going on the same path.”
That path could very well be one that leads him to become the Kings’ number one goaltender sometime in the not-necessarily-distant future.
Raw audio interviews
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Jonathan Bernier (3:59)
Terry Murray (0:55)
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