LA Kings 2011 Training Camp: Netminder Jonathan Bernier Is Focused On His Game…And Nothing Else

TRAINING CAMP COVERAGE: On Day 2 of the Los Angeles Kings’ 2011 Training Camp, backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier talked about what he is focusing on heading into the new season, head coach Terry Murray talked about defenseman prospect Thomas Hickey’s development taking big strides, and about Jack Johnson’s play in the defensive zone. Raw audio interviews included.

LA Kings goaltender Jonathan Bernier is shown here during a drill at
the Kings’ 2011 Training Camp on September 17, 2011.
Photo: David Sheehan.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With defenseman Drew Doughty still unsigned and nowhere near Southern California, the big news out of Day 2 of the Los Angeles Kings’ 2011 Training Camp was that veteran right wing Justin Williams was absent after being stricken by flu.

Day 2 of training camp was much the same as Day 1, with three groups of players going through two sessions of drills, followed by a tough conditioning skate.

While management, coaches, scouts and development staff watched intently, evaluating players, prospects and those in camp on tryout status, one area they do not have to pay as much attention to is in goal.

Indeed, they might as well etch the names of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier into both goal creases at Staples Center for the year right now.

Quick remains the number one goaltender after a season where one could argue that he deserved consideration for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the National Hockey League’s best goaltender.

Bernier will be the backup goalie once again this season, something that became an issue early last season when he struggled while adjusting to being a backup for the first time…ever.

But after Christmas, Bernier got his head on straight and turned his season around. Indeed, he was so hot in the second half of the season that he could have easily left a puddle of blue water in front of his net every time he played.

“I started feeling pretty good after the All-Star break,” said Bernier. “I was a lot more confident after Christmas. It was my first full year. [He had] to get to know the system, and I had to get to know the guys.”

“Everyone was expecting me to do so well [based on his play during] the previous year when I came up [to the Kings for three games in 2009-10],” added Bernier. “I wish I had the same start, but it’s a learning process.”

Bernier pointed out that his problems were rooted in his mental approach.

“I think a lot of people who don’t know much about hockey, they think it’s more physical—they think you’re not ready,” he explained. “But we had those hard practices that get you ready for games. It’s all mental.”

“Sometimes, you get into a game, and you don’t feel as confident as you should,” he elaborated. “But I found the right [attitude]. After Christmas, I just told myself, ‘you’re up here [at the NHL level]. Enjoy the time that you’re here. No matter what happens, you can’t control it.’ From that point on, things turned around.”

For Bernier, it is no longer about the number of starts he gets, let alone when he will climb to the top of the mountain, becoming the Kings’ number one netminder.

“When I got here, a lot of people were asking me that question, and I think it got to my head a little bit,” said Bernier. “It’s a learning process—how to deal with those issues. It just makes me stronger as a person, and as a player. Now, I just have to focus on my game, and nothing else.”

“Quick is a great goalie,” added Bernier. “It’s going to be pretty hard to push him out of the net. He’s had a lot of success here. That’s why I said that I can’t worry about him playing well, or him playing badly. It’s just how I play. For both of us, it’s just trying to win as many games as possible for our team. That’s my only focus.”

Bernier added that he has a solid relationship with Quick.

“We have a really good relationship—good friends,” Bernier noted. “When we step on the ice for practice, it’s just a little, friendly battle. During games, if he sees something, he’s going to tell me, and if I see something, I’ll let him know, too. It’s a good tandem.”

Last year, Bernier played in 25 games, and, in an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty in late August, head coach Terry Murray indicated that Bernier could see more action in 2011-12.

“There will probably be more games there,” said Murray. “I don’t have it planned out as I did last year at this time. Jonathan Quick is our number one goaltender. That’s the way it is coming [into training camp].”

“Bernier, post-All-Star game, his game really improved,” added Murray. “He really stepped up. So it’s going to be exciting here in camp, in exhibition games. We’ll get going at the start of the year, and see where everything is at.”

As stated earlier, Bernier is not thinking about now many games he’ll be playing.

“You can’t expect anything,” he said. “I know now that I can’t really worry about that. Last year, I think I played 25 games, and, at the end of the season, when I looked at it, [he thought] it was pretty good. I’m just going to focus on practice right now, and get my game ready for the start of the season.”

“I’m more than ready this year,” he added. “I’m a lot more confident in my second year. I’m excited to start the season.”

Hickey Finally Takes A Big Step Forward

After being selected by the Kings in the first round (fourth overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman prospect Thomas Hickey has missed a boatload of time due to injuries, stifling his development.

But last season, Hickey scored six goals and added 18 assists for 24 points with a +9 plus/minus rating and 38 penalty minutes in 77 regular season games with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.

He also contributed two assists in seven playoff games.

Although those are far from being eye-popping numbers, Hickey took the biggest strides forward in his development since he was drafted.

“I just made a comment to Hickey as he walked by—I said that he’s flying out there,” said Murray. “That’s a big change from what I saw in year one. His overall body strength is much better. If I go back to the first year that I was here, or even last year, he’s got another year or pro [hockey] under his belt in the American Hockey League. You come away at the end of the season, and you evaluate your own performance. He spent time during the off-season working out, getting stronger, physically.”

“He’s got better jump, he’s up in the play better than he was, he’s moving the puck more alertly, it’s not on his stick as long as it was before,” added Murray. “I always felt that Thomas Hickey was one of those guys who was going to look you off, fake you off. At the pro level, that’s a very hard thing to do.”

“The decision you have to make when you’re holding onto the puck too long is that it’s not working. The faster you advance the puck in transition, on breakouts, and get it off your stick to the forwards, the better off you’re going to be as a player. Then there are those opportunities when you need the puck on your stick as a power play defenseman. You now need to hold onto the puck, make plays, freeze the [high] penalty killer, find the open guy, and make those kinds of decisions, but I’m seeing a change in that mindset in terms of his five-on-five play, and that’s a good thing.”

Hickey has also made solid progress on the defensive side of the puck.

“It’s coming,” Murray said of Hickey’s defensive game. “We ran some defensive drills today, with the three-on-three, one-on-one, and two-on-two. They get you into those areas that can expose you, or you see an improvement, and we’re seeing an improvement.”

“What it comes down to, in playing the defensive part of the game in terms of low coverage, it’s not about being 6-5,” Murray added. “There’s a lot of players in the league who are smaller defensemen who have had great, long careers. But it is about body positioning. It’s not getting to the wrong side of the man, it’s that two or three-foot positioning where you’re eliminating those turn backs, those cut backs that opens the play underneath you, and now, you’re really exposed, and bad things happen. Plays come to your net, goals happen, and you end up being on the ice, and you’re saying, ‘what’s going on? Why me?’”

“Now he’s reading it. His angles are better, his positioning is much better, and we definitely see the improvement.”

Although he did not mention it specifically, when you talk to Hickey, it seems that he knows his game has taken several big steps forward—one could feel the confidence exuding from him during an interview on the opening day of training camp, when he told the gathered media of his hopes to make the big club’s 2011-12 opening night roster.

“You can just feel the excitement around this year,” he said. “It’s a fun thing to be a part of, and you hope, moving forward, that you’re going to be part of the big picture. There’s a lot of pressure from everyone, but I’m concerned about doing my own thing, and playing the best I can.”

“I want to make this team really bad,” he added. “There’s pressure, there’s expectations, but I’d say mine are higher or greater than everyone else’s. It’s an exciting time of the year for me.”

Murray addressed the pressure Hickey is feeling.

“To me, that’s a good thing,” said Murray. “That kind of feeling is what every player who makes it to the NHL feels at some time—’it’s time to step up. My contract’s up. I need to do more. I’ve got to be better.’ All this is self-talk you go through as an athlete, pushing yourself to the next level.”

“I believe that when you have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, now you’re going to listen,” added Murray. “Now you’re going to push yourself. Now you’re going to improve, and that’s a critical step for every player to get to, and, as that decision is made in your own mind, now there’s a good opportunity, if you have the ability and skill, that you’re going to start to pay the price to play the game the right way, to be a pro player, to live the right way, to do everything that’s possible to lay it on the line and see where it takes you.”

Jack Johnson’s Defensive Play To Be Addressed

As reported a few weeks ago in another story based on the exclusive interview with Murray mentioned earlier, Kings defenseman Jack Johnson not only had the worst plus/minus rating on the team last season (-21), but he was the only one of their top six blue liners to be in negative territory.

Johnson indicated that his plus/minus numbers are not something he is too concerned about.

“As long as the coaches keep saying that I’m playing well, and they keep playing me good minutes, that’s all the reassurance I need from them,” he said. “If they see anything wrong, they let me know.”

“I don’t want to say that I don’t care,” he added. “Are there minuses that are my fault? Absolutely. But sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it, so it’s something I don’t lose sleep over. If there’s something I can improve on, I try to improve on it. But I’m not worried about it.”

Although Murray has indicated that Johnson’s game has improved since Murray’s first year with the Kings, he is about to let Johnson know that yes, there is a problem.

In that late August interview, Murray indicated that Johnson’s physical play slipped in the second half of the season, a primary cause of his defensive zone issues.

“As we got into the second half of the year, maybe post-All-Star game, I saw a little bit of a drop-off in that area,” Murray noted. “That buys that extra second for those good players, and that’s who he’s out against. If you give good players half a step, sometimes, that’s all they need to make a play.”

“When I go back and think about Jack’s game, the physical part of it can be harder, he could close a little faster, [he could be better with his] stick to eliminate those passing and shooting opportunities,” Murray added. “That can clean up a lot very, very quickly.”

Murray also stated in the interview his intention to meet with Johnson to address those issues.

“It’s a conversation that I definitely want to have with Jack,” said Murray. “I love his game when he’s playing that gritty, physical game. That’s the way he started in the first half of [last season]. He’s hard to play against because he is a strong individual. He can get some impact hits. He can close on you, and really lean on people very quickly.”

“Sometimes, you have to be careful how you look at [plus/minus], but other times, you do need to say, ‘we need to look at this. What’s going on?’”

On Day 2 of training camp, Murray elaborated on what Johnson’s problems were in the second half of last season.

“The one thing I want to see him continue with this year, that I thought he backed off on around January last year, is that attitude of going after [opponents], pinning and sealing, and being nasty one-on-one,” Murray stressed. “I think you get into that stick-checking, softer play by him, and now, players are going to take advantage of it when [he’s] out there against the best players.”

“That was the meeting I wanted to have with him at the end of the season, the exit meeting,” Murray added. “But he ended up going to the World Championships right away. I’ve talked about it with Dean upstairs, and with the coaching staff, that this is the meeting we’re definitely going to have as we get into the latter part of the training camp.”

If Johnson can clean up his defensive game, he could become a impact player who finds himself on the ice a lot, and in key situations.

“You just want to keep growing as a player,” said Johnson. “Keep making sure that the coaches know they can use me in big moments, and that I can play well in big games. I want to be an even better player on the power play, I want to be able to be used more on the penalty-kill, and in all situations.”

“I feel that I’ve gotten better every year, and I know the coaches have agreed.”

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Raw audio interviews from Day 2 of the Kings 2011 Training Camp

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)

Jonathan Bernier (4:48)

Terry Murray (12:29)

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