EL SEGUNDO, CA — Outside of the years superstar and should-be-Hall-of-Fame netminder Rogie Vachon dominated while toiling between the pipes, goaltending has traditionally been the weakest link for the Los Angeles Kings.
Even goaltender Mario Lessard only had one outstanding season with the Kings in 1980-81. He even played in the 1981 National Hockey League All-Star Game that year, along with the Kings’ “Triple Crown Line,” which featured Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor.
Kelly Hrudey backstopped the Kings during the Gretzky Era, and helped lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992-93. But that team won by outscoring its opponents, not because of its defense and goaltending.
Felix Potvin also had a couple of good seasons for the Kings in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
Beyond that small handful of quality starting goaltenders, the Kings’ goal crease has been pretty much empty, figuratively speaking—they have been cursed in goal for the vast majority of their 44-year history.
But that curse appears to be broken, or close to it, anyway, with Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier giving the Kings elite-level goaltending, not to mention a one-two punch in goal the franchise has never had before.
Perhaps just as important is that both Quick and Bernier are home-grown talent, with Quick having been selected in the third round (72nd overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, while Bernier was a first round pick (11th overall) in the 2006 draft.
As the old saying in hockey goes, you can never have enough goaltending, and the Kings are not resting on their laurels in that regard.
Indeed, they are continuing to draft and develop young goaltenders, even though Quick is just 25 years old, and Bernier is only 23.
This past June, the Kings used their second round pick (49th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft to select 18-year-old goaltender Christopher Gibson of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Down on the farm, goalie prospect Jean-Francois Berube (selected in the fourth round, 95th overall, in 2009) is expected to play for the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, this season.
Jeff Zatkoff and Martin Jones backstopped the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) last season, and are destined to do so once again this year.
Jones, who was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on October 2, 2008, had an outstanding rookie season in the AHL last year, playing in 39 regular season games for the Monarchs, earning a 23-12-1 record, with a 2.02 goals-against average (GAA), a .926 save percentage, and four shutouts.
In the playoffs, the 21-year-old native of North Vancouver, British Columbia played made four appearances, earning a 2-1 record, with a 2.54 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.
“[He was] lights out,” said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford. “Nobody would’ve expected—we thought he was going to be in the ECHL the whole year, learning and becoming a good pro. He definitely fast tracked. To go to the AHL All-Star Game in your rookie season is pretty impressive.”
Jones was so good, he got the majority of the starts for the Monarchs early in the season while the 24-year-old Zatkoff struggled, even though he would finish the year with a 20-17-5 record, a 2.68 GAA (2,508 minutes played), a .911 save percentage, and three shutouts in 45 regular season games.
In the playoffs, Zatkoff played in five games (253 minutes played), earning a 1-3 record, a 3.80 GAA and a .891 save percentage.
“I didn’t start the year the way I wanted to,” said the native of Detroit, Michigan. “I had high expectations going into the year, but I got off to a slow start. I let some things bother me that I shouldn’t have.”
“I just think, mentally, [everything starts to get to you],” added Zatkoff, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (74th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. “I had big expectations going into the year. I wanted to play every game, [but] I got off to a slow start, and didn’t get into as many games as I wanted to. Instead of working through it, I stopped up a little bit.”
What stopped Zatkoff was the emergence of Jones, who came out of nowhere.
“[You have to give] credit to him,” Zatkoff stressed. “I’m not taking anything away from him. He deserved to play, but that’s when you start taking care of your game. You stop worrying about other things.”
Zatkoff got his head in gear and turned his season around.
“[I had to] just block it out,” said Zatkoff. “It’s a maturation process. I’d never been through that before. Even though college, or even the start of my pro [career], I’ve always been the guy. But Jones had a great year.”
That scenario might sound awfully familiar to Kings fans, who may remember that Bernier went through that same process after he was drafted by the Kings and spent time at Manchester.
“Everyone goes through that,” Zatkoff noted. “I just had to come to terms with it, block it out, and control what you can control. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do.”
“I was able to keep my composure, and stick with it,” Zatkoff added. “Things turned around for me in the second half. I think I turned it around well, and that’s the way I need to play. If I play like that, the way I’m capable, I’m one of the top goalies in the American Hockey League, and I just have to be consistent.”
“[I’ve come] through it. I’m stronger today—mentally stronger.”
Even though they are competing to be the next goaltender to make the big club’s roster, Zatkoff and Jones have a solid relationship.
“We live together,” said Zatkoff. “That’s something I always pride myself on—having a good relationship with my goalie partner, no matter who it is.”
“We both have the same goal, we both want to play in the NHL, and I don’t wish harm upon him,” added Zatkoff. “When he’s in there, I want him to play well, and I’m sure he wants me to play well.”
Moving forward, Zatkoff is focusing on becoming one of the top goaltenders in the AHL on a consistent basis—another step towards making it to the NHL.
“I think they’re just looking for me to play my game, and play the way I did towards the end of the season last year,” he said. “I think, if you look at my numbers towards the end of the season, they’re in the top five in the AHL, and that’s the way they think I’m capable of playing, and that I believe I’m capable of playing, but not just that last half of the year—consistently the whole year, and being confident. That’s my mindset coming [into training camp], trying to turn as many heads [as possible] while I’m here, and play my best.”
As Zatkoff stated earlier, he came out of last season stronger, especially in terms of his mental game.
“[I have a much] different approach, a lot more confident,” Zatkoff emphasized. “I think maturity is the biggest thing. I’ve been through the ups and downs last year, and I know how to handle it. I have to worry about myself, stop the puck, and give the team a chance to win, whereever I’m playing.”
Goaltenders also never stop working on the fundamentals.
“If you look at my game from my freshman year in college, it’s like night and day,” said Zatkoff. “But if you look at Jones, Quick and Bernier, we’ve been working with [Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh, who handles goaltender development for the Kings] for five-plus years. So, in terms of fundamentals, it’s all pretty much there.”
While Jones was assigned to Manchester on September 26, Zatkoff is still with the Kings. He will remain on the roster until the team returns from their two games in Europe against the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres on October 7 and 8, respectively.
Zatoff will serve as the third goaltender, and is not expected to play in the remainder of the Kings’ pre-season games, or in the games in Europe.
“No, he’s not going to play anymore,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “There might be an opportunity to be the backup goaltender, if the goaltending coaches, in particular, come to me and say that this would be a great time to get some extra work with one of your two guys after a morning skate, when we can get another 45-50 minutes of real hard work in.”
“Then I wouldn’t have to dress that guy as the backup,” added Murray. “I could put Zatkoff in, and let the other guy rest.”
Being third or fourth on the organizational depth chart behind Quick and Bernier, is certainly not an ideal situation in terms of making it to the big club’s roster.
Nevertheless, if there is an injury or a trade, Zatkoff knows he is just a call-up away from living his dream of making it to the NHL.
“That’s something I learned that you can’t really worry about,” he said. “Obviously, you’d like to be up here, and get some experience, but you’ve got two, arguably, number one goaltenders, probably one of the best tandems in the league.”
“They’re both great goalies,” he added. “That’s where you just have to worry about yourself, worry about playing your game, because eventually, something’s going to have to give. When you get that call, you’re going to have to be ready for that opportunity.”
“If I take care of what I need to take care of, things will happen for me.”
Raw audio interview with Jeff Zatkoff (2:24; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
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