DOWN ON THE FARM: Los Angeles Kings goaltending prospects Martin Jones and Jeff Zatkoff are expected to improve upon solid 2010-11 seasons with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League. But can Zatkoff, who got off to a bit of a slow start last season, and has likely been passed by Jones on the Kings depth chart, bounce back this season?
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — As was reported in this space this past summer, with Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier giving the Los Angeles Kings a one-two punch in goal that, arguably, they have never had before, the Kings are set in goal for the foreseeable future.
But with two netminders who are good enough to be number one goaltenders, something will eventually have to give.
Although it is unlikely to happen this season, the Kings are all but assured to eventually trade Quick or Bernier in an attempt to improve themselves at other positions. Add to that the possibility of injury, or other potential circumstances, the Kings, like other National Hockey League teams, cannot stop drafting and developing young goaltending prospects.
Last season, Jones came out of nowhere and lit up the AHL, playing his way into the AHL All-Star Game.
Jones, who was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on October 2, 2008, had an outstanding rookie season in the AHL, 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, Jones played made four appearances, earning a 2-1 record, with a 2.54 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.
Jones got the majority of the starts for the Monarchs fairly early in the season, after 24-year-old Zatkoff struggled.
“In the beginning, Jeff Zatkoff carried the lion’s share of the workload, but the wins started piling up for Jones any time we gave him the net,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “Slowly, but surely, he started balancing out the goaltending tandem, and, by mid-year, he was right at the head of the class for choices for the [AHL] All-Star Game.”
“From that point on, he came back to the pack a little bit, and Zatkoff garnered a little bit more of the net again,” added Morris. “They traded off on who was going to be our man on any given day.”
“[I was] a little bit [surprised],” said Jones, a 6-4, 191-pound native of North Vancouver, British Columbia. “I think I handled it well, I guess. I didn’t expect to play as much, or have as much success I did.”
When the 2010-11 season ended, Jones had likely moved ahead of Zatkoff on the Kings depth chart.
“I didn’t start the year the way I wanted to,” said Zatkoff, a 6-2, 179-pound 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.”
Zatkoff ended the 2010-11 season with a 20-17-5 record, a 2.68 GAA, a .911 save percentage, and three shutouts. In the post-season, he recorded a 1-3 record, a 3.80 GAA, and a .891 save percentage.
The emergence of Jones is what stopped Zatkoff in his tracks.
“[You have to give] credit to him,” Zatkoff noted. “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.”
Despite the obvious rivalry, Zatkoff wound up handling the situation like a pro.
“In an ideal world, an older player wants to get the benefit of the doubt, if there is one,” said Morris. “Zatkoff was a good teammate about things when Jones started to really get hot. They supported one another, and I give [Zatkoff] a lot of credit for that. He did a very good job for us. In fact, in the playoffs, they traded duties back and forth, and I thought it was a very professional relationship that they had. We were quite pleased with the goaltending we got throughout the season, and Zatkoff was a big part of the success we had.”
Morris indicated that Zatkoff got into that common mindset that seems to strike all talented goaltenders…complacency due to a sense of entitlement.
“Sometimes, in-house competition is the best thing that can happen for anybody,” Morris explained. “We all take the path of least resistance. Sometimes, you get a little complacent. Perhaps you need a little bit of motivation from time to time.”
“He took a great approach, that, ‘I need to be the best that I can be, and I can’t let any coaching decisions affect the way I think or play. All I can do is take care of the here and now, and do the best I can,’” Morris elaborated. “When you do those things, you’re bound to have a better outlook, and there’s no room for feeling sorry for yourself or dragging other team members down by showing your emotion.”
Zatkoff admitted that what Morris described was exactly what was affecting him.
“Everyone goes through that,” said Zatkoff. “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 had to] just block it out. 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.”
“I was able to keep my composure, and stick with it,” added Zatkoff. “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.”
Only time will tell if Zatkoff’s demons have been completely defeated. But Morris was impressed with the way he turned things around last season.
“I thought that was a good test for Zatkoff,” said Morris. “I have a lot of respect for him, as a person, and as an athlete. He’s not blessed with a lot of girth on those bones, but for a guy to get in that net and handle the shots the way he does, get out and play the puck the way he does, and get himself involved into the action, he deserves a lot of credit.”
Fast forward to the present, and Zatkoff is already chasing Jones. But Jones did have a head start.
Indeed, while Zatkoff accompanied the Kings on their season-opening trip to Europe, Jones began the season with the Monarchs. He started the four of their first five games, earning a 3-1-0 record, with a 1.26 GAA, and a .956 save percentage—eye-popping numbers.
Zatkoff, who was assigned to the Monarchs on October 10, returned to Manchester a bit rusty after not seeing game action in several weeks. He finally saw his first action on October 16, when he got the start in the final game of a three-games-in-three nights road trip at Springfield. But the Monarchs dropped a 5-3 decision to the Falcons, with Zatkoff allowing five goals on 27 shots.
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