LOS ANGELES — Heading into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and again this past summer, Los Angeles Kings backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier expressed his desire to become a number one goaltender in the National Hockey League, as all netminders aspire to be in their professional careers.
Bernier even asked to be traded before the playoffs began. However, at the time, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi was not in a position to grant his request because he had no goaltenders in the system ready for backup duty at the NHL level.
That fact was all too apparent once the NHL lockout ended, and the questions about Bernier being traded started up again. In fact, just prior to the start of the abbreviated 2013 season, Lombardi indicated that he would not be able to trade Bernier yet.
“I don’t think that’s feasible at all right now, for the team,” said Lombardi. “He’s an important part of this team. Let’s face it. Our guys in the minors aren’t ready for that role, and that’s an important role.”
The top goalie prospect in the Kings’ system is Martin Jones, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on October 2, 2008, and is in his third season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.
Monarchs head coach Mark Morris, who has had to deal with quite the roller coaster this year after losing players once the lockout ended, not to mention waivers and injuries, indicated that like the team, Jones struggled for awhile.
“We didn’t score for him,” said Morris. “I think it was a combination of [that, and] him not taking advantage of having the net on a regular basis. For some strange reason, we were scoring goals for [backup goalie] Peter Mannino, but when Jones was in the net, we were finding ways to lose games, and they were all close.”
“It’s not like he played poorly or anything,” added Morris. “We weren’t scoring when he was in the net, and I think that might’ve had an effect on his confidence, and the team’s confidence.”
“After Peter Mannino got hurt, Jones started to step things up, and he played the way we had seen him in his first season when he was an All-Star, when he shared the net with Jeff Zatkoff [now with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ system].”
As it often works in hockey, injuries create opportunities, and Mannino’s injury, which ended his season, has given Jones more ice time.
“That’s what I wanted, to play a lot of games,” said Jones. “It’s unfortunate that Pete got hurt, but it’s allowed me to play a ton of games here. It’s been good for me. It’s nice to see a lot of playing time, and it’s been good for my development as well.”
As Morris noted, a big reason the Monarchs have struggled at times this season is because after all the personnel changes due to the end of the lockout, losing defenseman Thomas Hickey and forward Richard Clune to waivers, trades, and injuries, the Monarchs are now young and mostly inexperienced.
“We’ve had a lot of personnel changes since [early in the season],” Jones noted. “It’s been kind of a weird season like that, with the lockout, losing guys, and we’ve had a bunch of injuries as well. It’s been a little bit of a battle, just trying to field a team for a lot of the season. But the guys we have had, we’ve had success, but we’ve also struggled. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for a lot of guys on our team.”
“We lost some key players to L.A., and a couple of guys on waivers,” Jones added. “Combine that with a couple of injuries, that definitely hurt us a little bit. But we had lots of younger guys who were able to step up, get more ice time and more responsibility.”
But young and inexperienced in hockey often translates into inconsistent defensive zone play, and that is exactly what has happened this season in the Monarchs’ zone.
“It’s been a bit of a transition,” Jones explained. “We’ve got guys learning new systems here, implementing what [Kings head coach] Darryl [Sutter] wants us to learn. We have a very young team, so those things are going to happen. But we’ve done a nice job, especially down the stretch, playing real solid, defensively.”
For his part, Jones is not complaining about the inconsistent defense in front of him.
“We’ve had ups and downs this season, but it’s been good for my development, getting to face a lot of shots and play a lot of games,” he said. “Facing more shots, and more quality scoring chances on a regular basis, has been good for me. [It’s] been a good learning [experience].”
“We do have a younger team, and it’s been a good learning [experience] for me to take on more responsibility, putting more of the onus of myself, and I like that,” he added.
But not knowing what kind of defensive help he’s going to get on any given night has affected Jones’ play, as it would for any goaltender.
“[Jones is] still a young man,” said Morris. “I think that trying to have long strings of winning hockey, or having a team in front of you that can help you get there, defensively, is a big part of it as well. With a couple of veteran defensemen—an organization like Hershey or some of the organizations that have more guys who are bubble NHL’ers on the blue line, may keep your confidence a little higher than guys who are still learning their way around the defensive end.”
“When a goalie is wondering if somebody has [a potential threat covered] as opposed to knowing somebody has [a potential threat covered] on your back side, now you can be more aggressive to play the puck, and to stand tall in the net,” added Morris. “But if you’re not sure the guy has his man covered, you’re caught in limbo. That’s when you get burned.”
“On a young team like ours, you can’t afford to be average. You’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to be right, and you’ve got to have some guys in front of you have good nights, because there’s still so much to learn from behind the blue line.”
Despite the fact that he has often had to play behind a defense that sometimes resembled a fire drill gone horribly wrong, Jones has an impressive .914 save percentage this season, an eye-popping number, under the circumstances. Along with a 2.66 goals-against average and four shutouts, Jones has put up solid numbers, even though the results for the Monarchs have not been good—they are in tenth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, four points out of a playoff berth, with six games remaining in the regular season.
With four of those games are against teams ahead of them in the standings, the odds of qualifying for post-season play are not in the Monarchs’ favor.
Morris indicated that consistency and maintaining focus are aspects of the game that Jones still needs to work on.
“It’s a matter of becoming more consistent,” Morris noted. “When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody at this level, and probably as good as most backups in the NHL, when he’s focused. Maintaining that focus is much like a real good defenseman. They seem to mature in their mid-to-late twenties, and that’s when they’re at their best.”
“It’s a combination of things,” Morris added. “During one stretch, we had a ten-game stretch where we had points in a number of games. We told Jones, ‘you can’t be just good. You have to be great,’ and he was. We started winning.”
Jones may finally be taking advantage of the fact that he is the Monarchs’ number one goalie.
“He seems a little bit closer to what I remember in his first year,” Morris noted. “He played a backup role [at that time], and he wasn’t getting the ice. But when he got in the net, he made the most of his chances. I think, slowly, but surely, he’s starting to really understand that this is his time to take the ball and run with it, much like Jonathan Bernier did after [Jonathan] Quick got called up. Bernier was sensational for us. He knew he was our guy, and his confidence shot through the roof.”
“Now, Jones knows he’s our guy,” Morris added. “I think just realizing that, and not having somebody who’s an equal—you might play, you might not play. He knows, on most nights, he’s going in there, and he knows he has to be good. There’s a little bit more pressure on him, and he seems to be handling that a little bit better.”
At 6-4, 189 pounds, Jones is tall and lanky, and still needs to work on getting stronger, even though he has improved in that area since he was signed by the Kings.
“I’m a big body,” he said. “I can get around the crease pretty well so it’s keeping it simple, and not going outside the box too much in those battle situations to make sure that I’m competing hard. [Strength] comes with maturity as well. Over the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger, and it’s helped, especially this year, being able to play this many games.”
“You’re dealing with a lot of bodies in front of the net, so just being able to navigate around that, [strength] helps with that aspect as well,” he added.
Jones’ mental game seems to be coming along as well.
“A big part of goaltending is mental,” Morris stressed. “He’s always been a big guy. I think his compete level for those second and third chances has improved, [and] his ability to read plays and handle the puck has improved.”
“All in all, it boils down to consistently having that real sharp focus and eliminating any type of mental let downs,” Morris added. “That’s a hard challenge when you’ve got a lot of young guys in front of you who are trying to find ways to identify potential threats.”
Back to Lombardi’s comment that his goalie prospects are not ready for the NHL yet…
“That’s a little bit out of my control,” Jones responded. “But I think these past three years, my development has been good, and especially this [season], with how much I’ve played, I feel that I’m definitely right there, and I’m able to make the jump whenever I need to.”
The confidence Jones expressed is what one would want and expect from a young prospect. However, unless he has made tremendous progress this season, his time at the National Hockey League level is still a ways off in the distance.
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Martin Jones (7:04)
- LA Kings Right Wing Prospect Brandon Kozun Is Finally Growing Up
- Dean Lombardi Says LA Kings Have “Lucked Out” With 2012 First Round Draft Pick Tanner Pearson
- LA Kings Forward Prospect Linden Vey Is On The Right Side of the Puck In Second Season With Manchester Monarchs
- 2012-13 Will Be A Big Test For Los Angeles Kings Goaltender Prospect Martin Jones
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