Bernier’s the Future, Right?
King fans are usually pretty good at either being eternal optimists or dooms-day pessimists. I’m not saying that each fan is locked into their categories—you’ll see someone talk about how the Kings are going to be great; then a week later how Terry Murray, Dean Lombardi and Ron Hextall all need to be fired so the Kings can start over. There just never seems to be a middle ground. Either something is the greatest thing ever or a bitter failure.
For a few years, I’ve been waiting for the time that the Kings had a bonafide superstar goaltender between the pipes. No, it hasn’t been since 2006 when the Kings drafted Jonathan Bernier with the 11th overall pick in the draft—it’s been much, much longer than that. As of my last birthday, its been more like 31 years for me.
It’s interesting to see how Kings fans have been reacting to Jonathan Bernier since he was drafted in 2006. We’ve all been waiting for a legitimate #1 netminder in LA—and he’s supposed to be The One. When talking about how the Kings are going to rebuild, there was always that caveat at the end of a discussion: “And Bernier will be in net by then…”
But here’s my question: what if he’s not?
I know that we’re all desperately craving to have a home grown goaltender that is capable of putting a team on his back in May and June. Who are the best goaltenders the Kings have ever had? Rogie Vachon? He was drafted by the Canadiens. What about Kelly Hrudey? Yeah, he was a product of the Islanders. How about Felix Potvin and his clutch goaltending that made the Kings relevant in the earlier part of the decade? We can thank the Maple Leafs for his development. But the Kings DID have Mario Lessard. That’s right; I just went back 30 years to a guy that only played 4 full seasons as an example of the best homegrown Kings goaltender. Fuck.
Teams don’t just trade goaltenders that have the potential to be superstars. That’s why there’s such a premium on identifying talent between the pipes, nurturing the talent through juniors and the AHL and then finally watching the kid mature into an NHL goaltender. Unfortunately, it’s not an overnight process and it’s far from an exact science. Impatience and bad decision making by the front office have as much to do with the goaltending failures as any one single player. If you want an elite goaltender, you’re going to have to draft him yourself. Unless you want Roberto Luongo—that guy has been traded not once, but TWICE! He must have 3 nipples or something.
The reason that I have hope has less to do with the young goalies that are in the Kings organization and more to do with the fundamental change in philosophy towards their development. Instead of watching a young goaltender rushed to the NHL, we’re watching Lombardi and Hextall slowly bring along the young netminders. For the first time in the Kings history, they’re not throwing their young players to the wolves—they putting them in the position to succeed. For a position that has more to do with the mental part of the game than the physical side, early success that breeds confidence is vital.
But what if they don’t succeed?
It’s a question that we used to ask ourselves about every goaltender, but for some reason Jonathan Bernier has gotten a free pass. Since he was drafted 3 years ago, it was never a question “if” he’d succeed, but rather “when.” Well, I’m here to ask the painful and necessary question. Will he become the goaltender that all Kings fans hope he’ll be? What makes him different than any other goaltender in the Kings long, pathetic history? What makes him different than Blueline Stauber?
By no means am I throwing him under the bus this early in his career. NHLers take time to develop and the Kings have brought him up the RIGHT way thus far. But no one is ever a sure thing—and its time that we looked at Bernier as a hopeful contributor instead of the 2nd coming. If you look around, there have been a few warning signs.
When the going is good for Bernier, it’s really good. In 2006, he played for Canada’s U-18 team. A year after he was drafted by the Kings, he won playoff MVP with the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the QMJHL. He was the BEST goaltending prospect in the entire world. Really—the world.
But we all know that it’s not always clear sailing for goaltenders. It’s just as important to watch how they deal with adversity as it is to see them make a quick glove save. Thus far in his career—his glove hand has been far better than his mental fortitude. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
After his fantastic 2006 run for the Under 18’s team, he was supposed to be a shoe-in to be a goaltender on the Canadian Junior team; but was beat out by some guys named Carey Price and Leland Irving. One of those guys is well known, but who the hell is that Price guy? I guess Montreal doesn’t have much media scrutiny on their goaltenders. It was supposed to be a breakout moment for him and Bernier didn’t even make the team.
In 2008, he finally made the Canadian Junior team—but was buried on the bench behind Steve Mason. Later in the year, the Kings needed to bring a goaltender up because Jason LaBarbara sucks, so they had to choose between Jon Quick and Bernier. To outsiders, the Kings surprisingly brought up Quick to play with the big club. To King fans that had paid attention to Manchester, it wasn’t as shocking. While their numbers were comparable at the time of the call up, Quick had been the better goaltender at the beginning of the season. Lombardi said it was because Quick had more seniority within the system, but he just as easily could have said he went with the goaltender that was playing better.
So how would he respond? Would he dig in and show Lombardi and Hextall that they made the wrong decision? Would he stop every puck that was fired in his general direction so they had no choice but to bring him up to the NHL? Well, that would have been the reaction that fans in LA would have hoped for. Instead, they got a goaltender that once again looked disinterested and pissed that HE wasn’t the one that got a call up.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that Bernier had thrown a fit. He started the 2007-08 season with the Kings when they played the first 2 games in London. He played as well as could be expected—each game slipped a little from the game before. When he was finally sent back down to Lewiston before his 10 games were up, it was undoubtedly the right move. Sure, his numbers were slipping—but it had less to do with Bernier’s play and more to do with the team in front of him. The defensive corps was poor, the offense never back-checked and the team defense philosophy was non-existent (thanks for that, Crawford). NOBODY was going to succeed under those circumstances—so why put your goaltender of the future in harms way?
But Bernier didn’t see it that way. He went back to juniors and basically sulked for the first few months back in the Q. It got so bad that assistant GM Ron Hextall had to make a trip up to Lewiston to screw Bernier’s head back on correctly. He ended up turning his season around, but he didn’t react to the experience very positively.
Does anyone remember another high Kings draft pick that had a tendency to pout and act like he was entitled to have success handed to him on a plate? If you’re a Kings fan and don’t remember Jaime Storr, then congratulations. You have successfully blocked out a part of the Kings history that ALL of us would like to forget! A lot of us remember when Jamie Storr was supposed to be the next coming—the guy that would solve the team’s goaltending woes. Hell, Storr was a HIGHER draft pick than Bernier was and was expected to be the man that took over and lead the Kings back to contender-status. We all know how that turned out. If anything, that should serve as a cautionary tale. Nothing is EVER a sure thing. Well, unless there’s a sign out front that says “Happy Endings.”
God knows that I want Bernier to be the goaltender the Kings have always needed. Part of the reason that I’ve been so happy with Jon Quick’s success is because it’s a pleasant surprise. He was supposed to be a good goaltender, but wasn’t EXPECTED to be THE goaltender. He’s playing well—but that’s just gravy. Bernier is SUPPOSED to be that good. He’s supposed to be a Top 10 NHL goaltender in save percentage and goals against. If things fall in line, he’ll be in the Top 10 in Wins as well.
But let’s not take it for granted. There’s still a long way to go…