L.A. KINGS SEASON PREVIEW: THE TWO-HEADED DRAGON – JONATHANS SQUARED.
Goalies hold a special place with me. Most of us are crazy but given the choice there is no other position we would ever want to play. The goaltender’s relevance to the game is undeniable. It is the single most important position to the team and though they occupy each end of the ice, goalies are the very center of the hockey universe. Let’s look at this year’s highly anticipated duo of Quick & Bernier with an honorable mention to Erik Ersberg.
“Dues paid. My time is now.”
6 feet tall and 184 pounds. Plays taller and bigger. The first question most ask is, “what is Bernier’s style?” Is he a butterfly? Is he a standup? Yes…and yes. For the detailed answer, we need a history lesson and must first look at statistics.
La Ligue de hockey junior majeur du Québec. We call it the Q, short for the English version of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
It is where defense goes to die.
Heard the name Patrick Roy? He finished his three-season career at the Q with a 5.33 GAA.
How about Martin Brodeur? 3.54 GAA, also in three seasons.
Feel like Duck tonight? I’ll give you a Leaf instead. Giguere was a 3.53 GAA over four seasons.
Luongo. 3.30 GAA.
The list keeps going. All established number 1 NHL goaltenders, all well over a 3.00 GAA.
Those stats are not reflective of the goalie. Rather, the vision before you is that of a league where goaltenders are peppered by shots each and every game from all angles and situations. Imagine a goalie constantly playing in a penalty kill situation. That’s what the Q feels like to most netminders. There is good news here. Goalies grow to become warriors or chum there. If you can thrive in the Q, your development is well ahead of the curve compared to other leagues.
So, why do I mention this? Because we were addressing stats. Let’s get to the one you care about the most. From ’04 to ’08, Jonathan Bernier played for the Lewiston MAINEiacs in the Q. In those four seasons, his GAA never hit 3.00 and the SV% never fell below .900. Impressed? You should be. That is a hell of an accomplishment. That is partly why I wasn’t surprised he was taken in the first round, 11th overall. I was surprised he didn’t go higher. Since then, though not without hurdles, he has put up excellent numbers in Manchester. Last season, he played in 58 games, faced over 3400 shots and finished with a 2.03 GAA and a .936 SV%.
What enabled Bernier to excel in the Q beyond some of yesterday and today’s hockey legends and greats? Is he a Hockey God? Perhaps, but I have a better explanation. Evolution. Like fish walking out of water, Bernier followed in the footsteps of those before him and learned that if one is to survive in a hostile and changing offensive environment, one must adapt. Stand up goalies became extinct. Butterfly became the new alpha species. Forwards and defensemen adjusted to the butterfly. Martin Brodeur adjusted to them. A revolutionary in every respect, Marty took the best of both styles (think Roy and Hextall having a Devil child with a genetic embedding of Hasek) and developed a hybrid.
What is Jonathan Bernier’s style? It isn’t Marty in every respect but it’s close. Like all greats, or in this case potential greats, Jonathan Bernier created a form and substance all of his own. A hybrid of the hybrid.
The similarities start with puck handling. An often forgotten asset since the creation of that abomination known as the trapezoid, the art lives through the few goaltenders in this league that can still receive and pass the puck. Bernier is especially adept at this. In camp, I watched him cut off the dump in / wrap around, gather the puck and in one motion connect a tape to tape pass to his defenseman. He is also strong on both the backhand and forehand when reversing the puck away from forecheckers.
Then comes reading. Not the reading you are doing, but that of the play. When the puck is away from him, Bernier is on his skates, especially if a shot is taken from the point. He stays upright and, by cutting off the angle, lets the puck hit him. Down low, where wrist shots snap, Jonathan sets himself into a butterfly and covers the lower part of the net.
Unlike Brodeur, Bernier rarely wanders. Aggressive around the crease but stay at home, I have yet to see him challenge a rushing forward for the puck. This may be part of the post-trapezoid acumen of good young goaltenders.
We have discussed what Bernier is.
Let’s address what he may do this season for the Kings’ defense and forwards.
Bernier is calm in net. His hybrid style won’t force defenders to rush after pucks to avoid goals. Doughty, Mitchell, Scuderi and Johnson won’t often have to dive to clear pucks or get out of their coverage because their goalie has taken himself out of position with the save. Bernier should help the Kings’ defense transition quickly to offense because mad scrambles in front of the net, often the result of rebounds or an overcommitment to the shot, will be a rarity. Shot, save, transition to Mitchell, pass to Doughty, speed through the neutral zone. Rinse, repeat. It gives me goosebumps. If the puck ends up behind the net, Bernier’s puck handling ability will allow him to control the biscuit and the play and not afford the opponent time and space to cycle or set up.
How about the offense? First, remember Terry Murray’s words – he intends the Kings to play a more puck possession game with defensemen jumping into the play in the offensive zone. That doesn’t work if the forwards are constantly concerned about the need to back check and defensemen take pause before they commit to offense. Trust is a part of this game and that trust between forwards and defensemen and their netminder is a critical element of success. Then consider the transition game. What starts speed through the neutral zone and the puck over the blue line to an effective cycle or sustained pressure? Many times it is the goalie’s ability to get the puck to the defenseman while placing the opposing forwards on their heels before they are ready.
Here are a couple of keys to watch going into this season.
Jonathan’s poise at traffic: Though calm and fluid in style and movement, Bernier has a temper. Don’t underestimate it. He reacts to pressure around him and, like Hextall before him, I sometimes wonder if he restrains himself from taking off a crashing forward’s ankle for trespassing in his crease (I shared the sentiment more times that I can remember).
Jonathan’s reaction to the mental pressure: Remember back in the 2008 WJC when Craig Hartsburg chose Mason over Bernier as the starting goaltender for the semi-final game against the U.S.? Bernier expressed his opinion rather undiplomatically. He called the coach’s decision “unfair” because Hartsburg did not give him the same second chance Mason received. Canada (including Drew Doughty) won the Gold. We saw more of this at home. At first, his assignment to Manchester for the 2008-2009 season upset him. Later, he implied displeasure when the Kings called up Quick before him. His numbers suffered until he emerged. They sent me to pay my dues, I am paying them – this mentality took over which I am convinced was due, in part, to Hextall’s grooming of the young netminder. From that point forward, Jonathan shined. His numbers were beyond respectable. They earned him the the AHL’s outstanding goaltender for the 2009-10 season, as voted by coaches, players and members of the media in each of the league’s 29 cities.
Bernier’s upside is Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. The stronger he gets between the ears, the more likely he will realize his potential. In the meantime, I guarantee you this. Jonathan Bernier will steal games this season. The question will be whether, along the way, he will also take the number 1 spot.
“Quick. My name. My game.”
I sometimes listen to others speak of the Quick v. Bernier tandem as if they are comparing a veteran goaltender with the young successor. That is a compliment to Quick but let’s not forget that this Jonathan is only 24 years old. Remember also that he played 72 regular season games (a franchise record) in only his first full season as a King and won 39 of those (also a Kings’ record) with a .907 SV% and a 2.54 GAA. Good numbers. Very good numbers, especially with a Kings’ defense that was really two-man deep (Doughty and Scuderi) with a still learning Johnson, an aging O’Donnell, the warrior Matt Greene counted on to do too much for his intended role and the pylon Randy Jones as the opposing forwards’ BFF.
Quick’s history is one of hard work and earned success. He was one of the best goaltenders in NCAA hockey in only his second year. He put up terrific numbers (.929 SV% and a 2.16 GAA) and led UMass to their first ever berth in the NCAA hockey tournament. He was named team MVP. After playing for the Reading Royals and continuing to develop, where he actually scored a goal, he found himself in Manchester and eventually the Kings.
What can we expect from JQ this season? More of the same, but I believe better. He is a classic butterfly goalie. No hybrid here. His lateral movement rivals any goaltender in the league. His ability to stay square to the shooter at full lateral speed is phenomenal. He does challenge the shooter, but often falls to his pads before the shot is released. Therein lies one area that must improve. Last season, we saw Quick give up goals on routine slap or wrist shots from above the circle. Goaltenders have an expression. If I can see it, I have to stop it. It’s a lofty expectation but a very real one each night.
His compete level, like his athletic ability, is off the charts. He literally never gives up on the play. Unfortunately, that high intensity leaves him scrambling in front of the net. He challenges shooters so aggressively (relying in principle on his quick glove and lateral movement) that he forces his defensemen to cover the crease if there is a bounce or arrant rebound. Jonathan must learn to cut off angles without leaving himself and his defensemen out of position. If he balances that fire with a more calm and steady presence on wrist shots from the hash marks or down low (by keeping within or just above the blue paint) and staying on his skates on those from further out, he won’t have to rely so heavily on his athleticism to get back into the net…because, quite bluntly, he will have never left it.
In this respect, Quick reminds me of Patrick Roy. Roy had a tendency to be so aggressive that he would take himself completely out of position. Who can ever forget his trips to the blue line? Roy however had three aspects to his game Quick currently lacks but I expect he can and will learn. First, Patrick read the play and the players’ intent, knowing, for example, that he could challenge the shooter because his defensemen were already in position or the opposing forwards were out of position to pick up a loose puck. Second, he controlled rebounds. If a goaltender, especially a butterfly one, plays an aggressive game, then he better control the puck the moment it hits him. Rebounds are like hand grenades. Drop it and you may find yourself on the wrong end of a disaster. Finally, Roy, like Brodeur, was an excellent puck handler.
This season will test Quick’s resolve. That confidence, swagger and fierce competitiveness will be challenged by the cool pedigree of his namesake, Jonathan Bernier. Last season, Murray rode Quick hard and long. He will not again. Murray has options. A double-edged sword for one-half of the two-headed dragon. Rest and a lack of physical punishment that he received last season should help Quick’s game. He will be fresh and ready. However, if he falters, he may find himself on the bench as much as the ice. Is Quick up for it? Look at it this way. He has risen to every challenge faced to date.
THE HONORABLE MENTION
I admit, I feel a little guilty. I like Erik Ersberg. I want to see him succeed. He played well two seasons ago. Last season, Murray did not give him much of a chance to play a consistent back up role. We know what he brings – a steady presence, rarely spectacular or terrible. His injured hand during training camp could not have come at a worse time but he is back in practice as I write this. Erik has fans out there. I know because they have written to me. To those fans, I write, be patient. All is as Murray wills it.
HOW TO UNLEASH A TWO-HEADED DRAGON
Expect Quick to get 50 to 55 games. If all goes according to Lombardi and Murray’s intended plan, Bernier will take the majority of the rest. If both goaltenders play to their potential, our Los Angeles Kings will have the best goalie tandem in the league. Tell me that doesn’t give you goosebumps…
(all photos by Kasey Spatz)