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NHL PREVIEW | 2007-08

Young Bernier ready to roll

Kings goalie, 19, will soon get an initiation to NHL life and he's sure to draw from the experiences of others who endured the same.

September 28, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Former NHL goalie Tom Barrasso became part of an exclusive club nearly 25 years ago. Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury are newer members.

And if the Kings' Jonathan Bernier has it his way, he'll be next.

Welcome to what veterans refer to as the "goalies not old enough to drink but good enough to start in the NHL" club.

Bringing a raw rookie into any NHL starting lineup is a risk. A couple of poor outings can damage a goalie's psyche no matter how talented he is. Too many bad outings can mean a trip to the minors for recovery -- the road Fleury took after a slam-bang start. The Islanders' Rick DiPietro, drafted first overall in 2000, immediately started in 20 games at age 19. He posted a 3-15 record before being sent to the minors. Today, he is considered among the elite netminders. Others don't make it back.

"It can be a little intimidating," said Fleury, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the first overall pick in 2003 and was immediately the starter at 18.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Hockey: An article in Friday's Sports section discussing young goaltenders said Marc-Andre Fleury's debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003 was a 4-3 victory over the Kings. Actually, the Kings won that game, 3-0.

"When I started out, I was super excited because playing in the NHL was always my dream. . . . But I couldn't help but be a little anxious at first because of all of the All-Stars we had on the team."

Bernier may not have Mario Lemieux sitting next to him in the locker room as Fleury did, but the pressure will be the same when the Kings take on the Ducks on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London for the first of two games this weekend to open the regular season.

"You want to take baby steps with him," said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford, a former NHL goalie who played in more than 600 games and on two Stanley Cup-winning teams.

"We don't want to be in a big rush to throw him right in there. But, on the other side, he's really played well and showed a lot of composure."

With only four playoff appearances since losing in the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, and none since 2002, the Kings are desperate to have someone in net who can make everyone forget all the woeful goaltending the team has suffered through.

Enter 19-year-old Bernier.

Drafted 11th overall by the Kings in 2006, he has had a rapid rise within the organization, starting with his play for Lewiston in juniors last season. Bernier had a 26-10-0 record with a 2.58 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage during the regular season. In the playoffs, he kicked his game up to another level, going 16-1 in leading Lewiston to the league finals.

Bernier's stock climbed higher during the summer when he bounced back from an ankle injury suffered in the Memorial Cup and led Canada to victory over Russia in the eight-game Super Series.

By the time Bernier arrived at training camp, the Kings were eager to see what he could do and he was added to the goaltending mix with Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbera and Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

"I got to camp, there were three veteran goalies, so I said to tell myself, 'Just play like I know and just worry about the game,' " Bernier said. "And that's what I did."

During training camp, he played in four games and gave up seven goals but made 78 saves for a 2.44 goals-against average.

"You don't want to get too overly excited, but he's showing some very good poise in the net," said Coach Marc Crawford, who last Friday sent Cloutier to Manchester (N.H.) of the American Hockey League. "For a goalie to play at this age, they need to have a real strong fundamental game.

"He has a sound package, especially with his skating. . . . He has a great foundation to his goaltending game."

In the Kings' 3-2 shootout victory over the Colorado Avalanche last Saturday, Bernier played the entire game and improved with each minute, finishing with 24 saves, including some big stops down the stretch.

"He's a young kid who has shown a lot of promise," forward Derek Armstrong said of Bernier, who would have to go back to juniors if the Kings take him off their active roster. "He controls the area in there and really plays the puck well, which is really big for such a young guy. But with goaltenders, it's all about stopping the puck. Making big saves to help your team win."

Barrasso knows all about getting thrown into the mix at a young age. In 1983-84, he was 18 when he started for the Buffalo Sabres and went 26-12-3 with a 2.84 goals-against average, which earned him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, the Vezina Trophy as the top NHL goaltender, and a first-team All-Star selection.

Barrasso -- who later won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, played in 770 NHL games with a 369-277-86 record and 38 shutouts -- said it was easier for him to make the jump to the NHL than it will be for Bernier.

"The league is much more demanding now than it was when I turned pro," said Barrasso, director of goaltender development for the Carolina Hurricanes. "The average player is much better . . . which definitely makes it a more difficult transition than what I had to go through.

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