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Helene Elliott

For once, Kings look deep in the net

September 30, 2008|Helene Elliott

Like the Kings, future franchise goaltender Jonathan Bernier is a work in progress -- promising but unproved, not quite ready to play with the big boys but maybe not that far away if he can absorb a few bumps without bruising his confidence.

Bernier, who made the team a year ago at 19 and was expected to contend for the starting job this season, was assigned to Manchester of the American Hockey League on Monday. An injured hip flexor had held him back, but he was pronounced fit and sent to Manchester with a mandate to play a lot and worry as little as possible.

He could have a very short wait.

Also on Monday, Coach Terry Murray, undeterred by Jason LaBarbera's slow start following a seven-month layoff that included hernia surgery, designated LaBarbera as the No. 1 goalie to open the season.

"In my mind he is. In my mind he clearly should be," Murray said of LaBarbera, who has a 4.20 goals-against average and .841 save percentage in 100 minutes over two games.

"I hope he grabs that ball and runs with it."

Grabbing pucks would be better, but the message is clear:

The job is LaBarbera's for now. If he can't decisively claim it, the Kings -- for so long so inept at grooming young goalies -- have several good alternatives and won't hesitate to use them.

Unlike last season, when Bernier was stuck with his junior team after the Kings returned him in mid-October, he can be summoned from Manchester any time. General Manager Dean Lombardi tends to be too cautious with his young players but is doing the right thing in letting Bernier regain his timing and rhythm in a low-pressure setting.

"It's the best place for his development. I'm convinced it's the best thing for him and the franchise," Lombardi said.

"Let's get real. He's going to be evaluated every day and he's going to play a lot, and depending on how things shake out up here and how he plays it's not like he's gone for the year. It's as simple as that."

Nothing with the Kings ever is simple, but their goaltending could cause relatively little angst this season.

Murray said LaBarbera will play all of tonight's exhibition game against the Ducks at Staples Center and one more full game. Erik Ersberg and Jonathan Quick are scheduled to split Wednesday's game at Anaheim and another game as they compete for the backup job.

"I'll be very honest with you. In my philosophy as a head coach I've never put a lot of focus on the goaltenders throughout the early part of a training camp," Murray said.

"It's just a very difficult position to get your timing, to see the puck, to get your position down. As we get to the latter part, though, now it's important. Now we're going to be evaluating and watching very closely as to what happens in the remaining games and as we get close to the start."

Murray said he envisions the backup playing 25 to 30 games, a reasonable range given the tough travel in the West. "It's important that I evaluate LaBarbera and see how he feels about the situation," Murray said.

Nor is Murray concerned about LaBarbera's rustiness.

"It's a matter of getting back in the net and getting his work in and getting prepared to play," Murray said.

"I know LaBarbera's work ethic is tremendous and he likes a lot of shots. Even in the morning skate he wants to be in there for maybe too long, in my opinion. He loves his work and that's a great value to have in my opinion, that work ethic."

In the battle of the backups Murray seemed to favor Quick, who played three games for the Kings last season. He has played 45 minutes over two exhibition games and has given up only one goal on 17 shots.

Ersberg was solid in 14 NHL games last season, compiling a 2.48 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, but he was weakened by a virus early in camp and is just now catching up. He has played 40 minutes over two games, stopping nine of 11 shots.

"Quick has attracted my attention," Murray said. "His play time hasn't been a lot of minutes, but he's done a tremendous job in the minutes that he's played. . . .

"We'll move through that process, but I am looking forward to seeing Quick play."

Imagine that -- it's possible to enjoy watching the Kings' goaltenders instead of cringing at their flailing limbs and glacially slow post-to-post movement. It's almost too much to hope for.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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