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Jonathan Quick hopes to solve Kings' problems in goal

HELENE ELLIOTT

The 23-year-old is the No. 1 goalie heading into camp, but he understands that nothing is guaranteed and that he must continue to perform.

September 13, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

No matter how many goals Ryan Smyth produces by being fearless around the net, no matter how many shots defenseman Rob Scuderi blocks with his arms, legs or newly minted Stanley Cup ring, the Kings' success this season will hinge on goaltending.

It always seems to -- for better and, too often, for worse.

As the Kings prepare for training camp, they know that if they can't fill the black hole that has swallowed entire decades of their existence, high-profile off-season acquisitions Smyth and Scuderi could play like All-Stars but be reduced to spectators come playoff time.

The Kings' latest offering to the goaltending gods is Jonathan Quick, who started last season with their Manchester farm team. He was promoted in December, sooner than management wanted but well after Jason LaBarbera's ineptitude became intolerable, and was generally solid in compiling a 21-18-2 record, 2.48 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 44 games.

Soft-spoken but confident, the Connecticut native seems qualified for this improbable mission. He's nimble physically and unflappable but intense mentally, motivated by a desire to end the sorry saga of failed Kings goalies.

"I am aware of the history," he said, "and it does mean a lot to think that maybe I could be the difference in how the history has played out."

Quick, 23, has the No. 1 job as the Kings go on the ice today for their first practice. Erik Ersberg (8-11-5, 2.64, .900) is penciled in as the backup. Jonathan Bernier should push them and prospect Jeff Zatkoff can learn from all three as he moves up the food chain.

Still, nothing is certain. For the Kings, certainty and goaltending have rarely intersected in a positive way.

"It's unfair for us not to anoint Jon going into camp as the top guy based on what he's done and Erik as the No. 2 guy based on what he's done, and everybody else underneath," said assistant general manager Ron Hextall, whose NHL goaltending resume gives him insight into this eternal mystery.

"Coming into camp if it's a horse race, yeah, Quicker's in the lead. He's played more games than anybody else. But that doesn't mean it can't change."

After handing the starting job to an ineffective Dan Cloutier before the 2006-07 season and later buying him out to close that ugly chapter, the Kings aren't about to guarantee anything to anyone. And they shouldn't.

The good part is that Quick agrees he's not entitled to anything.

"If I don't come out and play my best, there's not a chance they're going to give me that spot," said Quick, who got married last month but postponed his honeymoon to join teammates here for workouts.

"I know what I have to do and I'm ready to do it and to work and try and earn that spot all over again."

He learned a lot last season about the difference between the minor leagues and the big time, lessons illuminated by the red light flashing behind him.

"Everything happens quicker. You have less time to make decisions. So your decision has to be a lot better," he said. "At the same time your teammates and the coaching staff around you is also better so you get a lot of help from that."

He gets most of his technical tips from goaltending coach Bill Ranford, spending hours watching videos to learn shooters' tendencies. He also relies on Hextall's open ears and open door.

"I always have the freedom to walk up there and talk to him about life, hockey, anything," Quick said.

"He played in the NHL for how many years? It's relieving, if you're going through anything, to have that kind of outlet."

Hextall was feisty in goal, racking up more than 100 penalty minutes in three straight seasons with the Flyers while wearing his emotions on his orange-and-black sleeves.

Quick is the exact opposite. He's calm and collected, able to rebound rapidly after a bad goal or shaky outing and not show much emotion.

In that regard Hextall compared him to Martin Brodeur, backbone of the New Jersey Devils' three Stanley Cup-winning teams, while emphasizing he's not saying Quick is or will be another Brodeur.

"If I look at a goalie's temperament, I look at Martin Brodeur and I go, 'Wow, that's perfect,' " Hextall said. "Here's a competitive guy who plays hard every night and cares, yet he doesn't let things bother him.

"That's the type of mentality that Quicker's got."

That helped Quick earn an invitation to the U.S. Olympic hockey team's summer orientation camp, where he made a strong case to be the third goaltender in Vancouver behind Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas.

"Jonathan Quick's the future of USA goaltending right now," Team USA Coach Ron Wilson said.

It would be enough if Quick, Ersberg and Bernier can resolve the Kings' eternal net-minding woes.

"I don't think it's unfair to say we have a chance at getting rid of the problem or, for that matter, developing an elite goalie in the league," Hextall said.

Now that would be a real miracle on ice.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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Kings openers

Exhibition season: Begins 7 p.m. Tuesday at home against the Phoenix Coyotes in a split-squad match.

Regular season: Begins 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 against the Phoenix Coyotes.

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