Bernier giving Kings hope, but it's a guarded hope
LONDON -- Defenseman Tom Preissing picked up the puck as the horn marked the end of the Los Angeles Kings' 4-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions from Anaheim and handed it to rookie netminder Jonathan Bernier.
Surrounded by happy teammates, it was a special moment for a 19-year-old whose career has been on a rainbow arc these past months. And who knows? Perhaps this moment, that winning puck, will mark the start of something special for a franchise whose history of drafting and developing goaltenders has been miserable.
Just how long has it been since the team had a homegrown franchise netminder?
"Try 40 years," offered GM Dean Lombardi.
There was Mario Lessard, selected 154th overall by the Kings in 1974.
"He had one good year and then I don't know what happened," Lombardi said.
Or Jamie Storr, the seventh overall pick in the 1994 draft. Storr played in 219 NHL games, but just five in the playoffs. Hardly the stuff of legend.
Not to suggest that after one NHL game -- albeit a fine 26-save performance in the NHL's first regular-season game in Europe -- Bernier is destined for greatness or the Kings are on a bust-to-boom track.
• Blake goes Hollywood
More from London
Lights, camera, skate. Kings defenseman Rob Blake will be taking a short side trip to Toronto on the way home to Los Angeles next week. There, he will film a small role in the new Mike Myers movie, "The Love Guru."
The film includes scenes at the Air Canada Centre and tells the story of a Canadian boy who was raised in India and comes to the rescue of the Maple Leafs' star player in time to help lead them to the Stanley Cup. No word on whether the film is being classified as fantasy or horror.
Blake has known Myers for years and the filmmaker and actor told Blake he'd written a part specifically with the defenseman in mind. At the risk of spoiling the plot, Blake plays an L.A. Kings defenseman who is on the ice when the Stanley Cup is won.
"I don't think I have a big speaking part," Blake told ESPN.com on Saturday morning. Blake acknowledged he has never even done television commercials over his career, let alone acting in a feature film. He hadn't even seen a script, although we don't think it'll take much for him to get "in character."
Along with Myers, "The Love Guru" stars Justin Timberlake as the team's goalie, Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer as coach, Ben Kingsley and Jessica Alba. Myers' character is named Pitka.
• Boo birds
It didn't take O2 fans long to adopt a time-honored NHL tradition: booing Chris Pronger. It's hard to imagine an NHL player who is booed in more rinks than the new Ducks captain. Now he can add London to the list.
• 'Hell-O, Canada'?
Wonder why no one at O2 Arena bothered to have anyone sing the Canadian national anthem along with the U.S. and British anthems? They had lots of time, as it turns out, thanks to a pregame lighting malfunction. After all, Canada is part of the Commonwealth.
• Hockey fans unite!
On the short Tube ride from the hotel to the O2 Arena, the cars were jammed with hockey fans wearing Phoenix, Carolina, Toronto and USA Hockey jerseys, to name a few. A couple of season-ticket holders from Nashville were visiting family in England. They said the two hockey games here were the pinnacle of their English vacation. At the O2, even more jerseys were on display, including a rare find, a Jeremy Roenick Kings jersey.
Earlier in the day, a man waiting in line for souvenirs was wearing a European hockey jersey with the name Cloutier on the back. Surely not beleaguered L.A. Kings netminder Dan Cloutier, who was recently banished to the American Hockey League? No, the man explained, it's actually a jersey honoring Cloutier's brother Sylvain, who has been playing in the British Elite Ice Hockey League for the Coventry Blaze. Cloutier, a third-round pick of the Red Wings in 1992, had 71 points in 65 games last season and has six goals and nine points in six games this season.
• O2 lowdown
The rink itself is reminiscent of most North American arenas. What makes the O2 interesting is it is surrounded by a mall-like setting all of which is covered by a white tent-like material. The spacious mall area featured a "beach" during the summer and will have ice skating in the winter, according to two arena staffers. There is an igloo structure where visitors can don headphones, lie down and relax (or chill, if you will), and other stations where people can record their own dance videos.
-- Scott Burnside
But the youngster's debut could hardly have gone better for both he and a team desperate to return to playoff contention.
"It's a great start. We've been focusing for a couple of weeks for that game and we came out with a win, so it's a great start," Bernier told reporters who crowded around his dressing-room stall, a stall that was now home to that game-winning puck.
Even when the start of the game was delayed 16 minutes with a light malfunction, Bernier insisted it didn't bother him.
"I wasn't nervous. It was the same game. I just kept my focus," he said.
The Ducks did not test Bernier early in a game that can best be described as uneven. But at key moments, Bernier did not allow the Ducks to gain any momentum. The Ducks were 1-for-8 on the power play, their lone goal coming after the Kings had built a 3-0 lead in the third period. Bernier denied Corey Perry on a partial breakaway in the third and later covered a hard Chris Pronger shot on a power play through a tangle of legs.
Even when the physically imposing Ducks tried to crowd Bernier, he seemed never to get off his game, controlling rebounds and staying in position. Veteran defenseman Rob Blake, who has been witness to the Kings' revolving goalie door for many seasons, shook his head at Bernier's composure.
"It's pretty amazing. And I think it's the calming effect that he has on all of us," Blake said of a youngster who was 2 years old when Blake broke into the NHL. "At 19 years old, the way he plays is very calm. He just stands in there. He doesn't move too much, he seems to swallow those pucks. They got that goal and started coming at us pretty good and he smothered two or three pucks and you could see our bench calm down."
Bernier was the 11th overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. He remains quiet and soft-spoken. Calm or awestruck? It's sometimes a fine line, especially with young goaltenders, which is why the Kings still face crucial decisions with Bernier.
"It was surreal for me. I barely remember the first few games," said teammate Michael Cammalleri, who had two power-play goals in the Kings' victory. "After the game, I went over to congratulate him. He looked like he was in a daze."
The Kings are cognizant of what happened to young goaltending stars like Rick DiPietro and Marc-Andre Fleury. The two No. 1 draft picks were immediately pressed into service on Long Island and in Pittsburgh, respectively (some would say thrown to the wolves), decisions that stunted both netminders' progress.
Goaltenders are different than young forwards or defensemen, who might be able to make mistakes without costing their team and thus straining their confidence, Lombardi explained.
"No one's going to bail a goalie out," Lombardi said. "It's not only physical maturation, it's mental maturation. So far, he's handling things extremely well."
This is the second season of the Lombardi Plan. The former San Jose GM is generally regarded as the man who helped set the Sharks on the path to perennial contention with shrewd draft picks and patient development.
Lombardi's imprint is already firmly established on this Los Angeles Kings team with the acquisition of blue-chip defenseman Jack Johnson, the emergence of rookie Anze Kopitar and the offseason acquisitions of Preissing, Brad Stuart, Ladislav Nagy and Michal Handzus, who scored a short-handed, empty-net goal to close out Saturday's scoring.
But the plan cannot fully take flight until Lombardi finds a goaltender.
Last season was a disaster as Dan Cloutier was given the starter's job in training camp and imploded. Coach Marc Crawford acknowledges he shouldn't have put so much pressure on Cloutier and he vows not to make a similar mistake this season.
Still, it seemed like a gutsy call to give the start in the team's first game -- and the NHL's first regular-season game in Europe -- to a kid that looks more like an autograph hound than a professional netminder.
When the Kings recently dispatched Cloutier to their AHL franchise in Manchester, N.H., the assumption was Jason LaBarbera would get his long-awaited chance to become the heir to the lumpy Kings goaltending throne. Not so.
LaBarbera struggled at times during training camp, and Bernier, fresh from a solid role in Canada's annihilation of the Russian junior national team in an eight-game exhibition series last month, kept hanging around. LaBarbera is expected to start Sunday's second and final game of this London series. The one-time AHL Player of the Year will face pressure to perform given Bernier's strong play Saturday.
Beyond these two games, the Kings will have to decide what is right for both the player and the team. They must try to find a balance between wanting to win, and win now, with not wanting to expose a young talent to too much, too soon.
There are financial considerations, as well. Bernier will eat up one year of his entry-level contract if he plays in more than 10 NHL games this season. If he plays like he did Saturday, the Kings will gladly take that tradeoff. But what if he doesn't?
"We know he's going to be a great goalie and we want to do the right things," Crawford said. "He was very sharp throughout training camp. His play is going to dictate what happens. We know we've got gold there."
Lombardi is reticent to get too effusive about the youngster who turned out to be his first draft pick as Kings GM.
"With young players, I've just learned to let them play. I think it's the kiss of death to say, 'Oh, this kid is going to be great,'" he said. "We're telling the truth when we say we're taking it day to day."
On this day, at least, it was enough to make you forget 40 years of goaltending disappointments.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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