Nobody in the Kings’ organization will ever say this, but I have to believe this is pretty close to a nightmare scenario for them. The goaltending situation was already tough enough with Cloutier and LaBarbera, but now they have to weigh three goaltenders and make sure they don’t do harm to their best goalie prospect.
It’s becoming clear that Jonathan Bernier, age 19, can play in the NHL. The question is, is this the right time for him to be in the NHL? Would he be better off with on-the-job training or better off with another year of confidence-building seasoning in junior hockey? Bernier is pretty certain of the answer.
“I learned a lot last year and I’m ready for this,” Bernier said. “I don’t want to go back to juniors. My focus is to play here.”
So if Bernier has been the Kings’ best goalie at training camp, what’s holding him back? That would be the ghost of Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh’s No. 1 pick in 2003. Fleury, who had three years of junior experience, started the 2003 season as the Penguins’ goalie. (Coincidentally, Fleury split time with J.S. Aubin that season and made his debut in a loss to the Kings.) Fleury had mixed results and ended up being sent back to his junior team in January. Due in part to the lockout, Fleury didn’t become a full-time NHL goalie until last season, and the Penguins received some criticism for rushing him.
The Kings don’t want to do that with Bernier. Problem is, because he isn’t yet 20 years old and hasn’t yet played four years of junior hockey, they can’t send him to the AHL. So it’s either the NHL, where he might not be ready, or the juniors, where he already proved that he’s far and above the competition.
The Kings aren’t tipping their hand. From the start, Crawford has said he will wait as long as necessary to make a decision about the goaltending.
“He’s a good young goaltender and he’s going to be a high-end goaltender,” Crawford said. “The question is how quickly he’s going to take that step.”
A third option would be to keep Bernier in Los Angeles as a test run. He can play up to nine games at the NHL level and still be returned to Lewiston. Crawford wouldn’t budge when asked about this possibility.
“I don’t want to put something in front of them other than what’s in front of them,” Crawford said. “They have to focus on what’s in front of them, and I wouldn’t want to cloud that.”
Too late. Bernier is clearly thinking about making the team. At the same time, he knows a roster spot isn’t going to be handed to him.
“I’m just going to try to play well tonight,” Bernier said. “After that hopefully I’ll get another game. When they give me a chance, it’s my ball. I have to run with it and it’s up to me to play good.”