It's hard to imagine a better NHL debut than the one Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Bernier
enjoyed -- or a bigger disappointment.
Bernier, the Kings' first-round pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, played well enough in training camp to get the start in Los Angeles' season-opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in London, England. Before a full house on a global stage, Bernier stopped 27 shots and came within seven minutes of a shutout in a 4-1 victory. He was voted the game's second star.
"It was pretty exciting," the Laval, Quebec, native said of his stunning debut at the O2 Arena in the NHL Premier Series. "I didn't expect anything like that. I came to camp and just wanted to do my job. They told me they were only going to give me a couple of games, and I ended up opening the season in London. I think for my experience, being 19-years-old, it was really good for me.
"When I came back from London on the plane, I was pretty excited. After I came back, it turned around the other way. But it was a great experience for me.”
Unfortunately for Bernier, the afterglow from his NHL debut didn't last long. He allowed 15 goals while losing his next three starts and was soon was back in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, playing for Lewiston -- where he would remain for the rest of the season, except for some time off to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships. Bernier ended up played just four NHL games, losing three and ending up with a 4.03 goals-against average and a .864 save percentage.
"It was hard," he said of making the transition from the NHL back to juniors. "You take the bus instead of the plane. It's more mental than anything else -- just getting back with the guys. I was 19, so the AHL wasn't even an option.
"It was really, really disappointing. I thought I was done with juniors. If I had the age, to go to the AHL would have been better. I had made the team, so for me to go back to juniors was very hard. I played there four years and I thought I was ready to move up."
He still thinks so -- and there's plenty of opportunity. After a season in which the Kings used seven goaltenders while finishing last in the Western Conference, Bernier has his focus on winning the starting job and spending the entire season in Los Angeles.
"For me, it will be a battle," he said of his hopes of making the Kings again. "We have a lot of good goalies. It's up to me to have a good camp and show that I can play here. I have to show them what I can do, do my best, and hopefully good things will happen. I've always got to keep the same level. If I reach too high or too low, I won't have a good game."
He's an athletic goaltender with good quickness, and he really wants to learn. - Kings Assistant GM Ron Hextall
Kings Assistant GM Ron Hextall, a former goaltender himself, likes what he sees.
"He's an athletic goaltender with good quickness, and he really wants to learn," Hextall said.
Perhaps the most important reason the Kings sent Bernier back to Lewiston was to work on the mental side of the game, as well as to keep him from being overwhelmed by the pressure of being a starting NHL goaltender at such a young age.
"I don't think they wanted me to work on anything physical," he said when asked what the Kings told him when he was sent back to juniors. "It was more mental -- get stronger mentally to be ready to play as much as possible. At this level, everyone is pretty good.
"I don't think it was my game. I think maybe they were scared that I was going too fast -- they wanted me to go to juniors and do the World Junior Championships. They thought it was a little too much to be a starting goaltender in the NHL."
The Kings have a number of excellent young forwards and the makings of a good young defense with Jack Johnson and 2008 No. 2 overall pick Drew Doughty
, as well as promising youngsters like Thomas Hickey
, the No. 4 overall pick in the '07 Entry Draft. They've been playing musical goaltenders for a couple of years, trying to find someone who can grab the No. 1 job and keep it.
But Bernier says there's no additional pressure on him, despite the fact that the Kings used the 11th overall pick in 2006 to take him.
"Not really," he said when asked if he felt pressure to succeed. "I just have to go out and do my job, keep working hard and have a good attitude, and good things will happen to me. We have prospect camp now and I have to do everything I can to get ready for training camp in September."
This time, though, he wants to stay in Los Angeles all year long.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist