Like goaltender Jonathan Quick, J.F. Berube was a mid-round draft pick and began his pro career in the ECHL. After wrapping up a three-year run in junior hockey in the spring of 2011, the Quebec native signed his Entry Level Contract with the Kings that summer - and also had hip surgery.
"He's been a guy that’s had to travel a different road [than say] Jonathan Bernier," began Kim Dillabaugh, from the Kings Player Development group. "Berube wasn’t a high draft pick. He wasn’t a guy that went directly to the American Hockey League. He was a guy that had to pay his dues a little more in the East Coast league for a couple years and even down there wasn’t a clear-cut number one guy. The journey he’s been on has been a little bit different and he’s done a good job of overcoming the obstacles up to this point."
After getting off to a slow start with the Ontario Reign later that fall, Berube started to show flashes of brilliance in the second half of the season, beginning with a 1.82 goals against average and .930 save percentage that January.
Last season he split time between Ontario and Manchester, but played in only two games during an extended stretch with the Monarchs. He was really there just to serve as a back-up. Even coming into this season, his role was still a bit of a question mark as the Kings were looking to shore up a number of goaltending positions throughout the organization.
"It’s been really different this year," said Berube. "I didn’t expect to have so many games [with the Monarchs], but I always prepare myself during the summer to have that number one spot. I think I was ready physically. Last summer was really my first full summer where I had no worries about my hip and had absolutely no restrictions doing exercises and stuff. That was really good for me mentally, to know that I could just go all out and not worry about my hip or any injuries, so I think that allowed me to push myself and gain a little bit more endurance, more muscle, for those back-to-back-to-back games."
Coming into the season, Kings GM Dean Lombardi had said he wanted Martin Jones to spend another year in Manchester as the Monarchs primary starter. However, after an impressive audition while Quick was sidelined with an injury, Jones became a regular NHL player, allowing Berube to elevate from understudy to the guy coach Mark Morris has counted on heavily over the past few months.
"I think he had to be brooding when he wasn't getting an opportunity and Jones was taking a bulk of the games," said Morris, who has over 300 wins behind the bench in both college and at the AHL level. "He's a little less sure of himself from time to time; you can tell when he's not feeling good about himself. But, he's very coachable and he's a tremendous kid. I think he's just going to get better and better. With this added responsibility, he's taken a big step in his development [and] has really blossomed into a legitimate starter. When the opportunity arose, he's really delivered for us. He's a lot stronger in the net and he's mentally more mature. His positioning is good and he's come up with big saves when we've needed him to."
Part of the improvement can certainly be credited to Dillibaugh, who makes frequent trips to Manchester each month and has been working regularly with Berube since he was playing in Ontario.
"Kim was quick to tell me to challenge him," shared Morris. "He said don't be afraid to get in his face a little bit and tell him, 'We need you.' Every time I did that, [Berube] stepped up and rose to the occasion.”
Knowing he was now going to be the number one guy also seemed to motivate the 22-year-old netminder.
“As soon as Jonesie was out of the picture, you could just see his confidence coming leaps and bounds,” said Morris. “I think he’s really relished that opportunity. When you know that, you have to be feeling the pressure that you're basically holding the team on your back and that's a big pressure for a young guy his age.”
After Friday’s regular season finale, Berube had a .913 save percentage, the best of his career, both as a pro and junior player.
"I think I should’ve had that number even higher," said a confident sounding Berube. "After Christmas I kind of slowed down a little bit and I felt like there were some saves I could’ve made, but we were still winning and that was the most important thing. Still, I want to try to keep my numbers as high as possible and I’m working hard to get those numbers [higher]."
If competition is healthy among goaltenders, Berube recently has found himself in a situation that appears to be motivating him even more than before. When the WHL season recently ended, the Kings sent Patrick Bartosak [ed. note: we profiled him here a few weeks ago], last season’s Goaltender of the Year in junior hockey, to Manchester.
“I would say I’m learning from him, just to see how hard he battles in practices,” Berube said when asked about how things have been going. “I don’t think I’ve been with a partner that battles that hard and he wants it so bad that it puts my mindset in the same way. It’s always fun to have different kinds of goalies that you can work with. You always learn from those guys.”
Morris, always thinking like a coach first, has already seen the advantages of having Bartosak around.
“No question, J.F. realizes that there's another guy in town now that's just going to improve alongside him,” he said. “I think that in-house competition is ever-present now and I think it will make both guys really focused and detailed in their games."
Specific to Berube, Dillabaugh likes what he’s seen from the Kings 2009 draft pick over the past few years, and is encouraged by where his development could be headed in future years.
“The biggest change for J.F. this year has been on the consistency side of things - learning how to be a number one goaltender and managing a higher workload and the little details and habits that go along with that,” said Dillabaugh. “J.F. is a little bit more of a reserved individual, but I do think he has that inner belief in himself. Right now he’s got that swagger and that belief that he can come out and be a consistent performer and a number one goaltender in the American Hockey League… He hasn’t let adversity affect him, he’s used it as motivation. He’s always believed in himself and we’ve always believed in him, as well.”
Nicknamed ‘Hollywood’ by trainers during his junior days, Berube has sported some of the best looking masks in the Kings organization the past few seasons - and he has another beauty being prepared right now.
“It’s something that I’ve been working on pretty much the whole year,” revealed Berube. “The sketches are done and my painter, Sylvie Marsolais, is working on it. Hopefully she’ll get it done in time for the playoffs next week.”
As for what to expect on the ice during the post-season, Berube can’t wait to see what this season’s Monarchs, the AHL’s Eastern Conference Champions, can do when it matters most.
“This year is a very special year,” he stated. “We have a really special group and everyone’s on the same page. When everyone is there and following the game plan, I think we’re really dangerous.”