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by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
It didn't take new Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi long to send a message about the importance of goaltending.

Lombardi barely had his bags unpacked before he selected a highly touted goaltending prospect in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. Weeks later, Lombardi added another netminder, landing a No. 1 goaltender in a trade.

With Dan Cloutier set to battle Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera for playing time in L.A., the Kings enter the 2006-07 season with more depth in goal than they've had in recent memory. Cloutier was acquired from Vancouver in a July 6 deal in exchange for a pair of draft picks.

"Dan Cloutier is a very good goaltender who makes us better," Marc Crawford, the first-year Kings Head Coach who previously mentored Cloutier in Vancouver, said. "In goal, we have three great options."

Crawford, who also believes good goaltending is a team's foundation, seems to think a first-rate net tandem can emerge from the trio.

A one-two punch of Cloutier and Garon seems the Kings' most likely scenario in net for the upcoming season. Such a pairing should enable the Kings remove the question mark that has surrounded the position in recent years.

As for the future in net, the Kings believe a good thing is about to get even better. In time, what was formerly a question mark might very well be replaced with an exclamation point.

"The future is bright," Crawford said. "We drafted Jonathan Bernier with the 11th pick in the 2006 Entry Draft. He's the real deal and he will be a staple in a few years at STAPLES Center in a Kings uniform."

Bernier is a 5-11, 177-pound native of Laval, Quebec who spent the past two seasons at Lewiston of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Bernier, who plays a hybrid style that is part butterfly-part stand-up, possesses great quickness. He has already achieved the first of his professional hockey goals: he was the first goaltender taken in the 2006 Entry Draft.

"That was my goal before the start of the season and I reached it," Bernier said.

Growing up in Canada, Bernier always viewed former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy as his idol. With Roy served as owner, G.M. and Head Coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Bernier actually got to face his hero last season.

"I got to play against (his team) in the QMJHL and it was a thrill," Bernier said.

For Bernier, there are plenty more thrills to come.

"Jonathan was the top-ranked goalie in the draft according to most every list and publication," said Al Murray, the Kings director of amateur scouting. "We've been watching him for two years and we really like him a lot. He's very quick, very focused, and he's the kind of goaltender that can carry to a team to victory."

If Bernier, whom Murray likens to Martin Brodeur, is to develop into the elite goaltender the Kings believe he can become, it will be through a combination of talent and dedication.

"He battles hard and has great natural ability and we're very optimistic for him," Murray said.

Though at just 18 years of age, Bernier clearly has the biggest upside of any of the goaltenders in the Kings organization, he's still probably a few years away from playing at STAPLES Center.

"Every player comes to training camp hoping to make an impression and hoping to get an opportunity," Murray said. "Jonathan believes he can play in the NHL this season but I don't think being a backup in the NHL is the right thing for a kid his age. He thinks he's going to play (in the NHL) and that's a great attitude to have but the most likely scenario has him returning to juniors."

Another young goaltender with a bright future is Jeff Zatkoff, a former Miami University of Ohio student who grew up in Detroit.

Zatkoff has an interesting athletic background in that his father played professional basketball, and his grandfather played in the National Football League. "Hopefully," Murray said, "Jeff will add playing in the NHL to the family's legacy.

For that to happen, Zatkoff will need to develop his 6-foot-2, 160-pound frame.

"He is very immature physically," Murray said. "He need to get stronger, but he's a terrific positional goaltender. Jeff is very agile side-to-side, and reads the play exceptionally well. He doesn't have to make a lot of real acrobatic saves because he seems to know where the puck is going to be shot from, and he's in the proper position at all times."

Daniel Taylor, a goaltender from Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League, will likely spend this season at either Manchester of the AHL, or Reading of the ECHL.

"He's a first-year pro," Murray said, "so he has to show us where he fits and where he's ready to play."

Proving Murray's theory that good hockey players can be found anywhere, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji was spotted playing goal in Japan. The Tokyo-native spent last season at ECHL Reading.

"The plan last year was for Yutaka Fukufuji and Barry Brust to alternate, one month with Reading and one month with Manchester," Murray said. "Then Barry took over and really played well. Yutaka ended up in Reading and from all indications played quite well there. He also did fine in the games he was up with Manchester. He's looking to challenge for the No. 1 job in Manchester this year."

According to Murray, finding Fukufuji in Japan was "a unique situation," for the Kings, who drafted him in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

"Glen Williamson, who was a pro scout for us, had been the national coach in Japan for a couple of years," Murray explained. "He had been bugging us for two years, telling us that Yutaka was a legitimate NHL prospect. We finally drafted him, sight-unseen except for Glen Williamson's recommendation, so Glen is going to get all the credit if it works out. It was one of those unique situations where we had inside information that other teams didn't have. Hopefully it will work out."

A little closer to L.A., Ryan Munce played last season at Bakersfield of the ECHL.

"Ryan was a first-year pro last year after a number of years in the Ontario Hockey League," Murray said. "He had some adapting to do as he went from being an amateur, where you're living with a family in a billet, to being a pro and living on your own and suddenly being responsible for everything."

Munce is expected to challenge for a spot in Manchester but could end up in Reading or back in Bakersfield.

"If he were to end up a No. 1 goalie in the ECHL, that wouldn't be the worst thing," Murray said. "In the case of all our young goalies, the important thing is to be a No. 1 guy and play a lot."

Part of the Kings goaltending future could conceivably unfold on a world stage.

"Jeff Zatkoff had a real good tryout with the U.S. World Junior team and Jonathan Bernier had a good tryout with Canada's World Junior team," Murray said. "Our hope is that there would be a gold medal final at the World Juniors with Jeff Zatkoff in goal for the U.S. and Jonathan Bernier in goal for Canada."

Getting the team's goaltending situation in order can hardly be considered a global problem. But, if you're a longtime Kings fan, a new world order in net will be a most welcome sight indeed.

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