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Kings banking on kids for goaltending stability

by Eric Stephens
Dig through the Los Angeles Kings' 40-plus year history and you'll find goalie Jonathan Quick sitting at No. 60 among the team's all-time goalies, followed by Erik Ersberg at No. 61.

If it were up the Kings, they'd love either Quick or Ersberg to really be No. 1.

For both, the first two numbers represent the place they hold among those who have suited up to play goal for the team. For the Kings, the latter number represents the type of goalie they've long searched for -- often in vain.
The club's seemingly never-ending hunt for a franchise goaltender has taken them through 62 different netminders in all. From Terry Sawchuk to Glenn Healy, from Mario Lessard to Stephane Fiset, from Bob Janecyk to Robb Stauber, from Gerry Desjardins to Jamie Storr, from Rollie Melanson to Yutaka Fukufuji.

All of them different, all of them having experienced many degrees of success and failure. None of them a superstar.
Rogie Vachon was certainly the closest to being a savior, having been a three-time NHL All-Star in the mid-1970s. Sawchuk was an All-Star in the Kings' inaugural season, but he was near the end of his illustrious career. Kelly Hrudey and Felix Potvin had their moments as a top-flight netminder.

Now the Kings have placed their fortunes on Quick and Ersberg, who have just 47 games between them with the big club. At this time a year ago, both were doing time in the minor leagues.

"As a professional, I've never been on a team that's had two goalies this inexperienced … good ones too,” said 14-year veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell. "I've been on teams with young ones that weren't very good."

Not that O'Donnell sounding a bell of concern. He immediately added that “these are two real good ones that have good goals-against, good save percentages.  Whenever they've played, they've given us a chance to win at such a young age.”

Like most youngsters, Ersberg and Quick are finding their way.

Ersberg is the most experienced of the two, if you count being 26 years of age with two of those years spent with HV71 Jonkoping of the Swedish Elite League and 34 NHL games over the last two seasons.

Once the goaltender of the year in his homeland, Ersberg's been strong at times and shaky at others with Los Angeles -- something that's defined most that minded the net in the Kings' history. But he's been strong enough to remain in the mix.

"I think you can ask any goalie in this league or any league, they want to be the No. 1 guy on their team," said Ersberg, who's 8-7-3 with a 2.44 goals-against average in 21 starts. "There's a lot of good goalies in this organization, from the bottom on up. Good quality, actually.

"Every time I'm out there, it's an opportunity for me. I'm not a 10-year veteran or anything in this league. Anytime I'm out there, it's an opportunity to show myself and my teammates and the fans, anybody, what I can do and what we can do. I've got to look at it like that."

Keeping the puck out of the net isn't the only challenge for Ersberg. The fast-rising Quick is making his case for the No. 1 spot.         

A third-round pick of the Kings in the 2005 draft out of the University of Massachusetts, Quick has posted impressive numbers in his first extended stay. In his first 11 games, he has a 2.24 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

Included in that are his first two NHL shutouts, which he did in just four starts since being recalled from Manchester of the American Hockey Laegue on Dec. 16.                       

"I just looked at it as an opportunity to try to prove that I could play at the NHL level," Quick said. "I wasn't expecting everything to happen that's happened here. I didn't even know how much game time I was going to get with [Jason] LaBarbera being here. I came to try to play well in practice. If I was going to get into a game, I would try to play my best to get the win.

"My mindset coming in worked out. They ended up playing me a few games in a row. I had a lot of help from the team. It worked out."

What Quick didn't know was the Kings had bigger plans for him than just calling him up to fill in because of an injury to Ersberg. The team had been watching him closely at Manchester and decided it was time to put him on the fast track.

To clear a potential logjam, Los Angeles traded LaBarbera, its starter for a good portion of 2007-08 and 2008-09, to Vancouver for a seventh-round pick.

"If we didn't feel like he was ready to come up for us to take an extended look at him, then obviously we would have kept LaBarbera," said Kings Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall. "But things weren't working out with LaBarbera and it was better for 'Barbs' to get a change.

"We just felt it was the right time to do it. We wanted to take a real good look at our young goalie and see what we have."

In Quick, who'll be 23 on Jan. 21, Hextall said the Kings have a goalie with loads of athleticism. The ability to move his 6-foot-1, 216-pound frame easily from side to side in the crease was something he put on display  in two years at UMass, where he led the Minutemen to their first-ever NCAA tournament bid in his sophomore season.

It was Quick's improving technique and fundamentals that were starting to impress club officials.

"We just felt it was the right time to do it. We wanted to take a real good look at our young goalie and see what we have."
-- Ron Hextall

"The biggest thing that he's changed in his game is he's really brought himself together," said Hextall, motioning his arms inward. "He's brought himself tighter. There were times in the last year and a half where he'd be a little too spread out. And that's the thing we were kind of waiting to come around with him. Be a little bit more under control. He's to that point now."

Quick also had to work on himself off the ice. During his stay in Manchester, the Milford, Conn., native slept through his alarm clock a couple of times and arrived late for practice.

Nothing major that set off alarms in the organization, but it was enough for Hextall to deliver him a stern rebuke as he was sent to Reading (Pa.) of the ECHL for a little punishment.

"I think the biggest thing with Jon is he still has a lot to learn," Hextall said. "He had to learn how to be a pro. Sleeping in, coming to the rink late and stuff … it's certainly not professional. He's a kid that came straight out of college and still had a little bit of a college mentality. He needed to grow up.

"It was the bed he made. To his credit, he made it. He's played hard, he's played well and here he is."

Quick's first reaction to his demotion was natural -- he didn't want to go to Reading. Once he vented during the eight-hour drive from Manchester, it was time to look himself in the mirror and not make excuses.

"You'll be tired of [griping] and moaning after that drive," he said. "You don't even want to listen to the radio. You're not picking up your cell phone. By time you do all that, you think to yourself that you've had enough of that. There's only one thing to do now and that's work."

Perhaps out of necessity, Murray has largely split the chores evenly between Quick and Ersberg. But the veteran coach isn't interested in developing a platoon system.

In other words, someone needs to step forward and make the net theirs and this is the opportunity for each.

"Damn right, I want a dominant goaltender,” Murray said. "Absolutely. Every organization would like that or want that.  That's your go-to guy game in and out. Getting him to play 70 games a year, 75 games a year. Absolutely.

"If that ever developed in this organization, then you move forward very quickly. There're only a handful of elite goalies in the game today but you see those that are. Those teams are there every year."

Quick and Ersberg may be first line for the chance to earn "franchise" goalie status but they aren't the only ones jockeying for that. There is also Jonathan Bernier, the Kings' No. 1 pick in 2006 who's worn the goaltender-of-the-future tag. Bernier won his NHL debut when the Kings defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-1, in London to begin the 2007-08 season.

Part of the reason in moving LaBarbera was to allow Bernier to be the everyday starter at Manchester after splitting duties with Quick early on. Bernier has 10-11-3 in 24 games with the Monarchs thus far. The Kings also have Jeff Zatkoff in their system at their ECHL affiliate in Ontario, Calif.

Hextall, the former All-Star goalie, is hoping that a star will emerge out of the four. Or at least someone they can depend on every night.

"Our feeling is that we've got a real good stable of young goaltenders that we're excited about," said Hextall, the former All-Star goalie. "But we're also realistic enough to know that we're not out of the woods."

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