In Hollywood, sports teams are measured for success by the number of titles they have won. With storied franchises like the Dodgers and Lakers in town, the Los Angeles Kings are way behind the curve having been in existence for 40 years without a championship. The team's struggles have been especially brutal of late, and last year the Kings tied for the lowest point total in the NHL with 71. True to form, they couldn't even win the lottery for the number one overall pick. Die hard Kings fans, many of whom have been suffering with the team since it's inception, see this as a curse. I'd like to present a different perspective.
The Kings have made the Stanley Cup finals once in their history, carried there by a legend named Gretzky in 1993. The Kings had hockey fans in Southern California in pure pandemonium that year making an unlikely trek to the final behind then head coach Barry Melrose (a man now known more for his mullet haircut than his coaching skills). The Kings won game 1 in Montreal but then proceeded to lose 4 straight games. Montreal's savior, Patrick Roy (the Gretzky of goalies) won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and L.A. hasn't come close to Cup glory since. In the past 15 years, the Kings have won exactly one playoff series, that against Detroit in 2001. The Kings last made the playoffs in 2001-02, losing to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche in 7 games.
Most could trace the Kings recent struggles to a couple of problem areas: Goaltending and Defense. The Kings have never developed a starting goalie from within in 40 years. It's two biggest goaltending stars, Rogie Vachon (the first King to ever have his number retired) and Kelly Hrudey, were both acquired via trades. The Kings list of prospects in net over the years includes names like Mario Lessard, Robb Stauber and Jamie Storr, all of whom showed short flashes of brilliance but left town as disappointments. The list of veterans brought in to try to help the situation looks like a who's who of goaltending also-rans of the NHL: Dan Cloutier, Roman Cechmanek, Felix Potvin, and Stephane Fiset just to name a few. All came to LA past their prime and performed like it (save Potvin who had two good late season runs to get the team into the playoffs before coming completely unravelled in the 02-03 season). The Kings have had the misfortune of using more goalies the past two seasons than any other team in the NHL.
However, this trend is not meant to last. 2006 was General Manager Dean Lombardi's first draft with the Kings, and he made it count, using the 11th overall pick to select Jonathan Bernier of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Lewiston Maineiacs. Bernier was the best goalie available in that year's draft - fast, athletic, calm and patient. Bernier took the Kings training camp by storm last season. He was clearly the best goalie in camp and forced the team's hand by making the opening day roster and starting in goal in the season opener against defending champion Anaheim in London, England. Bernier stopped 26 shots and was named first star of the game. The youngster from Laval, Quebec appeared in three more games for the Kings but management felt the team's development was not at the appropriate stage and Bernier was returned to Lewiston lest the Kings risk spoiling his confidence at the age of 19. Bernier had another banner year in junior, also playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, and returned in time to be assigned to the AHL's Manchester Monarchs, the Kings top minor league affiliate. While in Manchester Bernier would start 3 games, going 1-1-1 with a goals against of 1.63 and a save percentage of 94.6%. He also started Manchester's first round playoff loss to Providence.
At this season's Kings Prospects and Development Camp in Los Angeles, Bernier clearly looked like a man among boys. His movement, composure and confidence looked skyscrapers above that of the other goaltending prospects. And this isn't a group of slouches either, it includes former collegiate starts like Miami of Ohio's Jeff Zatkoff and UMass Amherst's Jonathan Quick, both also highly touted within the organization. Bernier however, looked superior to all during camp, and even posted a shutout in the Kings annual prospects scrimmage. One can clearly see that this kid is something special.
Where Bernier plays this season will largely be in his own hands. He will be battling incumbents Jason LaBarbera, a two time goalie of the year in the AHL who has underachieved at the NHL level; and Erik Ersberg, the former Swedish Elite League goalie of the year who came on strong in 14 games at the end of last season. It is widely speculated that Lombardi, who likes to handle young defensemen and goalies with kid gloves, may put Bernier in Manchester, allowing him to get in 60 or more games as a minor pro before giving him a permanent promotion. Given his competition for a spot at the NHL level though, it's quite conceivable that Bernier could again be in goal for the Kings when the season opens.
A team that hasn't had issues scoring goals, the Kings aren't short firepower with budding stars like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Patrick O'Sullivan in the lineup, and promising young forwards Teddy Purcell, Brian Boyle and Matt Moulson expected to get their permanent promotions from the AHL this season.
The Kings, who were a defensive disaster last season, also have a nice collection of blue chip defensive prospects in the fold, including 2007 first round (4th overall) selection Thomas Hickey and 2008 first round picks (2nd overall) Drew Doughty and (13th overall) Colten Teubert, as well as returning sophomore wunderkind Jack Johnson.
While it is unrealistic to expect that all these youngsters will become superstars for the Kings overnight, it is reasonable to expect that the young Kings will be in the playoffs in another season and contending for the Stanley Cup for years to come from then on. Because of GM Dean Lombardi's choice to build through the draft rather than free agency, once this team gets good, they will be good for a long time. Imagine as an opposing player, having to make it past the likes of Jack Johnson or Colten Teubert, both heavy hitters with a penchant for contact. And then, you've still got to beat Bernier.
Yes it's all about the Kids in Los Angeles. While this season likely won't see them sipping from the Stanley Cup, youngsters like Doughty, Teubert, Hickey, Johnson; along with young stars like Kopitar and Brown and their future star goalie Bernier will help ensure that the Cup parade comes to L.A. sooner than later.