by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
When Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall says he hopes rookie goalie Jonathan Bernier sees things clearly now, he’s not just talking about pucks.
Bernier started the season with the Kings — and beat defending Stanley Cup champ Anaheim in the opener in London — but Hextall and Los Angeles sent him back to juniors for more experience. Bernier didn’t take it too well, which Hextall understands.
"The only thing I told him is I promise you will look back in hindsight in a couple of years and say, ‘It was the best thing for me,"’ Hextall said. "I have not heard it yet. Jon was so disappointed when we sent him down, I’m not sure how much he could take in."
What about it Mr. Bernier? Can you now appreciate your boss’ perspective?
"Going to juniors was a good thing for me," he said. "For sure, I wish I stayed (with the Kings), but with the season they had it was probably a good decision for me. I think if I would have been able to go to the AHL, it would have been better. That would have been the best thing for me."
Ah, but Bernier is just 19, so he was too young to jump to the AHL. His only choice was to return to junior hockey. It’s a different story now, though, that his season with Lewiston is complete. For the next few weeks, maybe a month or so, Bernier can certainly come of age in Manchester.
Bernier, the No. 11 overall pick by Los Angeles in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, has been assigned to the Monarchs. At the very least, he will further his education as a co-No. 1 — with Jonathan Quick — in the team’s postseason.
And the ultimate upside? Well, for that we look no farther back than one year. Montreal sent this kid named Carey Price to Hamilton, where he helped the Bulldogs win the Calder Cup.
Lightning probably can’t strike twice, but Bernier, like Price, is a winner, and Manchester, like Hamilton, is an easy-to-overlook team at the start of the playoffs.
"If he gets hot, it will be tough to deny him that opportunity (to be No. 1)," said Manchester coach Mark Morris. "(Winning the Cup) is always possible, but I think we’re pretty realistic. We have zero veterans on our team right now. It’s been pretty nice for our guys to get into the playoff picture. Who knows what’s going to unfold now?"
It’s about time to find out.
Bernier beat Worcester 4-1 in his AHL debut April 5 before losing to Providence in a shootout the next night.
"I’m trying to not look too far ahead,” Bernier said. "Right now, I’m in the AHL. We’re going for the playoffs. I’m never going to compare myself to other people. If we can win the Calder Cup, that’s great. I’m going to give my team the best chance I can for it to go as far as it can."
Bernier knows something about that, taking Lewiston to the Memorial Cup two seasons ago. While that was the high of a lifetime, it also set him up for the fall of this season.
With Los Angeles, Bernier started 1-3-0 with a 4.03 goals-against average and .864 save percentage. The Kings had two choices — put him on an island in Los Angeles or wrap him back in the cocoon of Lewiston.
"My feeling is, you can’t hide a goalie (in the NHL)," Hextall said. "You can hide a defenseman, keep him away from the top lines in the League. I think going from juniors to the NHL is a really, really tough thing (for goalies).
"He does have a fairly mature game. But you can never be experienced enough."
Bernier, as previously noted, had a different outlook. He struggled initially with a been-there, done-that kind of feeling, especially coming off the pinnacle of two seasons ago. And the cast around him in Lewiston was considerably more raw.
"I had some ups and downs," Bernier said. "It took me two or three weeks to get my mind set. I had to be there, no choice. If you come back from the pros, it’s a huge difference. All those things affected me. I’d say I had more pressure. I had the pressure to put my team on my shoulders."
Bernier impressed Hextall with his resiliency. He bounced back to go 18-12-3 with a 2.73 GAA and .908 save percentage with Lewiston. He was also a member of the gold-medal Team Canada squad at the 2008 World Junior Championships, going 1-1-0 with a 2.00 GAA, .947 save percentage with one shutout.
"The thing I give him credit for is the kid went down to juniors; he didn’t have the (long) down period most players would have," Hextall said.
Hextall and Morris rave about the hybrid goalie’s competitiveness and athleticism, but they point to his cool as a real separating factor.
In an odd twist, the Monarchs played the Bruins the last three games of their regular season, and the two teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s potentially 10 straight games for Manchester against the AHL’s top regular-season team, a task that seems custom-made for the somehow-icy newcomer.
"I don’t know. Everybody says I look calm, but sometimes inside I’m not calm," Bernier said. "I feel like if I’m calm, it will be easier for me to control my rebounds. It’s better for the guys back there if the goalie looks calm and in control."
His resolve figures to be tested many times in many different ways in the near future. Bernier has already admitted that, yeah, Hextall made the right call by giving him a little more seasoning in juniors.
But for how long can his eagerness be capped? What if management thinks a small dose of the AHL would be a good way for him to start his season next year?
Bernier got to be a great prospect by giving away nothing, and he concedes not an inch here.
"Well, I probably can answer that question after the playoffs, if I think I’m ready to step up," he said. "If I play well here and we go far in the playoffs, I’ll have more right to say something if they send me down."
And maybe this time he’ll leave the Kings no choice but to listen.