L.A. life suiting former AHL MVP fine

Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera makes a save during 8-6 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, January 19, 2006. (Photo by Kirby Lee/NHLImages)

by Patrick Williams

Los Angeles Kings netminder Jason LaBarbera‘s workload now pales in comparison to the burden that he carried with the Hartford Wolf Pack in recent seasons.

For that matter, LaBarbera has a lot less on his plate than he did his past fall. LaBarbera’s first real crack at an NHL job came this fall with the Kings, and he came out blazing.

LaBarbera, a Burnaby, B.C. native who turned 26 last month, made his first six Kings starts all good ones, winning all six and allowing just 12 goals in those starts. He was a nominee for the NHL’s Rookie of the Month award in November, courtesy of his 6-1-0 mark.

Back in October when the NHL was posting some wild scores, LaBarbera continued to post the same sort of GAA that he had over the past two seasons in the New York Rangers organization, where he was an absolute force in Hartford.

“It’s been a bit of a change,” LaBarbera said on Tuesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where his Kings battled the Minnesota Wild. “For me not playing as much has been different. I’m so used to playing all the time.”

He certainly was.

The big 6-foot-3, 230-pounder who played 162 games over the past three seasons between the NHL and AHL teamed with Steve Valiquette last season to split the AHL’s Harry “Hap” Holmes Award last season as the Wolf Pack posted the AHL’s best team GAA, aided quite a bit by LaBarbera’s glittering 1.84 mark.

But a family situation in mid-November sent him home for two games, and he has struggled to get back on track ever since as Mathieu Garon has since slid into the Kings’ starting job. LaBarbera has made just seven appearances since Dec. 2, and in two of those starts, a Dec. 29 roadie in Phoenix and a tilt at the Staples Center on Jan. 19, LaBarbera surrendered six goals each time out.

“I started out great. The last couple months I haven’t played much, and when I did play, I didn’t play great.”

That said, the shift west to the Kings has been a positive one for LaBarbera.

For one thing, at least he is now in the NHL after having spent five seasons in the Rangers organization and collecting just five Rangers appearances in that span. And with the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and Al Montoya coming onboard in New York and Hartford respectively, LaBarbera would have been scrounging for leftovers had he stayed with the Blueshirts this season.

“I didn’t really know where they were going to fit me,” LaBarbera said of the Rangers in explaining his decision to sign with Los Angeles.

“This organization has been great,” LaBarbera said of the Kings. They’ve been first-class with me. They gave me an opportunity, so I can’t complain.”

Part of the move has meant the dramatic shift from quiet, sedate life in Hartford to the big-city life in Los Angeles. But with the scenery, balmy Southern California weather and all there is to do in Los Angeles during down time, the move is not so bad.

“Hartford was a great place, but you can’t beat L.A.”

LaBarbera’s even-keeled temperament should fit in well with the Los Angeles lifestyle. As was the case with the equally mellow Valiquette, LaBarbera’s relationship with Garon has been a peaceful one. Peaceful coexistence with his fellow goalie, it seems, is a LaBarbera standard.

“Great,” LaBarbera termed the relationship. “We’re both very laid-back but intense at the same time. He’s a great guy.”

“I’ve always wanted a good relationship (with the other goalie). It’s good to have that kind of communication, because nobody (else) knows what you’re going through.”