December 2, 2009
Not so Quick, my friend
The Los Angeles Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick carries a heavy workload these days.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Want to win a drink bet the next time you go into your favorite booze establishment?

I've got a trivia question that is sure to get your favorite libation in front of you: When was the last time the Los Angeles Kings had an All Star goaltender?

Drum roll, please... Mario Lessard, 1981.

Yep, in those forgotten days of wooden sticks and helmet-less players, Lessard roamed the All Star ice for 28:17 at the Fabulous Forum in the '81 classic. You’d have to go back to 1978 to find a Kings goalie that appeared in an All Star Game outside of Tinseltown; Rogie Vachon fought off pucks, fog and creatures of the night at the Aud in Buffalo for that honor.

When you explore why the Kings have floundered so long, you can directly point at the 4 foot by 6 foot cage and the talent, or lack thereof, which has been the last line of defense. There have been a lot of suspects in those 28 years, Kelly Hrudey (who did backstop the team to their only Finals appearance in 1993), Stephane Fiset, Felix Potvin, Jamie Storr and the fabulous Roman Cechmanek, who’s stumbled his way into the collective mindset of Kings Nation during his time here.

Among the hot button topics Dean Lombardi had to address when he was installed as GM three years ago was how to draft and develop NHL caliber goaltending. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty aside, if you can’t keep the puck out of the net, you’re never gonna get a ring, was the GM’s mindset.

Lombardi’s first foray into a talent upgrade was an abject failure; under the urging of his first coach. Marc Crawford, the GM made a deal for Dan Cloutier. Crawford’s preference was to go with the devil he knew and it betrayed him. Although Cloutier was a great teammate in the room and a battler on the ice, injuries combined with poor play made his time in Los Angeles miserable for both the goalie and Kings’ fans. As it turned out, Cloutier was only a bridge and a rickety one at that, not unlike the seven free agents Lombardi signed in his first year.

"I knew that you couldn't produce a winner signing that many free agents, I was just buying time until we could accumulate draft picks," Lombardi conveyed in an upcoming feature for The Fourth Period Magazine, which will appear in the winter issue hitting newsstands this January.

Putting his money where his mouth was, when Lombardi stepped to the podium for the 2006 Entry Draft, he selected netminder Jonathan Bernier of the QMJHL. In one bold stroke, the heir apparent to the Kings’ goaltending throne had been found; the legacy laid down by another great French Canadian goaltender, Rogie Vachon was surely to be picked up two generations later.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

With fanfare in abundance and the spotlight on an 18 year old goaltender, Bernier did what most teenagers do, he failed. With a poor team in front of him, Jonathan’s legacy lasted just four games before he was sent back to his junior team. Critics said that his development could be set back for years like another Quebecer, Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins now-championship goalie who had a porous Pittsburgh defense in front of him in the early years. The Kings were back at ground zero in the net, going with the likes of Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera; neither a prime time goalie and subsequently, two more post season misses were added to the ledger.

Lombardi and his legions dug deeper in their prospects bag and unearthed a talent that was drafted by his predecessor, Dave Taylor. Taylor’s third round pick was a goalie that came out of a Massachusetts college hockey powerhouse.

Boston University? Nope. Boston College? Uh uh. Northeastern? Nope. Harvard? Not quite.

How about UMass? Do they even have a hockey team?

Jonathan Quick played for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for two seasons and led them to their first ever post season tournament bid. While his won-loss record during his tenure there was a scant one game over .500, he had solid save percentages (over .920 both seasons) and goals against averages during his two campaigns. The native of Milford CT, who turns 24 in January was one of those players who you see listed in a team’s media guide and when you look at his statistics, you say, ‘suspect, not prospect.’ With an injury bug hitting LA goalies in 2007-’08, Quick got his first taste of NHL action and while getting his first major league win, his high goals against and low save percentage ticketed him back to the minors with most observers thinking he’d join the long line of Kings goalie projects that didn’t work out.

He went back to the minors and gained more experience, confidence and most importantly, skill over two seasons and 71 games to warrant consideration in last year’s training camp. He didn’t make the cut at the start of camp last season but when LaBarbera suffered an early season injury, Quick, not Bernier (who burned at not being recalled) was the one to take the call from the minors.

Over 44 games last season, Quick fashioned four shutouts and had respectable enough numbers (2.48 GAA and .914 save percentage) to make him a player in Los Angeles goalie derby. His coach Terry Murray, while pleased at his performance wasn’t sold on Quick as his main man at mid-season last year. When asked if he was his number one goalie on numerous occasions, Murray conveyed there was more work to do for young Mr. Quick, "it takes years, not months to become a number one goaltender in the NHL."

But when you sit and chat with Quick you see a burning and intense desire to win in his eyes. His matter of fact tone of voice and a non-expressive face is the type of personality a goaltender needs as the last line of defense when facing an Ovechkin or Crosby. In the midst of a hot streak last season, I asked if he ever gets nervous given the high stakes he plays for.

In his best deadpan, he replied, "I don’t think I’ve been nervous in a game since I was ten years old."

Kool like that, eh?

As the 2008-09 season progressed, the Kings faded from contention in final weeks but not for a lack of performance from Quick with his coach taking firm notice. When training camp commenced, Murray was singing a different tune at the first practice, "Jonathan Quick is my No.1 goalie; we’ll be going with Erik Ersberg (another free agent find in 2007) as the backup. I don’t see a need for a veteran goaltender to come in to support them.”

Let it be said, let it be done.

In the season's early going, the Kings have been a surprise but mostly because of the production of Kopitar and the invaluable addition of Ryan Smyth adding grit and toughness around the net. The defensive performance of the team has been spotty at times and Quick has been off to a start that could best be called ‘average.’ His goals against was closer to 3 than 2 and his save percentage fluttered below .900 but with Murray losing faith in Ersberg after two poor performances, it was time for Quick to respond. On a recent road trip in Edmonton and Vancouver, he played at a high level although the Kings split two games. With the fleet and dangerous Chicago Blackhawks coming to town, he fashioned what was easily his best performance of this season and perhaps of his young career. He stopped 32 of 33 Chicago shots and got them to a shootout where he easily stopped two guys with the names of Kane and Toews on their backs to give the Kings the two points. Playing the good teammate, he used the pronoun "we" and not "I", crediting his defense for clearing the way for him to see most of the shots in the triumph, clearly this player lacks an external ego.

In the post game locker room, I queried the goalie about carry such a heavy load. He’s second in the league in games and minutes played, could it be too much for him?

"I don’t think about that at all, I just go one game at a time," he said. "I’m feeling fine and as long as I can stay healthy, I’m ready to play the games. I prepare for games both physically and mentally, so the challenge is the same."

At the same time, he surrenders to the reality that if he were to carry a workload in the 65-70 game range, he would be navigating in unchartered waters.

"I really don’t know it I can play that many, we’ll find out. I played about 60 games (a combined 57 with Reading and Manchester, two Kings affiliates) but that’s very different, you can’t compare it."

So with Quick ready to answer the bell for all the games in the foreseeable future, the question was posed to Murray if he thought that Quick could be seen in 70 games this season?

"Physically, he’s a thick guy so I don’t think he’ll wear down."

Hmm, that’s certainly not a denial, is it?

Our thought: While it’s unlikely that Quick would appear in that many games given the truncated schedule due to the Olympics, he’s the chosen one. For now. There is some thinking in and out of the organization that Bernier is still the long term play in net for the Kings but these days you need two strong men in net to win championships. For this season, if the Kings are in contention after the Olympics, look for Lombardi to start sending out feelers for a third goalie with veteran experience on a non-contending roster is a security blanket.

THE FINNISH LINE

This year’s Hall of Fame induction class was arguably the greatest of all time. Steve Yzerman, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull were no doubt, first ballot talents who deservedly stepped in to the hallowed halls at the moment of eligibility.

For the better part of fifteen years, hockey fans in Southern California have witnessed a player whose speed, skill and most importantly class has graced all who’s come across his past. He still toils hard by the Pacific Ocean but as the days in his storied NHL career wind down, the consideration chatter for induction in the Hall has increased.

The ironic thing is I’m not talking about three time Stanley Cup winner Scott Niedermayer. The soft spoken British Columbian is not unlike the members of the aforementioned 2009 class, a no-brainer when it comes to enshrinement. Our subject is a little less serious, has a lot more goals and will be only the second player from his homeland to enter such prestigious company. We’re talking about the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne.

Despite being a first round pick and 10th overall by the former Winnipeg Jets in 1988, it took five years before Selanne came across the pond to play in the NHL and as the old saying goes, it was worth the wait.

At as a mature 22 year old, Teemu shattered the rookie record with 76 goals and captured a first team All Star nomination and Calder Trophy hardware in the process. With the bar set so high in his debut campaign, expectations rocketed in Manitoba as well. While he proceeded to put three more representative seasons on the board for the Jets, he never eclipsed the 30 goal mark and on February 7, 1996 Teemu was traded to the Anaheim (then Mighty) Ducks for the likes of Char Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a draft pick that turned out to be Per-Anton Lundstrom (don’t ask me, I don’t know). With a fledging expansion franchise trying to establish an identity in Southern California, Teemu teamed with matinee idol first round pick Paul Kariya to become the Batman and Robin of Orange County, California.

While the pair made sweet music on the ice, both tallied over 100 points twice in six seasons, the team’s success was middling, only making two post season appearances and not coming close to a Stanley Cup. While Teemu was dealt late in the 00-’01 to the San Jose Sharks as the Ducks were out of post season contention, it never deterred the love affair the Ducks’ faithful had with the Finnish Flash.

Though they had great chemistry on the ice, Selanne and Kariya were polar opposites; Paul was the serious, button-downed team captain, always measuring each word that came out of his mouth while Teemu was the prankster, always joking in the locker room while expressing a deep love and respect for the game. Paul wound up leaving Anaheim and his occasional return to the Pond (as it was called in those days) were met with simultaneous cheers and boos, while Selanne always returned a concurring hero. When you play with a smile on your face most of the time, it leaves a lasting impression.

The days were unkind to Selanne after he left Southern California; his tenure in San Jose was an unmitigated disaster. He never saw eye to eye with task master (and current Calgary GM) Daryl Sutter and when he failed to produce big numbers in the South Bay (28 and 29 goals in two full seasons), things deteriorated to the level where Sutter suggested that Selanne jump back in one of the Porsches that he avidly collects and drive back home to Southern California. When unrestricted free agency came calling and with zero chance of returning to San Jose, Selanne got with his old pal Kariya and devised a plan to bring them a championship, they targeted the Colorado Avalanche and offer their services on the cheap (cheap defined as $1 million for 82 games.) While some cried “foul” and others cried “collusion,” then Avs GM Pierre Lacroix deftly grabbed for his pen and put it to two contracts in the hopes of bringing another Cup to Denver. The duo got the Avalanche to the second round of the playoffs but no more and the grand plan was an abject failure.

At the end of the ill-fated season, Teemu’s right knee was killing him. The on ice explosiveness that was his trademark was gone, affirmed by the fact that he only netted 16 markers for Colorado in 78 games. While he limped home to Finland in pain, as equally troubling to this proud player was the fact that all those goals and points never yielded a Stanley Cup ring. While some observers of the game feel that Europeans don’t carry the same fervor for winning a Cup as they do for an Olympic Gold Medal, Selanne burned to hold the prized chalice over his head just once before he left the NHL.

For this player, the dark days of the ’04-’05 lockout in fact were a blessing. Teemu decided to give it one last go; an operation on that troublesome knee was the only way to go and with not many takers in the free agent market, then Anaheim GM Brian Burke decided to take a flyer on a prodigal son returning home if getting nothing more than good publicity and some tickets sale from the nostalgia of it all.

While a good portion of credit to the miracles of modern science, the dedication of an athlete who at the decrepit hockey age of 35 gave this story a happy ending. Selanne returned to the ice with his old vigor, potting 40 goals and 90 points and being rewarded with the Bill Masterton Trophy (for perseverance) for the ’05-’06 season. While it was gratifying for Selanne, the real trophy he desired once again eluded his grasp, this time thwarted by Chris Pronger and the upstart Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Finals.

Knowing that his team needed even more from him in the coming season, Selanne eclipsed the lofty numbers in the 2006-’07 regular season; 48 goals, 94 points and a plus +26 rating was his answer to the nay-sayers that said, ‘let’s see that trick again.” With Burke obtaining the final crown in the jewel from his vanquishers, acquiring Pronger from the Oilers in a deal at the draft that summer, everything was in place for a championship run.

While the reality was that Selanne wasn’t a pivotal factor statistically in the Ducks relatively easy Stanley Cup run but was no doubt he was the heart and soul of this club. Prior winners like Scott Niedermayer looked at the win as just another accomplishment to add to his credentials, while youngsters Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were too young to appreciate the lengths that veterans had to go to win the most contested trophy in team sports.

Having accomplished everything he has set out to do when he hit the North American continent almost two decades ago and with his contract expired, most surmised that Teemu would ride off into the Northern Lights that embrace the skies above Helsinki. And Teemu did…….until his pal Niedermayer decided that a Stanley Cup ring for his thumb would be the highest level of fashion hockey sense. When Scott decided at mid-season to honor his contract, almost instantly did Teemu ink a deal through the balance of the ’07-08 season and when the Ducks were swatted out of the playoffs in the first round, this was surely the end.

Or was it?

Using the vehicle of unrestricted free agency again, Teemu decided in the days just prior to training camp last season to re-up with the Ducks but as this story has gone, nothing is conventional. Instead of inking the standard one year deal, Teemu opted for a deal that would carry him through the end of this season, just days before the ripe of hockey age of 40.

Though he missed 17 games with a quadriceps injury, he produced 27 goals and was his usual dangerous self on the ice. He helped the Ducks fashion an upset of the number one of overall seed San Jose Sharks and looked forward to a triumphant last season hard by the beach of Newport.

But with the Ducks waddling near the bottom of the uber-competitive Western Conference, it’s not from the lack of effort from Teemu. He’s neck and neck with a player 15 years his junior, Corey Perry for the team lead in goals is still is a major threat in the power play, leading the team in that statistic as well as game winning goals.

As Teemu goes rolling along, the occurrence that seems super natural at times doesn’t go lost on his teammates. While embroiled in a two season long goaltending controversy with his running mate Jonas Hiller, Conn Smythe winner Jean Sebastien Giguere still has time to marvel at the elder statesman, "Teemu is unbelievable, he’s 39 years old but he plays like a 20 year old."

Our thought: If the Ducks don’t quack back into playoff contention, Selanne will be a very hot commodity at the deadline. He’s deadly on the powerplay and would add leadership to any locker room. It’s no mistake that youngsters like Getzlaf and Perry have matured so quickly been in the same room as this future Hall of Famer.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT

Alex Ovechkin ain't Bryan Marchment, so stop.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.

  Archives:
Nov. 16, 2009 Selling the Avalanche
Oct. 26, 2009 Sometimes reality is worse than the perception
Sept. 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup
Sept. 3, 2009 Ray to Heatley's rescue
May 16, 2009 Do the math... 117 is less than 0
Apr. 14, 2009 Wanna Bet?


 

Contact Us | Jobs @ TFP | Advertise | Privacy Policy
 
© 2009 TFP Media, Inc. | All Rights Reserved | The Fourth Period™ and Ice Girls™ are registered trademarks.