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Bernier goes back to juniors

Times Staff Writers

The Kings, struggling amid a five-game skid, decided four starts were enough for rookie sensation Jonathan Bernier and pulled the plug Monday on their goaltender experiment, sending the 19-year-old back to his junior team.

“The decision to return Jonathan to the Quebec League is the best means to ensure that Jonathan reaches his potential,” General Manager Dean Lombardi said.

The Kings also sent rookie forward Brady Murray to Manchester, the team’s minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League.

“We protected Jonathan Bernier, and we protected Brady Murray,” Coach Marc Crawford said. “We’re protecting them from an environment that is not conducive for younger players.”

That environment might best be described as a negative one at the moment -- missed assignments, a lack of physical play, a sometimes woeful defense and, with the exception of Michael Cammalleri with six goals, a tepid offense.

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The team is 1-5, second worst in the league.

Lombardi, in a conference call with reporters Monday night, made it clear he had not lost confidence in Bernier, who could have played nine games without losing his junior eligibility.

“In no way is this an indictment of him,” Lombardi said. “No way did we anticipate him going this far. When he came in, I thought he’d play half an exhibition game.”

Asked why now, Lombardi acknowledged it had been a struggle. “It almost borders on a moral dilemma,” he said. “You also have to ask yourself what’s best for him and the franchise.

“That’s an enormous amount of responsibility he’s going to have to carry one day. You can’t push that too fast. It may be a nebulous thing, but why risk it at this stage of the kid’s career, and why risk it for the franchise?”

Bernier, who earned a roster spot with a strong training camp, began the season with a bang, defeating the Ducks, 4-1, in London. Since then, the Kings have not won a game. He was in goal the last two games and gave up 11 combined goals.

“He’s shown lots of ability to play and play well; lots of ability to bounce back from goals or anything that could be construed as a mistake,” Crawford said. “But what we’re saying is that not right now. Now is not the time for him to be here. . . . He wanted to continue to try and make a difference, but we’re not going to give him that opportunity. We’re going to concentrate on his development.”

Bernier, a Quebec native who was drafted 11th overall by the Kings in 2006, will return to Lewiston. The Kings activated veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who may get his first start tonight.

Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky said Bernier should not be blamed for the Kings’ problems.

“He was very good in games, but as a team we have not played well,” Visnovsky said. “It’s our responsibility as a team to get it done, and we have not done that.”

After getting physically outworked in their own zone the last few games, the Kings on Monday practiced tighter defense. “We need to get more confidence in our system,” Visnovsky said.

Lombardi said no one on the Kings thought it would be this tough a start.

“We didn’t have any legs. It’s been one of our issues, the way we’ve come out from the beginning,” he said. ". . . When you bring in a lot of new players, a team that is searching for an identity, you’re going to have to find the recipe.

“I don’t think there’s one guy in there that thinks we’re playing up to our capability.”

Asked whether, at this point, he believed the problem lies in their legs rather than their heart, Lombardi replied, “Yeah. I’m not prepared to say that guys don’t care.”

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TONIGHT

vs. Minnesota, 7:30, FSN West

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- 1150.

Records -- Kings 1-5, Wild 5-0.

Record vs. Wild (2006-07) -- 0-2-2.

Update -- Minnesota is the only team in the NHL without a loss, and the Wild is coming off a shutout victory over the Ducks on Sunday.

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Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

lisa.dillman@latimes.com


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