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Kings will use group effort to look for No. 1 goaltender

Times Staff Writer

Inconsistent goaltending and the inability to score timely goals have been problems for the Kings since the franchise joined the NHL in 1967. But last season, the Kings made it an art form.

Featuring a lineup in the net that included Mathieu Garon, Dan Cloutier, Sean Burke, Barry Burst and Yutaka Fukufuji, the Kings gave up 283 goals, the most they have given up since the 1995-96 season.

Shaky play in goal was the main source behind the Kings’ 27-41-14 record and 68 points, the third worst total in the league.

But with the opening of training camp today, a new season begins for the Kings and with that, new hope in their annual search for that elusive No. 1 goaltender.

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“We don’t have a Martin Brodeur or a Patrick Roy,” said Coach Marc Crawford, who will begin his second year leading the Kings, who have not made a playoff appearance since 2003 and have failed to reach the postseason nine of 13 seasons since they reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1993.

” . . . What we do have is a number of goalies who are here to prove themselves and a team also trying to prove itself.”

The group that will compete for the Kings’ top spot in net has changed some from last season.

Garon, Burke, Brust and Fukufuji are gone but Cloutier, who signed a lucrative two-year extension worth $6.2 million before the start of last season but struggled, is back. But he’s far from a lock to start.

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That’s because Cloutier is joined by minor league standout Jason LaBarbera, who competed for the job in training camp last year, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, a veteran free agent signed during the off-season, and a couple of young prospects led by Jonathan Bernier, who was impressive playing for the Canadian junior team against Russia in the recently completed Super Series.

“I’m not going to make the same mistake that I did last year when I felt that I desperately needed to name a No. 1 right away,” said Crawford about his decision to make Cloutier the Kings’ main goaltender in training camp last season. “I never let it play out.

“This year, I plan to take all the time we can. . . . We’re not ruling anyone out. Everyone will get an opportunity. Whoever ends up getting the job will certainly deserve it.”

Last season was definitely a season to forget for Cloutier. Having played for Crawford when the two were with the Vancouver Canucks, Cloutier was expected to provide some stability in the net but instead he was rocky at best.

After a slow start, Cloutier began to have hip problems and by Christmas, his season was over after he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. He finished the season with a dismal .860 save percentage and 3.98 goals against average to go along with a 6-14-2 record.

Crawford said Cloutier, 31, is healthy and will get his chance to reclaim the position, but it will not be just given to him this season.

“That would be foolish,” Crawford said. “But I do think [Cloutier] is ready to put all the problems he had last year behind him.”

LaBarbera is the X-factor in the goaltender mix. At 6 feet 3 and 230 pounds, he’s a former most valuable player of the American Hockey League, and last season, he was a standout for Manchester, the Kings’ AHL affiliate, in the playoffs.

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LaBarbera, 27, has been waiting for his time in the NHL for a while now.

Originally selected by the New York Rangers in the third round of the 1998 draft, LaBarbera has played in the Western Hockey League, the AHL and the East Coast Hockey League, along with 29 games for the Kings in 2005-06.

“He’s going to get his opportunity,” Crawford said about LaBarbera, who had a 2.20 goals against average and .933 save percentage for the Monarchs last season. “He deserves it.”

Because of a reverse waivers’ clause in LaBarbera’s contract last season, the Kings were not able to recall him after he was sent to the minors at the end of training camp without waiving him.

But the Kings like LaBarbera, who won the Baz Bastien Memorial Trophy for best playoff goalie in the AHL last season. That’s why the team signed him as a restricted free agent to a two-year contract this summer.

Aubin, 30, spent last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, posting a 3-5-2 record with a 3.34 goals against average and .876 save percentage in 20 games. He will also be an option in camp.

Crawford said Erik Ersberg and Jonathan Quick played well during the Kings’ rookie camp last week. They will get work in camp, as will Bernier, who the Kings made their first round choice with the 11th overall pick in 2006.

“The best opportunity will go to the older players,” Crawford said. “But the younger guys will get their chance too to force us to look at them a little more.”

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Starting at 9:30 a.m. at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, the Kings will hold their daily training camp practices, which are free to the public. Their first preseason game is against the Ducks in Anaheim on Thursday.

The Kings will open the regular season against the Ducks in a two-game series in England at the O2 Arena on Sept. 29 and 30.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com


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