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Young Bernier ready to roll

Times Staff Writer

Former NHL goalie Tom Barrasso became part of an exclusive club nearly 25 years ago. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury are newer members.

And if the Kings’ Jonathan Bernier has it his way, he’ll be next.

Welcome to what veterans refer to as the “goalies not old enough to drink but good enough to start in the NHL” club.

Bringing a raw rookie into any NHL starting lineup is a risk. A couple of poor outings can damage a goalie’s psyche no matter how talented he is. Too many bad outings can mean a trip to the minors for recovery -- the road Fleury took after a slam-bang start. The Islanders’ Rick DiPietro, drafted first overall in 2000, immediately started in 20 games at age 19. He posted a 3-15 record before being sent to the minors. Today, he is considered among the elite netminders. Others don’t make it back.

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“It can be a little intimidating,” said Fleury, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the first overall pick in 2003 and was immediately the starter at 18.

“When I started out, I was super excited because playing in the NHL was always my dream. . . . But I couldn’t help but be a little anxious at first because of all of the All-Stars we had on the team.”

Bernier may not have Mario Lemieux sitting next to him in the locker room as Fleury did, but the pressure will be the same when the Kings take on the Ducks on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London for the first of two games this weekend to open the regular season.

“You want to take baby steps with him,” said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford, a former NHL goalie who played in more than 600 games and on two Stanley Cup-winning teams.

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“We don’t want to be in a big rush to throw him right in there. But, on the other side, he’s really played well and showed a lot of composure.”

With only four playoff appearances since losing in the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, and none since 2002, the Kings are desperate to have someone in net who can make everyone forget all the woeful goaltending the team has suffered through.

Enter 19-year-old Bernier.

Drafted 11th overall by the Kings in 2006, he has had a rapid rise within the organization, starting with his play for Lewiston in juniors last season. Bernier had a 26-10-0 record with a 2.58 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage during the regular season. In the playoffs, he kicked his game up to another level, going 16-1 in leading Lewiston to the league finals.

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Bernier’s stock climbed higher during the summer when he bounced back from an ankle injury suffered in the Memorial Cup and led Canada to victory over Russia in the eight-game Super Series.

By the time Bernier arrived at training camp, the Kings were eager to see what he could do and he was added to the goaltending mix with Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbera and Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

“I got to camp, there were three veteran goalies, so I said to tell myself, ‘Just play like I know and just worry about the game,’ ” Bernier said. “And that’s what I did.”

During training camp, he played in four games and gave up seven goals but made 78 saves for a 2.44 goals-against average.

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“You don’t want to get too overly excited, but he’s showing some very good poise in the net,” said Coach Marc Crawford, who last Friday sent Cloutier to Manchester (N.H.) of the American Hockey League. “For a goalie to play at this age, they need to have a real strong fundamental game.

“He has a sound package, especially with his skating. . . . He has a great foundation to his goaltending game.”

In the Kings’ 3-2 shootout victory over the Colorado Avalanche last Saturday, Bernier played the entire game and improved with each minute, finishing with 24 saves, including some big stops down the stretch.

“He’s a young kid who has shown a lot of promise,” forward Derek Armstrong said of Bernier, who would have to go back to juniors if the Kings take him off their active roster. “He controls the area in there and really plays the puck well, which is really big for such a young guy. But with goaltenders, it’s all about stopping the puck. Making big saves to help your team win.”

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Barrasso knows all about getting thrown into the mix at a young age. In 1983-84, he was 18 when he started for the Buffalo Sabres and went 26-12-3 with a 2.84 goals-against average, which earned him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, the Vezina Trophy as the top NHL goaltender, and a first-team All-Star selection.

Barrasso -- who later won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, played in 770 NHL games with a 369-277-86 record and 38 shutouts -- said it was easier for him to make the jump to the NHL than it will be for Bernier.

“The league is much more demanding now than it was when I turned pro,” said Barrasso, director of goaltender development for the Carolina Hurricanes. “The average player is much better . . . which definitely makes it a more difficult transition than what I had to go through.

“But that being said, I firmly believe that age should not be a limiting factor. It may not be wise to have a young guy come in right away and be the No. 1 goalie, but I don’t see it being a problem for a guy to play 30 to 40 games.”

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Fleury’s experience was different. At 18, he made headlines with a 46-save NHL debut in a 4-3 win over the Kings and registered his first shutout, 1-0, over Chicago on Oct. 30, 2003.

But by the time Pittsburgh’s season was over, he was a fragile goaltender, having finished with a 4-14-2 record, 3.64 goals-against average and an .861 save percentage in 21 games.

After playing in the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout, Fleury still wasn’t ready for a full-time NHL job at the start of the 2005-06 season. He spent half of the time in the AHL and didn’t earn the top spot with the Penguins until last season.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I did,” said Fleury, who has developed into one of the league’s top goalies. “I worked really hard and gave it my best effort my first year. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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Luongo, drafted fourth overall in 1997 by the New York Islanders, made his NHL debut at 20 and played well as a rookie, posting a 3.25 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage in 24 games. He said the key for Bernier will be to control his emotions.

“It is a great time, exciting time but there’s a lot of nervousness involved,” said Luongo, who made 43 saves in his first NHL game -- a 2-1 win over Boston.

Luongo said he would advise Bernier to “try and enjoy the moment. Do the best you can but at the same time try not to do much. Stick with what you’re good at.”

He described his first game as being “very nerve-racking but at the same time it was a dream coming true. You go through so many emotions at that time, it’s tough to stay focused on really what you’re there to accomplish.”

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A big adjustment for Bernier is getting familiar with life as an NHL player off the ice. Barrasso said that’s what makes or breaks a young player.

“I’m sure that he’ll find his most enjoyable part of life in the arena,” Barrasso said. “At that age, you’re living out a dream but most guys struggle with their time away from the rink. It’s about time-management skills and leading the life of a professional player.

“That’s why you usually see it go one of two ways. A guy is either going to make progress right away and his adjustment will be very rapid and you’ll see a noticeable improvement. Or, a guy may get overwhelmed and you see regression.

“Every day is a new challenge for a player at that age,” Barrasso added. “It’s about how you process information and what to do with it. And remember, when you’re in junior hockey, you’re playing against teenage boys. In the NHL, you’re competing against grown professional men.”

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There is one other reason why the Kings would rather be safe than sorry with Bernier.

“We’ve definitely put a lot of thought into it,” Ranford said. “We’ve looked at the DiPietros and Luongos of the world and what they went through. You worry about feeding a player to the dogs too early.

“We all have to wait and see how this plays out.”

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lonnie.white@latimes.com


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