The Los Angeles Kings this season have dipped into their AHL affiliate quite a bit. It's something that has gotten the Kings into playoff contention in the Western Conference, but it's obviously taken some of the best players out of the Manchester Monarchs' lineup.
As a result, the Monarchs, who are in first place in the Atlantic Division and second place overall in the Eastern Conference, will be sending just two players to the All-Star Classic this week. Yet even with a number of their best players contributing at the NHL level, head coach Mark Morris and the Monarchs have been able to maintain their place atop the standings.
"It's been a credit to the leadership of some of our lesser-known players that have great character," Morris said. "The combination of good goaltending and good leadership from within the locker room has put us in a position where we get recognition as a coaching staff. We're honored to be there."
The Monarchs are second in the AHL with just 95 goals allowed in 42 games, so it should be no surprise that their two All-Star representatives are a defenseman, Viatcheslav Voynov, and a goalie, Jonathan Bernier.
Add in the fact that former Flyers netminder Ron Hextall is the team's general manager, and the fact that the Monarchs' goalie is an All-Star becomes even less surprising. Bernier, 21, made his NHL debut in September of 2007, when he was just 19 years old. He stopped 26 of 27 Anaheim shots in the season opener in London to pick up his first win. Yet it was fellow young netminder Jonathan Quick who's emerged at the NHL level since then, while Bernier's toiled in the AHL.
That hasn't stopped Bernier from posting solid numbers. This season, he's 17-10-4 with a 2.05 GAA and .938 save percentage, and he's impressing his coaches along the way.
"He's backboned us from the start of the season," Morris said of Bernier. "Much of the season, we've played opponents where we've been outshot by a considerable number and still found a way to win. That's a very good indication that your goaltending is stellar."
Equally as impressive as Bernier's work on the ice has been his approach off the ice.
"Last year was a bit of a disappointment for him," Morris said. "But this year, he's taken a real mature approach and hasn't let that affect him at all. Night in and night out, he's as steady as you could ever ask for."
Bernier readily admits that last year — a season in which he was still successful with a 23-24-4 record, 2.40 GAA and .914 save percentage — was not his best work, but he credits keeping a simple focus for his strong season this year.
"Last year wasn't my best start, that's for sure," Bernier said. "There was a lot of stuff going through my head, I just had trouble focusing on my game. I was just worrying about other stuff that I shouldn't. But this year, I just wanted to come down and get a good start to the season and I came down here and it's worked in my favor."
Hextall, who spent 13 seasons in the NHL and won the Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy in his rookie season, said helping both Bernier and Quick with the mental side of the game has been the most important role he's played in their young careers.
"The mental side of it, I talk to both, whether they're going through bad times or good times," Hextall said. "It's really the mental part that young goalies have to figure out. The learning curve of having a bad game and people being down on you and you have to bounce back the next game. Letting in a bad goal early in the game, you have to bounce back and use it as motivation. So those are the aspects of the position that are the hardest to get by, and I think both guys have shown signs of positive mental growth.
"They say goaltending is 80 percent mental and 20 physical, and that's not far from the truth."
Bernier said that seeing Quick, who is posting strong numbers of his own in the NHL and was recently named to the US Olympic team, reminds him that the next level is closer than it sometimes seems.
"Yeah sometimes you feel that you're so far away, but at the same time you're only one call or one injury — which you'd never wish for — away," he said. "Something can happen at any time. It's really nice to see that you're that close. I'm only 21, at the same time you want to be there, you have to make sure that you can play at this level."
Even with the solid goaltending, the Monarchs still need to score, and Voynov has proven a capable threat from the blue line, sitting at fourth in the team with 21 points. The number is impressive on its own, but when you consider that he's a 19-year-old kid from Russia who is still learning the English language, it takes on an added dimension.
"For a kid, to be able to play at that level and really be an effective player at that level, that's a feat," Hextall said. "It really is. Essentially, he's a boy and he's playing against men."
Morris has also been impressed with Voynov.
"Slava's a real complete defenseman," Morris said. "Being a young player, you can see a great deal of upside. He breaks the puck out smartly and makes intelligent plays with the puck on his stick. Defensively, he's such a good skater that he's tough to beat. ? I see a bright future for him."
Both Bernier and Voynov will be making their first All-Star appearances, with Bernier playing for Team Canada and Voynov playing for PlanetUSA. However, neither will likely have his freshest legs, with the Monarchs playing on all three days leading up to Monday's skill competition. Bernier, though, isn't worried.
"I'm just thinking that it's a fun game. I don't think there's going to be a lot of pressure," he said. "The fans will enjoy this. Between the game and the skills competition, I don't think that Monday is going to be really for the goalies. It's not the thing you like to see as a goalie, but I'll just enjoy and have some fun with it."
While the AHL is obviously a step down from the NHL in terms of talent, Hextall said playing in the minors presents a different set of challenges that can actually make the game harder.
"As a defenseman there are more mistakes [on the ice]. You're not only doing your job, but sometimes you're trying to cover for your teammates," Hextall said. "As a goaltender, you see more quality chances at the AHL level than you do at the NHL level. Obviously, the shooters aren't as good, but that?s why the training is so good. Because you go through a lot of situations that Jon might have 10, 12, maybe 15 or 18 good scoring chances against him a game. You come to the NHL and it's not quite that much. So it's repetition, repetition, repetition, and that's part of the learning curve to become a top player."
Hextall should know. Selected 119th in the 1982 NHL draft, Hextall spent two seasons with the AHL's Hershey Bears, from 1984-86.
"I remember coming to camp when I was 20 years old thinking, 'I'm gonna play in the NHL,'" Hextall recalled. "I came to camp, got sent down, and it was a disappointment."
Hextall, now 45, can look back on his two AHL seasons and see how much he gained.
"Quite frankly," he said, "the two years that I spent in the American League got me to the point where I was sure I could be a No. 1 goaltender at the NHL level."
That's the position that Bernier and Voynov find themselves in now. Both are young, both have bright futures, and both are taking important steps in their career this week in Portland.