To conclude, I asked Ron Hextall about Jonathan Bernier (and there’s a bonus question at the end). Hextall shared his thoughts on Bernier, who went 30-21-6 with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage on the way to being named the goalie of the year in the AHL. Did Hextall, a former Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner himself in goal, see everything he wanted to see from Bernier this season?
HEXTALL: “When we sent Jon down, the biggest message to him — because he was disappointed — the biggest message to him was, `Jon, go down to the American league and be the best goalie in the American league. That’s what you’re capable of, so go down and do it.’ To the kid’s credit, he took the challenge and he was the best goalie in the American league. There’s no doubt. He continued throughout the playoffs and — I didn’t see a lot of the playoffs, so I don’t like to throw stuff out — but he was certainly as good as I expected him to be in the playoffs. We all know he’s got the talent to do that, and mentally I think he grew immensely this year. That was the biggest part. When you say, `Where does a young goalie have to grow?’ a lot of times it’s between the ears, and for Jon it certainly was. I know we’ve talked about this, but he went down there last year and essentially — he didn’t waste a half a year, because you learn a lot of lessons from spinning your wheels — but he basically spun his wheels for half the year, probably feeling sorry for himself to some degree because he wasn’t in the NHL.
“This year, he didn’t waste a second. He went down there, right from the start and took the bull by the horns. `I’m going to be the best goalie in the American league,’ and his consistency was outstanding. That’s the biggest thing, when you talk about mental things for a goalie. Night after night, you’re consistent and locked in and you’re really growing mentally. That was the biggest part for him this year.”
Question: What’s the next step, then? You guys challenged him, and he essentially did everything you asked. You’ve got Quick here and you’ve got Ersberg under contract still. What’s the message to Bernier now? What’s the next challenge in his development?
HEXTALL: “The next challenge for him, and basically what I told him at the end of the year, is, `OK, Jon, you did everything we asked. Now you’ve got to get yourself in the best possible shape” — and he’s good at that, every year he comes to camp in real good shape — “and you’ve earned a platform to challenge for the job this year. That’s what you’ve earned. You haven’t earned the job. You’ve earned the right to challenge for the job, so get yourself into shape and come to come ready to challenge to win the job.’ That’s where it’s at. He’s not guaranteed anything, but he earned the right to challenge.”
Also, I asked Hextall about the thought — one that seems to be valid — that while the Kings have a lot of top prospects on the back end, they might be thin on pure scorers at the AHL level, particularly on the wings…
HEXTALL: “That’s hard to say, because so many times, a centerman will move to the wing. So do we have top-six talent there? Yeah, there is some top-six talent there, but to ask a kid to move into a top-six role, at the ages they’re at, no, there’s no chance. So I don’t see, with anybody we’ve got down there right now, us snapping our fingers and saying, `OK, we’ve got a top-six guy here next year.’ So, no, I don’t see that at this time.”
Question: So it would sort of be like a Wayne Simmonds stepping up into a top-six role and someone stepping into his top-nine role. That would be fairly common, right?
HEXTALL: “Absolutely, because if he’s going to be a top-six guy (in the NHL) next year, in all likelihood he’s in the NHL right now, maybe in a top-nine role.”