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  • Goaltending depth solidifies Kings' place atop NHL Print
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Wednesday, 03 October 2012 13:12

    The Los Angeles Kings made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup last season on the strength of their goaltending. Their goaltending strength doesn't stop at the Jonathans, Bernier and Quick, and extends all the way down to junior prospect, Chris Gibson.

    When the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last June, their immense strength in goal was obvious.

    After all, Jonathan Quick put forth one of the better goaltending performances in recent playoff history, going 16-4 with a mind-boggling 1.41 goals-against average and .946 save percentage en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL’s playoff MVP.

    But although Quick, under contract in Los Angeles until 2023, seems destined to be the leading man in Hollywood for years to come, the Kings’ stream of great goaltenders flows much deeper. Because beyond Quick and Jonathan Bernier at the NHL level, Los Angeles has former minor-league all-star Martin Jones and promising second-year pro Jean-Francois Berube with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, and a stud junior prospect, Chris Gibson, developing nicely in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens.

    However, for all the Kings’ high-quality goalies, Gibson, a second-round draft pick in 2011, might be the most interesting, quite simply because he almost seems to not quite fit anywhere despite being one of Canadian junior hockey’s better goalies over the past three years.

    Stylistically, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Gibson’s agile movements are somewhat reminiscent of Miikka Kiprusoff. Facially, he looks as if he’s a Fu Manchu away from being able to win a Grant Fuhr lookalike contest. Meanwhile, a native of Karkkila, Finland, Gibson has a conspicuously English surname, with his heritage being shaped when his father, a kick-boxing instructor from England, moved with his wife to her native Finland to raise their two children.

    Finland was Chris’ home until age 15, when he made himself even more of an international man of mystery than his tri-lingual roots—Finnish, English and French— would suggest by leaving home for Canada to play a season of boarding-school high-school hockey at the prestigious Notre Dame High School in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. In his one season at Notre Dame, a school where Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards were once teenage roommates, Gibson led the Hounds to Canada's national midget hockey championship.

    “My coach in Finland knew someone who went to school at Notre Dame,” said Gibson. “He talked to my parents about it, we checked it out on the Internet, went to visit and decided that I’d try it out for at least one year. It’s a very strict place, but it’s a great place to be and play once you get used to the rules.”

    Following his one very successful year at Notre Dame, Gibson’s hockey odyssey took him to Chicoutimi, Quebec, a small, mostly French town 286 miles from Montreal in the mountains of northern Quebec that has a storied legacy of producing top-notch goaltenders unlike any other town in North America.

    For it was in Chicoutimi that the Montreal Canadiens, in their first season of existence in 1909-10, came on a barnstorming trip and were shut out by a local 23-year-old amateur who was so cool under the fire of his professional opponents—and soon to be teammates—that he became forever known as the “Chicoutimi Cucumber.”

    That cool-under-fire goalie was none other than the great Georges Vezina, the man for whom the NHL’s Vezina Trophy was established to honor in 1926.

    For Georges Vezina, Chicoutimi was the launching point of a life that would be both triumphant and tragic, with his incredible highs including winning two Stanley Cups and being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame’s inaugural 1945 class, despite having suffered through the alleged deaths of 22 of his 24 children during either the birthing process or infancy and having his own legendary career ended in 1925 by what proved to be a fatal case of tuberculosis.

    Playing in Chicoutimi’s home arena, the Centre Georges-Vezina, Gibson doesn’t choose to dwell on the past; rather, his focus is just living in the present, playing hockey and trying to be a normal 19-year-old, despite his not really living a normal 19-year-old’s life.

    “You’ll always have your ups and downs when you play for a team with such a passionate fan base,” added Gibson. “This is a small town and people really love theirChris Gibson hockey here. Playing in Chicoutimi teaches you to get used to playing somewhere where the focus is on you, on and off the ice. It’s great because it gets you ready for the exact things that you face as a pro. I feel like I have had a head start having played here.”

    If Gibson has another built-in advantage, it’s that his goalie coach with the Sagueneens, former NHL goalie Jimmy Waite, faced similar obstacles both in terms of playing under the pressures of Chicoutimi and coming up with an NHL team with star goalies ahead of him. He was once a prized prospect with the Chicago Blackhawks at a time Chicago had both Eddie Belfour and Dominik Hasek ahead of him on its very crowded depth chart.

    “What I learned when I was coming up with Chicago is to only focus on the things that you’re able to control,” said Waite. “You never know what can happen in pro hockey. Someone can get traded or hurt one day, and then the team could be looking to you the next day. You never know when your time is going to come, so I try to teach Chris to always just focus on preparing himself since he never knows when his chance will come.”

    So far during the 2012-13 season, Gibson has been methodically continuing to progress after a 2012 postseason where he led the Sagueneens to playoff series victories over the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Shawinigan Cataractes before succumbing to the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs two rounds shy of a berth in the Memorial Cup.

    “It was frustrating,” said Gibson, regarding watching the Shawinigan Cataractes win the 2012 Memorial Cup after having their ticket to junior hockey’s championship tournament punched by a quirky rule that gives an automatic final -tournament berth to a host team that’s decided before the season. “But then again, when we look back, we’re able to say that we beat last year’s champions, which no other team can say they did.”

    Moving forward, Gibson’s first objective is to try to finish his junior career this season by helping the Sagueneens to their first Memorial Cup tournament since 1997, and hopefully set himself up to turn pro with one of the Kings’ minor-league affiliates next season.

    But in terms of the Kings, Gibson, in a way completely opposite of Jonathan Quick’s tinseltown star power, might be the best representative of the depths of Los Angeles’ goaltending surplus.

    Because if a prospect on the level of Gibson was part of an organization with less quality goaltending, he might already be looked at as a possible future savior for his NHL team. But with the Kings, Gibson is part of an organization with enough stability in its crease to allow him to develop and mature at his own pace.

    “I’m happy to be part of the Kings,” said Gibson. “And Quick, Bernier, Jones and Berube are all great goalies. But they actually take a lot of pressure off me since I know I have time to just do my thing and get myself ready for the NHL at my own pace.”

    Meanwhile, Gibson also helps give Los Angeles the leverage to demand a king’s ransom on the trade market if it ever chose to barter one or two of its plethora of goalies to help solidify itself at another position.

    So while the Kings are already Stanley Cup champions with virtually their entire roster intact moving forward, they’ve also stockpiled themselves with a cupboard of elite prospects, especially in goal, that can either get called up or be traded in the next few years.

    So despite being crowned Stanley Cup champions last spring with the fewest playoff losses (4) by any team since 1997, the Kings actually look like a team that may not have even reached their peak yet.

    And that’s something that the rest of the NHL should be scared of.

    Photos by Getty Images


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    Last Updated on Monday, 08 October 2012 00:33