Elephant in the Room

After the Edmonton game, Nick Nickson took a call from a guy pleading for a Bernier call-up. Nickson (clearly irritated, if you ask me) responded with literally everything I've been reading in the comments sections of blogs over the last couple of weeks: Quick got us this far, Bernier is untested, three games is three games, you have to let Quick work through it, think what it would do for his confidence, maybe if he stumbled a few months ago it would be different but right before the playoffs etc. etc..

Until then, I had been dismissive of the idea that Jonathan Quick should just be allowed to "play through it" in the playoffs. I have said all along that, while it made sense to start Quick and give him the first two or three games, there was no doubt in my mind that if the Kings were to be down 2-1 or 3-0 and Quick was playing not well, we would be seeing Jonathan Bernier. I had also taken it as a given that Erik Ersberg did not have Terry Murray's confidence (thus, the total lack of starts in the last several hundred years) and would not be seeing any playoff action as a starter.

But the tone of Nickson's rebuttal to the caller on Kings Talk may as well have been directed at me, me and all the other idiots who think it's not out of the question that we would see Bernier if Quick isn't up to it. Doubts crept in. Maybe I was hasty in being so dismissive. I decided to poke at the Nickson argument, in its constituent parts, see if there's anything there.

(disclaimer: look, I know there's something there, but I'm wondering if it's more substantial than "shut up everything's fine I can't really deal with this right now what can you do lalalanotlistening.")

  • Quick got us this far

Why this is true: Quick set franchise records for games-played in a season and wins. This season, the Kings had their third best regular season in franchise history. Nobody thought the Kings would be in the playoffs (well, some people did; I did).

Why it isn't: goalie wins is not a good indicator of goalie ability (brodeurisafraud and behindthenet are good sources for goalie analysis, and this conclusion is reached regularly); Save percentage is, though, and Quick's save percentage is 31st out of 47 league-wide for the season and off-the-charts terrible since the break. Quick's totals are virtually the same as last year's, so one could argue that it's the overall team game that has made the difference (i.e. Quick is a part of what got us this far, but far from THE overriding factor).

Verdict: I'm not really convinced that Quick deserves credit for this, but I'll give it to him. Mostly because of the Kings' historical goalie standard, which is: a goalie who doesn't repeatedly kill us is exceptional.

  • Dance with them what brung you

Having stipulated "Quick got us this far", the next bit is, does that mean he deserves to get the playoff starts? Is he, in any sense, owed this? Has he earned it?

Why he's earned it: Terry Murray has always preached fairness and frequently discusses "rewarding" players for good play. Quick got us this far, so Murray's system should reward him.

Why he hasn't: Terry Murray has always preached fairness and frequently discusses "rewarding" players for good play. Quick has not been playing well the last 20% of the season, so Murray's system should not reward him. If Kopitar was great for 80% of the season and then not great for the last part, he would change the lines up, wouldn't he?

Verdict: I think "you dance with them what brung you" is canceled out by "what have you done for me lately." And, that whole fairness thing? It's only used when convenient. For example, Moller last year. Murray said it's his policy that a player doesn't lose his spot due to injury. When he comes back, his spot is there. Then, when Moller came back from injury, his spot was gone. Murray said something about the playoff race being important. Ah! The "except if it matters" exception! I expect the same thing will happen if Quick loses two or three in the first round.

  • Think what it would do to his confidence to bench him now

I think of this as the "insanity" defense. It basically assumes goalies are fragile crackpots who have to be coddled.

Why it's true: Goalies are fragile crackpots who have to be coddled. They're different than you and me. Not only because so much of their game is mental, but because they're all alone out there, with no-one to save them from their mistakes. Also, the higher your expectations of a player, the more you have to cater to that player's possibly fragile psychology. (but see the section below labeled "what exactly are our long-term expectations of Quick?") You can't change goalies like you change line combinations.

Why it's not: Everyone has always said, regarding Quick, that he's a tough competitor and welcomes competition, that these kinds of things don't bother him. All along I've been working under the assumption that Quick would not have a nervous breakdown if he was pulled in favor of Bernier. Murray himself, when asked about Quick's fatigue, said (paraphrase) he doesn't care what Quick is feeling, he expects him to man up just like everyone else. This suggests to me that Murray might hesitate to pull Quick in favor of Bernier (or Ersberg) but he will ultimately do it if it's necessary. Last point, Murray and Lombardi might feel bad about abandoning Quick now (and I have never advocated that), but playoff success trumps everything else and if Quick stinks up the place, I expect we'll start hearing a lot about what's fair to the team, and how this is a business and we're here to win.

Verdict: I don't think Murray or Lombardi are looking at this year as a rebuilding year where we're happy just to make it this far. They want to win. Quick's confidence issues, if any, aren't going to get in the way.

  • If he stumbled a few months ago it would be different, but right before the playoffs it's too dangerous

The first thing I want to point out about this defense is that it concedes the point that the "Quick is fine" people are otherwise denying. I have heard a lot of people say that it's not Quick, it's the team, it's the scoring, it's Randy Jones, it's Jamie Kompon, whatever. However, in the time it's taken me to write this post, the point has been conceded; NHL On the Fly, ESPN, the LA Times and others have the "Quick is struggling" story-line built into their coverage . So I'm going to call it: everyone knows Quick is stumbling. The question is, given that, is it really "too dangerous" to make a change this late in the season?

Yes, it's too late: because of the whole confidence thing per above; I guess it could also be too dangerous in the sense that Quick might hold a grudge and not want to play for Lombardi or something; I guess the team could freak out; what else? ... it would be a signal that management knows there's a problem, which would be bad...somehow...

No, it's not: saying "this close to the playoffs" is a bit of a straw-man argument, since I don't think sane people really wanted to dump Quick with a couple of games left. My point has always been, what if he doesn't "bring it" in the first round? If Pulling Quick at this point is "dangerous," what about the specter of the team crapping out amid doubts about who should have been in net? What exactly is this "danger" we're talking about? The danger of the team losing in the playoffs? Well, that would already have happened. The danger of Quick losing confidence? Ditto. The danger of Quick's long-term relationship with the Kings being tarnished? I don't know.

If a goalie sucks in the playoffs, people remember it. It doesn't really matter if you suck and get pulled or if you suck and they stick with you and you still suck.

Verdict: You play the best goalie available. If you have a hot goalie, you play him. If you have a cold goalie or a slumping goalie, you have to consider your options. Whether the Kings have any better options is another bullet point.

  • Every season has ups and downs. You have to let Quick work through it

Why this is true:

Why it's not: You simply don't let a goalie work his way through a rough patch in the playoffs. Maybe you give him two games.

Verdict: No.

  • Bernier is untested

Why it matters: The kid has only played three games. He has proved nothing at the NHL level. Except for, you know, those three games.

Why it doesn't: Bernier has played at an elite level all year in the AHL, and, in his three NHL games, he has been by far the Kings best goalie since the break. He has exactly the same amount of NHL playoff experience as Quick. It's not unheard of for coaches to pull their starter in favor of an untested rookie in the playoffs. There is the famous example of Ken Dryden replacing Rogie Vachon with 7 games to go in the 1971 season, and then leading a Montreal team that had missed the playoffs the year before to an upset of the Cup champ Bobby Orr-led Bruins and ultimately to the Stanley Cup.

Also, Cam Ward (from Wikipedia):

In the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Hurricanes found themselves in a two game deficit in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. Martin Gerber struggled in the series, which prompted Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette to turn to Ward. Ward quickly stifled the Montreal offense, and helped to carry his team to the next round against the New Jersey Devils, where he defeated his personal hero Martin Brodeur.[5] After beating the Devils, the Hurricanes played the Buffalo Sabres, who had their own rookie goalie sensation, Ryan Miller; Carolina won in seven games.

On June 5, 2006, Chris Pronger scored on a penalty shot against Ward in the Stanley Cup Final, marking the first successful penalty shot in the Finals' history.[6] Nonetheless, Ward went on to win the game, turning away 34 shots on goal. He eventually won the Stanley Cup, becoming the first rookie goaltender to do so since Patrick Roy.[1]

And Andy Moog (via Goaltending Legends)

Andy was the 132nd player taken in the 1980 entry draft by the Oilers. The next couple of years Andy apprenticed in the minor leagues with CHL Wichita Wind, where he became an All Star by 1982. In the meantime he did make 15 appearances at the NHL level. He impressed everyone in 1980-81 when the rookie all but came out of nowhere. After 7 games (3 wins, 3 losses) in the regular season, Moog was a surprise started in the playoffs for Edmonton. He went 5-4 as the young Oilers upset the mighty Montreal Canadiens!

After a strong showing like that, 1981-82 must have seen like a bit of a disappointment. Moog spent all but 8 games in the minor leagues. The highly rated Grant Fuhr walked into training camp and stole the starting job from Moog. The Oilers felt that Moog would be better off playing games in the minors than backing up in the NHL.

Moog redeemed himself in 1982-83. It was Fuhr's turn to stumble somewhat and Moog had a spectacular season. He went 33-8-7 in 50 games played and was the regular goalie come playoff time as the Oilers went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before bowing to the defending champion New York Islanders.

  • What about Ersberg? Doesn't he deserve his shot before Bernier?

Why he deserves it: Ersberg has played well lately, redeeming himself from the stink he created in the fall, which is the thing that led to Quick's (often denied but now acknowledged) fatigue in the first place. He knows the system, he knows the players, he doesn't have to learn anything on the job. Ersberg is the safe, boring choice. But I mean safe politically, not safe in the sense that it gives the Kings a better chance of winning.

Why he doesn't: Ersberg has started only a handful of games this year. Bernier has started between 50 and 60. There is no rust on him. Ersberg is barely more experienced than Bernier and has no playoff experience. In a playoff series that would have to be slipping away from the Kings, I find it hard to believe Lombardi would not go to his ace in the hole, rather than face losing the series because (as angry fans would undoubtedly conclude) he didn't go with Bernier in the first place.

Verdict: The rationale for starting Ersberg after a Quick melt-down makes more sense to me than sticking with Quick no matter how he plays. Maybe I'm wrong to be attracted to the sexier plot twist of bringing up Bernier. I accept that I'm prone to that kind of thinking.

  • What exactly are our long-term expectations of Quick?

Kings fans are so tired of bad goalies that we're resistant to letting go of the idea that we've finally found a legitimate NHL #1. The other thing is, as fans, we're pretty sure that if Quick is legit, the Kings will find a way to screw him up. (That's the "why would I want to be a member of a club that would have someone like me as a member" argument.) This is a crazy way of thinking, since Lombardi and Murray haven't been around for the 43 years of futility.  The idea that giving the ball to Bernier (or Ersberg) would shatter Quick's confidence forever I think has more to do with our psychological problems than Quick's. And we have earned our psychological problems, because we all have PTSD from so many years of heartbreak and disappointment.

Everybody knows that at some point a choice between Quick and Bernier is going to have to be made. Most people picture a San Jose-like situation (or maybe it's Anaheim) with a 1a and 1b fighting it out and eventually one guy getting dealt, but maybe not for a couple of years. I subscribe to this fantasy. Others think Bernier or Quick will get dealt this summer to make room for the other one to take the reigns without a challenger in the wings. I don't think this happens in a million simulated summers. I don't think Lombardi will do anything until Bernier has played at least one NHL season. Otherwise, trading one or the other could be disastrous.

As far as long-term expectations go, what do we think Lombardi thinks? Does he know for a fact that Quick (or any prospect) is going to be a star? I don't think so. The jury must be still out, just as it is with Bernier. I think he will proceed cautiously with both players, as assets, but will not hesitate to shuffle assets to put the team in the best position to succeed now.

Lombardi knows that, in the best case scenario, he has Quick and Bernier for three more seasons before new contracts are called for (unless Bernier plays seven more games this season, in which case Bernier is RFA the year before Quick is UFA -- and I can imagine this is part of the equation in deciding to bring Bernier into the fray in the next couple of months). At that point, at the latest, he will not be able to afford both goalies, and there's just no way around that. So in the best case scenario, in which both players emerge as legitimate starters, one is going to get dealt -- at the latest -- during the 2012-13 season. I expect Lombardi is willing to be very patient. He knows he doesn't have to choose between them for awhile, and furthermore that not choosing will increase the value of both assets and ultimately will maximize his return.

But a team can only have one expensive goalie, and Lombardi knows this. So I have to assume whatever expectations he has of Quick are tempered by the fact that he knows that no matter how well Quick plays, if Bernier plays better, Quick is gone. Because, long-term, only one can stay.

Bottom line: I don't think Lombardi will hesitate to bring up Bernier if he thinks Bernier is his best chance of winning in this year's playoffs. After all, he expected Bernier to go down to Manchester to fight through "adversity" and learn how to win. And what was that adversity exactly?

It was Lombardi sending him down.

So why do we think he wouldn't make the same calculus re Quick, and chalk up the fact that he was benched in the playoffs as one of those "adversities" he expects Quick (and everyone else) to work through?

I am pro-Quick and I expect he will pull out of his slump. I've been saying this for about the last two weeks, fully expecting he would have snapped out of it by now. It's important to remember that the last few weeks are really the first meaningful games the Kings have played in several years, so Quick is really in the middle of his first NHL adversity, his first test. And, looking at the game logs, I realized that he has never had a bad stretch this long. I don't really need to add the part about it coming at just about the worst time. Compare this to Bernier, who has spent a lot of time in various spot-lights, international competition, juniors, playing under the microscope in Canada, high draft selection, expectations, etc.. There is an argument to be made that Bernier might just be better built for playoff pressure (and there is an argument to be made that what I said is complete untested b.s., so maybe those points cancel out).

I am in Quick's camp, but I'm not in the camp of "I'm sticking with him even if he temporarily stinks." In that case, if we get there in a week's time, I'm not saying trade him for a 7th round pick -- because that's just crazy talk -- but I do think it's time to take a rest on the bench.