Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hat tip to LaBarbera

It was great to see Jason LaBarbera get a little bit of spotlight time there last night, picking up a win on Hockey Night in Canada against the Oilers.

It's certainly been a long time coming.

I was thinking tonight, watching the game, that I've been watching him tend goal now for at least the last decade, going way back to his junior days as the star on those god-awful Portland teams in the late '90s. The Dub used to always have a Best of the West poll where they'd ask coaches and GMs which players were the 'best' in a variety of categories, and despite the fact LaBarbera was on a team that went 39-85-20 from 1998 to 2000, he won the 'top goaltender' vote both his years as starter in the WHL.

Getting recognition as a good goaltender on a bottom feeder is tough to do.

Kamloops was a pretty good team back then, putting up 48 wins in 1998-99 thanks in no small part to Robyn Regehr on the back end. But every time that Winter Hawks team came to town, you knew you'd have a game on your hands, with scrappy players like Brendan Morrow and Andrew Ference, and a goalie who always seemed to stand on his head despite facing 40 shots a night. (His first start in Kamloops was his third-ever junior game, on Oct. 11, 1996, when he was just 16. LaBarbera picked up a win, allowing only two goals. Not a lot of visiting 16 year olds won at Riverside Coliseum in those days.)

Anyway, there are all kinds of great goaltenders that came through the Dub and never amounted to anything, and given LaBarbera was a third-round pick, a destiny as a career AHLer wouldn't seem too out of line. But in the interim, between taking Spokane to the WHL finals in 2000 (he was traded there from Portland near the trade deadline of his last junior season) and beating the Oilers last night, LaBarbera took quite a sojourn through hockey's minor leagues. (After winning the AHL's top 'tender award in 2003-04, he was denied a chance at an NHL job by the lockout in 2004-05, the Dan Cloutier signing in 2005-06 and by a ridiculous rule in the CBA last season.)

It's not all that often a guy who's soon to be 28 years old finally gets his shot, but that's exactly what we're seeing here.

Tyler Dellow's been backing this guy for quite a while, mainly from a statistical perspective (apparently not a lot of starters put up a .933+ save percentage), and he took issue with my post a few weeks back saying the Kings were in trouble between the pipes. Jonathan Bernier had won the starting role coming out of camp given Cloutier and LaBarbera both were sporting a 5.00+ goals against average coming out of preseason (LaBarbera was especially awful, allowing six goals in a lone exhibition tilt and failing to make a single save in a game against an Austrian club during the team's European escapades. There's a reason they went with the 19-year-old.)

LaBarbera then allowed four goals in his first regular-season start, and five in his second 10 days later. It took another eight days, and Bernier's demotion and a flame out by Jean-Sebastien Aubin, for him to get in goal again.

Since then, it's been rosy for LaBarbera and the Kings: Four consecutive wins, and only four goals allowed (although these weren't against offensive juggernauts). Given his pedigree, and the pretty numbers put up in the AHL since turning pro, that shouldn't be a surprise.

Here were my thoughts on him back in October, 2005 (before a personal situation derailed a prominent rookie season):
Jason LaBarbera, goal, Los Angeles. Why he's not their starting goaltender already, I'm not exactly sure. LaBarbera has been one of the league's best netminders this year, and my guess is that after Mathieu Garon's gaffe last night with 27 seconds remaining, the youngster will be getting a lot more starts. Projects: Franchise goaltender.
But, hey, this season, I was wrong: It was too early to give up on the guy — even if his team already had. He'll be 28 in January and probably a bona fide NHL starter by then, too.

And I have a feeling I'll owe Tyler a drink come April. (If he stops sending me snarky, I-told-you-so emails by then, that is.)

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At 9:58 a.m., October 28, 2007, Blogger Lowetide said...

Excellent article, James. Thanks for this, I didn't realize from whence he came.


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