I was one of a number of hockey observers who thought that by this point in time Jonathan Bernier would have mounted a serious challenge for the Los Angeles' Kings starting job, if not taken it over outright from Jonathan Quick. However, there hasn't been much of a goalie controversy at all, and there is no doubt that the 3rd round pick from Connecticut is the currently the clear #1 ahead of the highly-touted first-rounder from Quebec.
Is Quick a better goalie than Bernier? At the moment that seems obvious, based on their play over the last season and a bit and the way the team has distributed the playing time between them. However, it should be noted that Quick has a significant advantage in the battle between the two young goalies, having been born two years earlier. At the moment, Quick is 25 and Bernier is 23. For the sake of comparison, Jaroslav Halak was 25 and Carey Price was two months away from turning 23 when Montreal made the controversial move to trade their 2010 playoff hero away at the end of the postseason and bet on their younger goaltender. Quick is considerably more experienced, with an extra 180 regular season and playoff games in the NHL under his belt. That raises the reasonable question of whether Quick is the better goalie, or whether he is merely the more developed talent for the moment.
In addition to being a higher draft pick, Bernier had also had a better minor league career. If you compare the two of them by age, Bernier's progression was well ahead of Quick's through his early twenties.
At 19, Quick was still in high school, although he put up very good numbers. Bernier was recognized as one of the best goaltenders in the CHL, made the Kings out of camp and ended up with a brief cup of coffee in the NHL (4 games), before joining Manchester at the end of his junior season and starting 3 out of the team's 4 games in the AHL playoffs. Bernier also made Canada's under-20 national team for the world junior championships, while Quick was not selected to Team USA.
For his age 20 season, Quick went to UMass, where he would spend two seasons. At 20, Bernier was already a solid pro, posting a .914 save percentage in 54 games played as an AHL starter. The next year Bernier was even better with a spectacular .937 save percentage in 74 regular season and playoff games, earning the AHL's top goaltender award.
At the age of 22, Bernier joined the NHL seemingly for good as the Kings' backup goalie. He did fairly well as a backup (.913 in 25 games), although he didn't exactly take the league by storm as he had in the AHL. Compare that to Quick, who turned pro for his age 22 season which he split between the ECHL (38 GP, .905) and AHL (19 GP, .922), plus a trio of brief appearances in the NHL.
19: Quick in high school, Bernier AHL playoff starter
20: Quick in NCAA, Bernier AHL starting goalie
21: Quick in NCAA, Bernier AHL goaltender of the year
22: Quick ECHL starter/AHL backup, Bernier NHL backup
Up to that point in their careers, Bernier's development was clearly surpassing Quick's. However, things turned around in their age 23 seasons. Quick started the year in the AHL, but was called up to Los Angeles in December. When he arrived he made the most of his chance, playing very well early on in stopping 94.6% of the shots against and recording two shutouts in his first six starts. With Erik Ersberg and Jason LaBarbera both playing poorly, Quick ended up quickly taking over the Kings' starting job. Over the remaining 37 games he would play in that season, Quick's save percentage was .909, almost exactly league average (.908).
In his 23 year old season, Bernier also managed to record pretty average numbers in the NHL (.913 in 25 games), but he started very slow, losing 5 of his first 7 starts with a mere .889 save percentage. Bernier's early season struggles were magnified by the fact that Quick did very well out of the gate in the same 2010-11 season (7-1-0, 1.84, .936 in October of 2010), further solidifying his claim to the starting job.
This season Quick yet again began red-hot, going 6-1-2, 1.52, .947 in October, before quite naturally tailing off a bit since November 1. That was the third time in the last four NHL seasons that Quick was almost unbeatable in the first month he played, leading to some fairly extreme splits for his young career: so far:
Quick since 2008-09:
First month played: 23-8-4, 2.02, .928
Rest of season: 89-74-12, 2.72, .911
Compare that to Bernier, who for the second year in a row is off to a slow start.
First 7 games in 2010-11: 2-5-0, 3.30, .889
Remainder of 2010-11: 9-3-3, 2.13, .923
First 7 games in 2011-12: 2-4-0, 3.10, .883
Games at the start of the season often take on extra significance because they help establish a team's pattern of distributing starts between their goaltenders and the impact on a goalie's seasonal statistics is more noticeable. Look at how many fans around the league were either pronouncing their team's #1 as a Vezina candidate in November because of a strong early run of form or were panicking because their team's goalie took a while to discover their usual game. A hot or cold start takes longer to average out, whereas a slump in February or March has much less of an effect on a goalie's seasonal numbers to date because they may already have 40-50 games played by that point in the season.
The first few games can also be quite critical in terms of establishing a reputation for a young goalie trying to crack the NHL. It took all of five Jon Quick starts in 2008 before Los Angeles traded Jason LaBarbera to Vancouver and pretty much anointed Quick the starter. If those early starts had included a couple of blowout losses, then the team may very well have decided that LaBarbera wasn't actually that bad after all while Quick was in need of more seasoning in the minors. There is no doubt that Quick's hot streaks were almost perfectly timed to advance his career. The only way he could have timed them any better was if he managed to get on a real roll in the postseason.
I think there is a fair chance that Quick and Bernier are not that far apart in true talent, even disregarding the age gap between them. In the AHL, Quick put up a .923 on 1033 shots, while Bernier recorded a .928 on 3937 shots. Minor league success does not always translate to the big leagues, but it is at least evidence that the two were in a similar ballpark, even though Bernier was doing it at a younger age.
In the NHL, Quick's career regular season save percentage is .914 compared to Bernier's .906. However, if we exclude Bernier's four games at age 19, where he quite naturally struggled like the majority of teenagers do in the NHL at that age, and we add playoff numbers to increase the sample size, suddenly the career NHL save percentages for the two goalies converge quite a bit:
Quick: .913 on 6026 SA
Bernier: .911 on 925 SA
Quick's sample size is much larger, which means we are far more confident in our estimate of his true talent level. In addition, given that the majority of goalies are below average, it is safest to assume that a young goalie who hasn't proven much in the NHL is below average until he has faced a few thousand shots against. Bernier's pre-NHL track record makes it somewhat more likely that he is a real talent, but it is best to remain conservative at this point. Nevertheless, I will be very interested to revisit these numbers after the end of this season to see if they remain similar.
One thing that could be argued in Quick's favour is that his numbers have been trending upward over the last three seasons. However, I'm not sure how much to credit him for that given that his improvement has come almost entirely on the penalty kill.
2008-09: .926 EV, .869 PK
2009-10: .919 EV, .853 PK
2010-11: .921 EV, .903 PK
2011-12: .928 EV, .922 PK
Quick is a better goaltender today than he was in 2008-09, but he has also probably been very lucky on his last 435 shots against while shorthanded as .910 is an unsustainable PK SV%. For comparison's sake, Bernier's career numbers are .916 at EV and .890 on the PK (again, excluding his 19-year old season). Bernier may also have gotten a bit of luck on special teams, or perhaps the Kings' penalty kill has been unusually strong as of late, although his PK sample size is very small.
Looking at the progression and career numbers of the two young Kings goaltenders, it is hard not to wonder about the size of the impact of hot starts as well as Quick's opportunity to compete for the starting job in 2008-09 while there was not already an established starter, when Quick's two year head start in terms of age really turned into an advantage. Bernier is currently on pace to end his age 23 season with a career total of 49 games played. Jonathan Quick got into 116 of them in his age 23 and 24 seasons while competing mostly against Erik Ersberg, who was probably never more than a replacement level goaltender. Even if he starts playing better than Quick right now, Bernier will probably never get anywhere near that much playing time over this season and next.
If the crease didn't open up for Quick and he didn't have hot starts to begin nearly every season, it is certain that he would have played in fewer games, potentially many fewer games. The Kings brought Bernier along slowly, and it is possible that his development may have stalled somewhat given his infrequent usage as a backup goalie this season and last, whereas Quick went from an AHLer to an NHL starter in one season, and as a result his extra games played in the show at age 23 and 24 were likely very significant in helping him close the early career development gap against his teammate. That said, it is also possible that Bernier was never going to fulfill his earlier promise anyway. Even highly rated draft picks sometimes don't pan out.
This comparison reminds me of an article I wrote a while back which discusses the impact of opportunity on another Kings goalie, Jamie Storr. Storr was sort of the anti-Quick in that he was never able to put together a good run when it seemed like the starting job was available to be won, even though his overall save numbers were actually pretty good.
It's always hard to separate talent and luck early in a young goalie's career, when we really don't know enough about them to properly assess their true ability at the NHL level. Right now Quick is solidly ahead of Bernier, but has that been because of talent or opportunity? It may never be possible to figure that out with any degree of confidence, but the years ahead will give some additional information that will help make a more accurate estimate. For now, I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that Bernier is either as good Quick right now or that he will still eventually turn out to be better when both are in their primes. Los Angeles may be facing a Halak/Price type of decision at the end of next season when both goaltenders become free agents, and it will be interesting to what choice they will end up making.