ONTARIO — It is 44.7 miles from Citizens Business Bank Arena to Staples Center, as Google Maps measures it.
For Ontario Reign goalie Jean-Francois Berube, that stretch of the 10 Freeway might as well be under a SigAlert, so thick is the traffic between his current workplace and his ultimate ambition.
Berube, the Kings’ fourth-round pick in 2009, hopes to ultimately be a part of their goaltending conversation. In his first full pro season, the 20-year-old from Montreal was 17-13-3-1 with a 2.87 goals-against average, four shutouts and a .907 save percentage for the Reign in 37 games. His numbers were significantly better after New Year’s as he shook off the effects of offseason hip surgery.
“We’re finally seeing the guy that we drafted, and we’re excited about his future,” Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford said in a phone interview.
Ah, but there’s that traffic.
While Berube is trying to help move his team along in the ECHL playoffs, likely Vezina Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick and backup Jonathan Bernier — at one point the hot prospect — are in Los Angeles. Reign alumnus Jeff Zatkoff and Martin Jones are in the AHL at Manchester. And 2011 second-round pick Christopher Gibson, still in juniors, presumably will be heard from as well.
“They’re all good goalies,” Berube said. “There’s a reason they’re there. But at the end of the day the only thing I can control is myself. You (waste) your time just looking at them and trying to find a way to go up. At the end of the day, if you perform well where you’re at, you’re going to get your chance.”
Early on, Berube had to be wondering about that chance. He’d been playing with a bad hip his last two years of junior hockey, and at the Kings’ behest he underwent surgery at the end of last May to repair a torn labrum.
He was on crutches for three weeks — “you don’t realize that in three weeks you almost forget how to walk,” he said — and was off the ice for the entire summer, a huge handicap for a young goalie.
“He never really had his skates on till training camp,” Reign coach Jason Christie said. “There’s not much time on the ice there, and then boom, you’re right into games, right into practice.”
The results, immediately after he reported to Ontario, were sometimes cover-your-eyes grisly. In his Reign debut, Oct. 14 against Bakersfield, he gave up five goals in 20 shots. He gave up four each of the next two games and six in two periods against Alaska on Nov. 11, before starting to find a rhythm.
Around the first of the year Berube hit his stride, posting an impressive 1.82 goals-against average in five January games while splitting time with Winnipeg Jets prospect Chris Carrozzi. When Carrozzi was called up to the AHL, Berube got 14 of a possible 16 starts in March — and responded with a 2.19 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
“He struggled early in the season finding pucks,” said the Kings’ Ranford. “He wasn’t moving right. Even though the hip was repaired and healthy, there was a lot of hesitation on his part to do the things he needed to do to be successful. It was kind of a confidence thing; once he got to that point where he was more confident about what he was doing in net, it got better.”
“I’ve got to give credit to Jason for sticking with him and giving him an opportunity to find his way. The thing we also forget about is that he’s a first-year pro, living on his own, having to take care of himself. Then he’s coming into a situation where he’s going from French being his first language into an English community. … That might have been part of the scenario to where it took time to find his way.”
Berube, who was 32-7-8 with a 2.60 goals-against last year in juniors, said his confidence and self esteem did take a hit the first part of the season.
“Not being on the ice, I wasn’t too sure how my body was reacting and I didn’t feel really good,” he said. “But when you work hard and you put in all the effort, you get results.”
If the results are good enough, it’s surprising how quickly the traffic clears.