“I never wanted to blame any of my challenges this year on my injury,” said Kings goaltending prospect JF Berube when we chatted recently about his first year of professional hockey.
Originally selected by LA in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Draft, Berube had hip surgery immediately following the end of his junior season last spring in Montreal – where he played for a team now owned by former Kings fan favorite Ian Laperriere. And although he came to the Kings’ Development Camp last July, he was on crutches and unable to participate in any of the on ice drills. Ditto for any real action at Training Camp in September. So, to say his pro career got off to a rough start would be an easy summation.
As expected, he was assigned to the Ontario Reign, LA’s ECHL affiliate. Starting at the first rung of pro hockey isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a goaltender either. Jonathan Quick began his career in the ECHL and things seem to have turned out OK for him.
But, Berube had other challenges to worry about – his new team hired their coach just weeks before the start of the season, they had pretty much gutted the roster from the year before and after being ‘the man’ in juniors, he was now going to have to share the net with another goalie.
Yet, in this case, many of those factors might have all been a blessing in disguise because they gave him time to work his way back into peak playing condition.
“It’s something I wanted to put aside and just focus on the good things. You control your mind. So, if you tell yourself you don’t have pain, you won’t feel the pain as much, Berube said. “Of course, having (coaches) Bill Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh working with me on technical stuff helped me a lot. They were watching my games on the internet too when they couldn’t come down here. It helps a lot to get their feedback because you don’t see yourself playing. So, it’s easier when they call you and tell you what you have to work on – and what you’re doing right.”
The stat sheets those first few months didn’t reflect his true capabilities. He opened the season with a 4.30 goals against average in October and was only slightly better in December, posting a 4.07 GAA. Then, it all started to come together.
“Around Christmas time I just started going back to basics and going back to my roots,” Berube remarked. “I was trying to come out strong for the second half and get better. I think I worked hard all season long to play well. But, then the results started coming too.”
Yes they did. He posted an impressive 1.82 GAA in January and a .930 save percentage. He also made news that month for his part in a huge fight that took place when the Reign played the Bakersfield Condors.
However, he was still splitting starts.
“You want to be in net as much as possible,” he explained. “It’s always easier when you’ve played the night before to go back in the net the night after. For sure, it’s a position I’m way more comfortable with.”
Luckily for him, the ‘other guy’ (Chris Carrozzi, a Winnipeg Jets prospect) was called up to the AHL soon after Berube started to find his game. In the month of March he was then able to play in 14 games – twice as many as any other month this season – and posted a 2.19 GAA and .934 SV%.
When the regular season wrapped up last weekend, he had four shutouts on the year – just one behind the league leader. Further supporting his feelings on the second half, three of those shutouts came after January 1.
“I’m ready for playoffs,” he proudly declared.
So are his teammates, the same hodgepodge group that really didn’t know each other when the season started – they just won the Pacific Division title.
“When I first got here there were so many changes,” Berube said while laughing. “Every day there was a new guy coming in and leaving, so I was wondering ‘What’s going on?’ You couldn’t really create friendships and it was a little bit hard. But, eventually it settled down a little bit and that’s when the group stuck together and we started to create more relationships.”
Though all the twists and turns of the regular season, there were also a few funny moments.
“Kyle Kraemer, wow, he’s a funny guy. He’s a special man,” Berube said. “A lot of stuff happened with him. On our last road trip, Kinger (Tristan King) and I did some pranks with the towels. We put some shaving cream in them, stuff like that. There was also Kevin Estrada. He was wearing a Chinese mask (a surgical mask) at one point because he had a cold. That was pretty funny. Everybody was looking at him, like ‘What the hell is he doing?’ But, we have a good group of guys. So, there’s so many funny things that have happened this season. I think everybody on this team likes each other and that’s what makes this group so special. It’s really important that in the playoffs everybody’s on the same page.”
Unfortunately, they lost game one of their first round series versus the Idaho Steelheads last night by a score of 3-2. The two teams will play again tonight in Idaho and then they’ll return home for game three on Friday. The Reign won all four game on the road against the Steelheads during the regular season, so they have to be feeling good going into game two.
It’s a best-of-five series and the Reign are looking for their first playoff series win in franchise history.
Berube thinks he’s the guy to help get the job done, especially after the deep run he made in the QMJHL playoffs last year.
“Those (experiences) are all things you put in your toolbox. For sure it’s going to help me. I’m excited for what lies ahead and it should be a lot of fun.”