In a year when so many NHL starting goaltenders are either injured (Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne) or struggling (Henrik Lundqvist, Jimmy Howard, Cam Ward, Craig Anderson), it is rapidly evolving into the year of the backup (see Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild, or Justin Peters, Carolina Hurricanes) – where in many cases, the understudy is outshining the high-priced, high-profile star.
But no one is writing a better script right now than the Los Angeles Kings’ rookie netminder Martin Jones, who started the year No. 3 on the organizational depth chart, but is in the running for player of the month in December – that is, if it isn’t Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, whose personal rivalry is finally starting to hum again.
Jones, 23, is an undrafted free agent signed by the Kings from the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen because they liked what they saw of him when he came to their 2008 training camp on a tryout basis. Since getting a chance to play following three weeks of warming the bench for Ben Scrivens, Jones merely won his first eight NHL starts, tying a record for consecutive winning games to begin a career – and his strong play is forcing the Kings to re-think their plans for him, with Quick scheduled to return sometime in early January.
Make no mistake about this: Internally, the Kings have known for a while what they had in Jones. He starred in the American League last season and it was his presence in the organization that permitted them to sacrifice Jonathan Bernier in the trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. But they also thought one more year in the minors would make Jones’s game more NHL ready; and in the meantime, Scrivens, who came over in the Bernier deal, would be a more than adequate backup for Quick.
Originally, the plan was to keep Jones around only as long as it took Quick to recover from a bad groin injury and then he’d go back down for the rest of the year, with a view to starting full time in the NHL next season. By then, Scrivens would have moved on – either via a trade at the deadline or as an unrestricted free agent.
But Jones has played so well – his 0.98 goals-against average and .966 save percentage would lead the league if he’d made enough starts – that the Kings are faced with a tough call: Would a return to Manchester actually set back his development?
He looks ready – more than ready – right now; and it may well be that when Quick returns, the Kings will carry three goalies for a while and test the market sooner than anticipated to gauge the interest in Scrivens.
Goalies, of course, are hard to move mid-season. The Nashville Predators were casting about for goaltending help earlier this year, but couldn’t get anything going with the Anaheim Ducks, another California team up to its ears in netminding depth.
The Preds got bad news this week on Rinne – he’s been asked to taper his conditioning workouts for the next two weeks – at which point they’ll re-evaluate where he’s at, recovering from a staph infection in his hip that’s kept out since early November.
Without Rinne, the Predators have been muddling along near the bottom of the Western Conference, getting great goaltending some nights and average goaltending a lot of others, but they have no plans to move on a goalie now – crossing their fingers that Rinne will return sometime in January unless there’s another setback. Rinne is signed for five more years after this one at $7-million per season, so for better or worse, the Predators need to be patient with him and ensure that above all else, he gets over this illness.
If the Kings do make Scrivens available, the problem is going to be getting value for him.