Friday October 19th, 2007

Two weeks ago 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier was in London, England, backstopping the Los Angeles Kings to a convincing 4-1 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.

Today he's riding a bus to Rouyn-Noranda, a small village on the banks of Osisko Lake in northwestern Quebec, where he hopes to help the Lewiston Maineiacs whip up on a bunch of no-name teenagers.

A hard fall? Maybe. But sending their top prospect back to juniors was the right move by the Kings, even if Bernier doesn't see it that way.

He may one day develop into the goaltending savior the Kings have lacked since Rogie Vachon tended the twine. But GM Dean Lombardi and coach Marc Crawford recognized that particular crown was a little too heavy for Bernier's head at this time, and returned the youngster this week to Lewiston after a four-game stint with the big club.

"We protected Jonathan Bernier," Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. "We're protecting [him] from an environment that is not conducive for younger players."

Translation: Despite a series of bold moves over the summer, the Kings remain a team in transition. The losses that are piling up as they try to discover their identity are much easier to handle for a seasoned veteran than a raw rookie.

The four starts Bernier got under his belt were invaluable in his development, but his struggles over the last three games demonstrated the vast divide between the NHL's pre- and regular seasons. Youngsters like Bernier may look like the bee's knee pads in September, but it's a different game in October.

Heading into the weekend, just six junior-eligible players remained on NHL rosters: Boston's Milan Lucic, Chicago's Patrick Kane, Edmonton's Sam Gagner, Minnesota's James Sheppard, Phoenix's Peter Mueller, and David Perron of the Blues.

Every one of them thinks he belongs in the NHL. None would have lasted this long without that belief. But players don't always know what's best for them. To be honest, neither do the teams who employ them. And that's why the decisions regarding their fates are so open to second-guessing.

The goal is to facilitate development that ensures the maximum long-term return for both player and franchise. Some players grow best in the hothouse environment of the NHL, soaking up lessons by osmosis while surrounded by professionals. There will be bumps on the way...alright, a few brick walls...but some players have the ability to take their lumps and forge ahead, all the wiser.Others are better nurtured in an environment where there is less pressure, and a greater likelihood of personal and/or team success.

All of that has to be weighed against contract concerns. An underaged player can be returned to juniors at any time, but after he plays in his 10th game, he burns a year of his contract. As a result, nine games are all most players will get to demonstrate where his apprenticeship is best served.

Here's the outlook on the current six:

Sam Gagner, Oilers

The sixth overall pick last summer, Gagner began to make his case for professional employment while playing for Team Canada at this summer's Summit Series. Unlike his junior teammate Kane, Gagner wasn't expected to stick with Edmonton. But with jobs to be won up front, he seized the moment.

"He's so poised with the puck," one scout said recently. "Adjusting to the speed at which the game develops around you is the one quality that separates the players who stick from those who are better off in juniors. He's made it seamlessly."

But Gagner doesn't simply look comfortable. He's produced four assists through six games. On a team as starved for offense as the Oil, slick playmaking is a quality they can't afford to give up, especially with Gagner holding his own away from the puck.

"He's not the biggest kid, but he has a real intuitive understanding of how to play the game," the scout said. "There are a lot of lessons still to be learned, but I don't think he'd learn them any better back in juniors."

Patrick Kane, Blackhawks

Of the remaining junior-eligible survivors, Kane seems least likely to be voted off the island. The diminutive winger has four assists and is a plus-one through his first six games. He has often been the Hawks' most explosive forward, but has yet to notch his first NHL goal, although he did deliver a beauty that sealed a shootout win over the Red Wings last Saturday.

Kane's goal goose egg clearly hasn't shaken the confidence of coach Denis Savard. After averaging just over 16 minutes through his first four games, Kane has been handed more than 21 of top line duty in his last two. He's a fixture on the second power play unit and is even being eased onto the penalty kill.

"He's been a difference maker every night," Savard told The London Free Press. "He ain't going back [to junior]."

Peter Mueller, Coyotes

The Coyotes are in the same dire position as the Oilers. With few reliable scorers on the roster, they were counting on Mueller to earn a job. That hasn't happened yet, but he's likely to get the full nine games before a decision is made.

Although he finally netted his first point, a power play goal early in Thursday night's game against the Oilers, Mueller has looked overwhelmed against stronger, faster competition. He's relied on his speed and timing to dominate at the junior level, but hasn't yet found that gear in Phoenix. He looks like a player who's sagging under the pressure, but there's a chance that goal might lift some of the weight.

"He has his moments, but he hasn't really shown he belongs," one scout said. "At the same time, who else do they have that deserves the spot?"

Ultimately, Mueller's fate might be sealed as much by external factors as his own play. Josh Gratton is set to return to action soon, and that means the Coyotes will need to create a roster spot. They could free a space by jettisoning one of the three goalies they're carrying, but Mueller's job is clearly on the line.

Milan Lucic, Bruins

Lucic may be the one player no one expected to still be picking up an NHL per diem at ths point. The 2006 second-rounder was given virtually no chance to make the team heading into camp. But the big-bodied bruiser shook off concerns about his skating by finding a way to turn heads on nearly every shift with a big hit, smart positioning, or fearless play in front of the net.

His willingness to drop the gloves was a big reason for his spot on the opening night roster, but Lucic may have secured employment beyond the nine-game mark with a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist, a fight) last Friday against the Kings. He's already graduated to the third line and played a season-high 11:08 on Thrusday night against the Lightning.

At this point, Lucic has to be seen as someone whose development is better served at the NHL level.

David Perron, Blues

The Blues are taking a more measured approach with Perron, who notched an assist against Colorado last Friday in his first taste of NHL action. He's impressed team staff with his approach to practice and ability to grasp nuances, but the lingering concern is that he's not yet strong enough to be effective at this level.

That Perron has stuck around this long is a testament to his attitude and his potential. But the 2007 first-rounder, bypassed during his first year of eligibility in 2006, should be joining Bernier in Lewiston. He's played in just one of St. Louis' first five games, and with the team riding a hot 4-1 start, he's unlikely to crack the lineup again soon.

James Sheppard, Wild

When the Wild cut the older, more experienced duo of Benoit Pouliot and Petr Kalus at the roster deadline, they committed to nurturing Sheppard slowly at the NHL level. Despite his relatively low profile, the decision wasn't surprising.

The Wild have a history of slow-roasting prospects at the NHL level, believing the up-tempo environment, and the occasional game, is more beneficial to the development of some players than a heavier load at a lower level. Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were routine scratches during their first season on the roster -- Burns spent 46 games in the press box in 2003-04 -- but they became significant contributors in short order.

The ninth overall pick in 2006, Sheppard has seen his ice time steadily diminish over the course of his first four NHL appearances, down to a low of just 3:35 in Tuesday's loss to the Kings. He's likely to watch the next few contests from upstairs before he gets another chance to put what he's learning into practice.

Not the most fun way to start your professional career, but you can bet Bernier would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.