27 year-old goaltender Jason LaBarbera looked to have finally taken the next step. Despite a GAA of 3.00, the Burnaby native's shining 0.910% paced the Los Angeles Kings by a wide margin. However, season-ending hernia surgery on March 5th put the long-awaited keeper on the shelf. With JS Aubin gone to the Anaheim Ducks in a deadline deal, LA's options were Dan Cloutier and an AHL goalie with an .897 SV% and 2.92 save percentage.
And as it turns out, that may have been the best thing to happen to the Kings all season.
Flash back to May 31st, 2007. Since Niklas Backstrom's dominant NHL debut, overage European free agent goalies were hockey's version of small dogs for celebrities. Leading the hype parade was 25 year-old Erik Ersberg. Absent from the national team every single year of his playing career, Ersberg exploded onto the scene in 2006-07, winning Goalie of the Year honors in his first year as a Swedish Elite League goaltender. The allure was obvious, and every GM made a pitch. The eventual winners were the LA Kings, a team on a desperate search for a goaltender.
However, despite all the hype, Ersberg's adjustment to North America did not go as planned. While he didn't make the roster out of camp- Jonathan Bernier did- Ersberg was expected to go down to Manchester and rip it up; after all, he'd dominated an arguably tougher league just a season earlier.
Months later, Kings fans were still waiting. Some had even begun to see Ersberg's one-year contract as a blessing. While not terrible, he failed to rise above 21 year-old rookie pro Jonathan Quick and albatross Dan Cloutier.
And then March 2nd came.
With LaBarbera headed for the OR, Kings management decided to give the struggling Ersberg his shot; Quick, Cloutier and JS Aubin had had theirs. Why not Erik? After all, he'd performer admirably in his only taste of NHL action, a late entry to a game on February 23rd. Despite already behind 5-1, Ersberg came in and played as if it were 0-0. Miraculously, the King came back, tying the game at 5 with 15 seconds left. Ersberg would make 18 saves on 19 shots, allowing just one- the OT winner.
March 2nd was a historical day. Despite being in the league 40 years, the Kings had never had a Swedish goaltender start a game. Ersberg's performance soon made fans realize what they were missing. Despite losing in OT again, Ersberg performed admirably, stopping 33 of 35 shots in a 2-1 loss. He followed it up two nights later with another 31-shot barrage, holding the Kings in until seven minutes to go in the third period.
And on Thursday night, Erik Ersberg posted his first-ever career shutout against the powerhouse Ottawa Senators.
So what are poolies to make of the late-blooming Swede? Well, his current 1.68 GAA and 0.952 Sv% are likely unmaintainable long-term. However, he'll continue to get his starts as he continues to play well. If you need a secondary option down the stretch, Ersberg is an excellent choice. It;s important to remember, though, that LA's defense won't make his job very easy.
And as for next year? Shortlist him as a major sleeper if his play keeps. LA may have found the solution to their goalie problem at long last.