hot in Los Angeles
By Doug Ward
Special to NHL.com
Nov. 11, 2005
From the deck of his new apartment in the fashionable enclave of Marina del Rey, Los Angeles Kings rookie goaltender Jason LaBarbera sounds like a man who has finally found his place in the sun.
"I'm standing outside my place right now," the Burnaby, B.C., native is saying by phone on a recent off-day, "and I can see the ocean. It's very relaxing. People call me from back home and tell me how cold it is, but it's always warm here."
Maybe it's the time of year in Los Angeles, and maybe it's just time. Either way, LaBarbera has been rather warm lately, too.
After just two months in Los Angeles, LaBarbera, 25, is beginning to assimilate into the local culture. LaBarbera, who recently ditched the hotel he was living in next door to the Kings' practice facility in favor of the new waterfront digs, also has moved himself into a regular place in the Kings' net.
LaBarbera began the season in a goaltending rotation with Mathieu Garon, but his strong early season play has gotten him into 11 of the Kings' first 16 games.
Although Kings coach Andy Murray refuses to name a No. 1 netminder, LaBarbera has started five consecutive games. The former Ranger farmhand has posted an 8-2-1 record, 2.44 goals-against average, and .915 save percentage to launch his NHL career. His eight wins are fourth in the League, while his goals against average and save percentage are both eighth best in the NHL.
LaBarbera's surprising early season play in goal has been a large factor in the Kings' strong start. With a 10-5-1 record and 21 points, Los Angeles currently sits atop the Pacific Division. After being drafted by the Rangers in third round in the 1998 Entry Draft, he played in just five career games in New York before signing a two-year deal with the Kings as a free agent last summer.
"It's been awesome," LaBarbera says of the bump his career has gotten since he arrived in Los Angeles. "It's what every guy dreams of happening."
LaBarbera's low-tech goaltending philosophy revolves around his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame.
"I'm a big guy," LaBarbera says, "and common sense tells you that the more net you take up, the less net there is to shoot at, so I try to take up as much room as I can."
LaBarbera began playing goal as a five-year-old in British Columbia. "I fell in love with it right away," he says. "It appealed to me because it looked pretty cool and seemed like a unique position."
A lifelong Canucks fan, LaBarbera says former Vancouver goaltender Kirk McLean was one of his early influences.
"Kirk was the guy I always looked up to," LaBarbera says. "I kind of modeled my game after him."
On Broadway, LaBarbera briefly found himself serving as an understudy to McLean. Backing up his boyhood hero remains one of LaBarbera's biggest thrills to date.
"It was pretty cool," LaBarbera says, sounding pretty cool himself.
If McLean's influence laid the early groundwork for LaBarbera's career, goaltending guru Benoit Allaire put the finishing touches on it.
Allaire, who had previously tutored such goaltending luminaries as Sean Burke, Brian Boucher, Jose Theodore and Nikolai Khabibulin, worked wonders with LaBarbera last season at Hartford of the American Hockey League.
"I learned more in one year with Benoit than I did in my entire career before that," LaBarbera says. "He completely changed my game."
LaBarbera honed his skills under the tutelage of goaltending guru Benoit Allaire.
In addition to tapping into Allaire's goaltending expertise, LaBarbera learned about work ethic from the coach. "He's one of the hardest working coaches that I've ever seen," LaBarbera says.
Wrapping his mind around the simple but unlikely concept that sometimes the best move for a goaltender is no move at all has been one of LaBarbera's greatest lessons.
"You have to be patient," LaBarbera says, "and it's not always easy. I try to stay on me feet for as long as possible, read the play and react to it."
LaBarbera calls his hybrid style, "part stand-up, part-butterfly, sort of a mix."
That style combined with LaBarbera's size has resulted in a long line of pucks hitting LaBarbera before deflecting harmlessly away, and an impressive line of stats on the back of his hockey card.
LaBarbera posted a 31-16-2 record at Hartford last season with a 1.84 GAA and .934 save percentage. His efforts earned him the Harry "Hap" Holmes Trophy (which he shared with Stephen Valiquette) for fewest goals allowed in the AHL. A year earlier, LaBarbera earned AHL MVP honors by posting a 34-9-9 record with 13 shutouts and a 1.59 GAA for the Wolf Pack.
The numbers caught the eye of Kings General Manager Dave Taylor, who signed LaBarbera in August.
"He has a tremendous upside," Taylor says. "We really like his size."
"If you're big and you have patience," Kings assistant coach John Van Boxmeer says, "you'll be in the right place at the right time. Stay upright and a lot of pucks are going to hit you. That's what Jason has been able to do for us this season."
Says Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy: "He's a huge guy and he gets in front of the shooter and takes up a lot of the net. The team has really responded to him."
LaBarbera, who played in one game for the Rangers during the 2000-2001 season, and appeared in four more during the 2003-04 campaign, says the speed and flow of the game has picked up considerably since he made his NHL debut.
"There's no clutching and grabbing, and that has really sped the game up. The flow has picked up and the games are more high-scoring."
The changes have made LaBarbera's job twice as challenging.
"You still get the goals that are scored on deflections and rebounds," he says, "but now you get the pretty goals, too, so there are twice as many ways for a team to score on you."
Back in Marina del Rey, LaBarbera sounds like a guy who'd like to settle in and keep his bags unpacked for a while.
"I've really enjoyed it here, so far," LaBarbera says. "When you leave the rink, it's very relaxing. You've got the beach right here, and everything is green."
The young goaltender in Los Angeles is green, too. But, by splitting time between a waterfront deck and the Kings' goal crease, Jason LaBarbera just might be ready to ripen in Los Angeles.
Last Updated: 11 November 2005