With a beaming smile and bronze skin, L.A. Kings goalie prospect Christopher Gibson drifts between languages, accents and attitudes with aplomb, much as he maneuvers between the pipes.
"He’s an interesting guy," said Kings Head Coach Terry Murray. "He’s a Finn, he speaks English, and when I first met him I thought he was French!"
Despite spending less than two years learning French, Gibson now speaks with a French affectation while speaking fluent English and he can also field questions in his native tongue.
Gibson was born in southern Finland but at 15 he moved to Saskatchewan to join the Notre Dame Hounds. Coming off a Telus-Cup-winning season, Gibson was drafted by Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, where he has spent the past two seasons.
Having moved between three destinations that were hardly tropical oases, Gibson said without hesitation that the winters in Saskatchewan were the toughest.
"It’s a crazy place, I had to buy two different winter jackets to survive there," Gibson said.
Gibson’s Finnish mother worked in England where she met his father, a Brit of African descent. They returned to Finland and had two sons. His father is an accomplished martial artist, a tradition continued by his older brother.
Although Gibson has never taken an interest in martial arts, he believes the discipline and poise that his father developed as an instructor are among his major assets as a goalie.
"It’s all about the mental toughness, that’s all coming from my dad. I think that’s worked out very well for me, I’m pretty mentally tough," Gibson said.
The Kings are banking that Gibson’s unflappable calmness in net and top-tier athletic ability will pay dividends in the future. Dennis Fugere, who scouted Gibson for the Kings, has touted his lateral quickness, skating, strength, positioning, quick glove hand, strong blocker side, and ability to read plays.
Two top men in the Kings scouting department described him as their "No. 1 rated goaltender" and a projected "elite starting goalie."
Los Angeles invested the 49th overall pick in the 2011 draft, their first selection, into Gibson. They did so despite their having an outstanding established starter, a world-class prospect as a backup and two goaltenders that won the AHL‘s goalie of the month award last season.
While many may question the utility of another goaltender, their front office showed no hesitation in snagging Gibson. Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford said that he saw no problem adding another goalie to L.A.’s impressive stable.
"When I started (coaching) I had 11 goalies, and now in the new cap era you can’t," said the former Stanley Cup winner Ranford. "There’s only 50 contracts you’re allowed. It’s totally changed the whole evolution of what you can do as far as developing people."
For now, Gibson will return to Chicoutimi and will likely challenge Sami Aittokallio (COL) for the starting spot on next year’s Finnish World Juniors squad.
After that, he may wind up back in the QMJHL as an overager, in Ontario with the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, or on their AHL squad in Manchester. Gibson relishes the opportunity to compete for slots in the L.A. organization.
"I think it’s important to have people who you have to compete against. It brings the best out of everyone," Gibson said.
In Chicoutimi next season, Gibson will be handed the keys to bus in what will be his second full season as a starter. He beat out incumbent starter Robin Gusse last year, which prompted Gusse’s trade to Rouyn-Noranda.
Gibson then backstopped an undermanned Sagueneens squad to a playoff appearance. He led the QMJHL with a .920 save percentage and his 2.42 goals-against average was second only to Jacob De Serres, who played behind the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
His campaign included four shutouts and two Vaughn CHL Goaltender of the Week Awards. A pair of 35-plus-save, 3-2 wins over Sean Couturier (PHI) and Drummondville’s explosive offense exemplified his game-stealing ability.
He also elevated his game in big spots. In a February contest against Lewiston, he made 16 of his 36 saves in the third period of a 3-0 shutout.
While his season ended with a resounding first-round sweep, Gibson said he looked forward to having a team replete with returners next season and to assuming a major leadership role with the club.
Gibson will also have a new goaltending coach as Marc Denis has departed Chicoutimi. The former Sagueneens alumnus and NHL goalie has become a model for Gibson, who had previously aspired to play like countryman Miikka Kiprusoff.
"(Denis helped me in many ways), to get used to the North American style of play. I really liked him as a coach and as a person too," Gibson said.
Denis has praised Gibson’s projectable frame, athletic ability and competitiveness, a combination of attributes that made him a top-flight netminder in this year’s draft class.
Gibson, a butterfly style goalie, showcased his talents at the Kings development camp in July. He made a quick impression on coach Murray.
"He’s a very competitive guy," Murray said. "This is an 18-year-old player that played a lot–what 40 games in the Quebec league last year–on one of the poorer teams in the league. He faced the most shots and still had a high save percentage over the course of the year."
Lauded not only for his ability to scramble in athletic fashion but also for his positioning and rebound control, both Gibson and the Kings staff acknowledged he has a long way to go to earn such reputations as a pro.
"I find myself still pretty far away right now. There’s a lot of things I have to work on–to get quicker and read plays better," Gibson said. "I think I need to work more on rebound control, too, I think it’s OK at major junior level but maybe not at the pro level yet."
Gibson’ rare introspective qualities were not lost on the Kings staff.
"He asks very good questions. He studies the game and has a good sense for it," Murray said.
Ranford spent much of the development camp with Gibson. While he spared little ink in making a list of improvements Gibson needed to make, he was also struck by Gibson’s maturity and self-awareness.
"He’s very receptive and that’s huge. You need somebody who’s willing to make changes in his game. I don’t try and change goalies, I just try and build on what they have," Ranford said.
Among Ranford’s observations, he said he felt Gibson needed work receiving the rush, maintaining his angles and tracking the puck behind the net.
Further, Gibson has the same tasks at hand that all incoming goalie prospects have. Sticking to posts, finishing saves, sharpening focus, and becoming fastidious about his habits are all adjustments he will need to make over time, Ranford said
"He’s got a real nice set of hands and his ice awareness is already pretty good. We’ve got some real good building blocks in his game," said Ranford, who also had Gibson working hard with strength and conditioning coach Tim Adams.
Gibson welcomes the hard work. After his first visit to California, complete with a workout on the beach, he hopes for a longer, potentially permanent stay in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future.
"He’s very raw. That’s what we’re excited about, he’s got great upside with his athletic ability but he’s got a lot of rawness to his game," Ranford said.