Do good things really come to those who wait? If you’re a goaltender, they just may.
This week, Michael Houser burst onto the scene to become one of the feel-good stories of the season when he made his NHL debut at age 28 after having played a combined 283 games in the minors over the past eight seasons. And in his big moment, the native of the Buckeye State was no shrinking violet. Houser shone in his two starts, providing the Sabres and their fans with a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise dismal season. Houser earned the victory in both games, turning aside 79 of the 84 shots he faced (82 of 87 including the shootout) in the process.
As renowned Buffalo broadcast voice Rick Jeanneret put it after Houser stopped all three Islanders in the shootout Tuesday night: “The legend of Michael Houser grows and grows.”
Also this week, soon-to-be 28-year-old Nick Emanuelli makes his debut on TheHockeyNews.com. What are the odds, huh? As a result, I thought it would be fitting to use my first blog to look at the NHLers whose late-blossoming careers had the biggest impacts since the turn of the millennium to see what potentially awaits Houser as he careers toward his 30s.
(For these purposes, only those who made their debut after their 28th birthday have been considered.)
If the netminders who came before him are any indication, Houser’s two-game sojourn may not be so temporary after all. Of the 18 goalies who fit the above criteria, five (Roman Cechmanek, Martin Gerber, Tim Thomas, Fredrik Norrena and Niklas Backstrom) would go on to play at least 100 games in the NHL. That is no guarantee, but it’s not a bad ratio when you consider three of the 18 were emergency backups and that 28-year-old debutant Pavel Francouz is more likely than not to eventually reach the 100-game plateau as well. That group also boasts three William M. Jennings Trophies, two Vezina Trophies, two Stanley Cups and the 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy.
Comparatively, skaters have a much weaker hit-rate on making it to the century mark in games played. Only seven of the 68 qualified skaters lasted 100 games in The Show. Not a lot of individual hardware there, either.
Nonetheless, here are the five players whose long-awaited NHL careers had the biggest impacts.
Tim Thomas – Boston Bruins (Age 28)
The obvious pick for top billing on this list, Thomas made his NHL debut on Oct. 19, 2002 in a Boston Bruins victory over the Edmonton Oilers. But even after battling his way to the NHL at age 28, Thomas’ work was far from over. He would appear in just three more games that season, and then wouldn’t tend the crease in another NHL game until January 2006 – only months shy of his 32nd birthday. But from that point on, Thomas would go on to win 211 games while putting up a .920 SP and a 2.52 goals-against average, becoming synonymous with the term ‘late bloomer’. The fiery 5-foot-11 netminder led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup, bringing home Conn Smythe honors along the way. In his career, he would win two Vezina Trophies, play in the All-Star Game twice, and (along with Manny Fernandez) would win the 2008-09 William M. Jennings Trophy.
Niklas Backstrom – Minnesota Wild (Age 28)
The OG Ni(c)klas Backstrom had a career marred by a lack of post-season success, having spent most of his time on middling Wild teams. Had the Helsinki native skated in more than the 11 playoff games did, he’d probably still be more revered today. Backstrom paced himself to a career .914 SP and a 2.49 goals-against average in 413 games. He received Vezina trophy votes in four of his 10 seasons, placing third in Vezina voting in 2008-09. Injuries and - perhaps unsurprisingly given the list he’s on here - age would slow Backstrom in the latter stages of his career.
Jan Hejda – Edmonton Oilers (Age 28)
No offense to Jan Hejda, but this may be the only list he has ever appeared this highly on. A classic stay-at-home defender, Hejda never brought fans out of their seats with eye-popping abilities. But some say the best ability is availability. And nobody on this list was more available than was Hejda. The Czech-born defender is the ironman of this list, skating in 627 contests across his nine-season NHL career. His longevity allowed him to rack up more points than all but one of his late-debuting peers.
Derek Ryan – Carolina Hurricanes (Age 29)
No player eligible for this list has more points than Univ. of Alberta alumni Derek Ryan. The diminutive center made his NHL debut on March 1, 2016 against the New Jersey Devils. Ryan would score the Canes’ first goal in what would eventually be a 3-1 victory that night. While he has never been a superstar, the hardworking Ryan has gone on to amass 145 points in 339 career games while providing his teams with a spark of energy whenever necessary. Now 34, Ryan is sure to pad his lead in the coming years.
David Ayres – Carolina Hurricanes (Age 42)
Sorry, Leaf fans, you had to know this was coming. Really, any of the three emergency backups to see game action this millennium could be highlighted here. Obviously, the ways in which they impacted the NHL are wildly different than anyone else on this list, but the stories are too fun to pass up mentioning. Jorge Alves and Scott Foster were the trailblazers, and both captured the hearts of the hockey world during their day in the sun. But what Ayres did was truly special. An emergency backup earning the victory in the biggest hockey market in the World on Hockey Night in Canada? What could compare to that?
Honorable mentions: Martin Gerber, Roman Cechmanek, Alexander Khavanov, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
So there we have it. When you debut at the age most NHLers are reaching their apex, there’s not a lot of time to rack up acclaim. But all those above were able to do just that with their limited time in The Show.
So, that’s what Michael Houser has to live up to. No pressure ‘kid’.