ANAHEIM, Calif. – A mere three weeks ago, Jonas Hiller was gearing up for the playoffs during another strong season as the Anaheim Ducks’ starting goalie.
After a few poor starts got him benched to end the regular season, Hiller now appears to be the top-seeded Ducks’ last resort in net in the first round against Dallas.
The Swiss Olympian is trying to stay positive for his teammates, but Hiller is undeniably dismayed.
“I’ve definitely not been the happiest guy to be around lately,” Hiller said Monday. “You can ask my wife.”
Hiller won 29 games during the Ducks’ best regular season in franchise history, but he realizes he’ll likely watch one of Anaheim’s two rookie goalies make his playoff debut at Honda Center on Wednesday.
Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have 31 combined games of NHL experience, but they’ve both seized the opportunity created by Hiller’s minor slump. Hiller is still featured prominently on the wallpaper on the Ducks’ website, but that might be the only place Anaheim fans can see the soon-to-be free agent in uniform again unless the rookies falter.
“I’ve had a few sleepless nights,” Hiller said. “The whole situation isn’t easy, but at the same time, I’m here in the playoffs, we had the best record in Ducks history, and I know I’ve been a big part of it, so it’s not really a reason to hang your head.”
The Ducks (54-20-8) have the Western Conference’s best record and a Pacific Division title heading to the post-season. What they don’t have any more is a clear-cut starting goalie.
Yet coach Bruce Boudreau and captain Ryan Getzlaf both claimed that’s not a problem as they began preparations for Dallas.
“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” Boudreau said. “The good news is you see (Hiller) out there working really hard. I think we’re in a position where we have three good goalies. I don’t think I can screw it up too bad, whoever I choose.”
Hiller has been the Ducks’ starting goalie for most of the past half-decade, starting when he seized the job from beloved veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere during the 2008-09 season. He has won a playoff series and made an All-Star team while providing steady netminding for an up-and-down club that has frequently played inept defence in front of him.
But Hiller has known for months that he could be headed out of Orange County. His contract expires this summer, and he hasn’t received an extension from a team with most of its key parts locked up for several years.
“Not knowing what’s going to be next season and all that stuff makes it even a little tougher,” Hiller said. “But at the end, the further we go, the better I think for everybody. I really hope I’m going to get another chance, but if not, I want to be able to help the team no matter what.”
The Ducks’ apparent decision to relegate Hiller to the bench is based on his recent play, but it’s also likely influenced by their future. If they let Hiller walk, the Ducks need to know their youngsters can handle the job. So far, they’ve been solid.
Andersen, a 6-foot-4 Dane with a powerful net presence, hasn’t lost a start since mid-March, going 20-5 with a .923 save percentage as Hiller’s backup this season.
The 20-year-old Gibson is widely considered the strongest goaltending prospect in hockey. Although he was only called up when a minor injury sidelined Andersen recently, Gibson was named the NHL’s second star for last week, allowing just four goals while winning his first three big-league starts.
The Ducks seem confident either rookie can withstand the pressure of a post-season run with no prior experience on that stage.
“I’ve seen kids step up and run with things all the time,” said Getzlaf, who won a Stanley Cup title during his second NHL season in 2006-07. “Sometimes it’s better not to know what’s going on. You just go out there and play. You always hear that old saying, ‘The dumb kids don’t know any better.’ We were like that when we were young. We just went out and played and enjoyed the moment, and we’re just hoping our goaltenders can do that.”
Hiller said he’ll be rooting for the rookies along with his teammates, while still hoping for a chance to finish what he started in Anaheim six seasons ago.
“If you want to go all the way, you probably play 20-plus games,” Hiller said. “And 20 games ago, I had three shutouts in four games, so it can go quick either way.”