ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peter Budaj has the net all to himself, no Jose Theodore standing in his way.
The Colorado Avalanche allowed the free-agent Theodore to bolt for Washington on the presumption that Budaj was prepared to step in.
Budaj appreciates the team’s faith, and now wants to reward it.
“They gave me the chance, telling me I’m the guy,” Budaj said Tuesday after practice. “I’m going to do my best and show them I’m capable of being the No. 1.”
The just-turned 26-year-old goalie fully expected Theodore to be back this season, especially given the way Theodore played toward the end of the season. He helped the Avalanche steal a first-round playoff win over Minnesota (before being swept by Detroit in the next round).
However, Colorado had other plans in mind – Budaj.
“We’ve been grooming him for this day,” said Avalanche coach Tony Granato, now in his second stint in charge of the team. “He’s a kid that’s ready.”
The promotion heaps a soaring sense of responsibility on Budaj. After all, this is a squad that Joe Sakic believed enough in to put off retirement and come back for a 20th season.
Budaj said he won’t let the pressure buckle him.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to play great,”‘ Budaj said. “It’s something like, ‘The coaching staff trusts me, the owner trusts me, the team trusts me and so I’ve got to do my best.’ I’ve got to be able to look at the mirror after every game and say I did my best.”
Budaj definitely has help in front of him with a dependable defence that includes Adam Foote, Ruslan Salei, Scott Hannan, John Michael-Liles, Jordan Leopold and Brett Clark.
“Our defence looks awesome,” Budaj said with a giant grin. “I’m very confident.”
Budaj played second fiddle last season, seeing action in 35 games, going 16-10-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average.
The season before, Budaj took over for a struggling Theodore and won 31 games, going 13-1-2 down the stretch as the team made a last-gasp playoff push that wound up short.
Budaj’s performance during the ’06-07 season proved to the Avalanche that he could handle the job.
“He deserves the opportunity,” Granato said. “He’s put in the work and done what we’ve wanted.”
As an insurance policy, the Avalanche brought in Andrew Raycroft, who was bought out of his contract and waived by Toronto in June. Raycroft said he’s prepared for any role.
“You come in and work hard and play well when you get in,” Raycroft said.
Raycroft started only 16 games last season for the Maple Leafs, going 2-9-5 and allowing almost four goals a contest.
“I’ve got to get back to the way I can play,” Raycroft said.
After all, he’s a former rookie of the year, winning the Calder Trophy in 2003-04 while with the Boston Bruins. He went 29-18-9 with a 2.05 goals-against average that season.
“I just have to work hard,” said Raycroft, the proud co-owner of a fantasy football team with Budaj that’s performing quite well. “It’s not a question of whether I can do it, it’s a matter of going out and doing it. You just have to work at it and good things happen.”
That has been Budaj’s credo as well.
“I’ve worked for this and I’m ready for it,” Budaj said. “It feels good to know the coaching staff is behind you.”
The fact that he won’t be pushed by Theodore, a former league MVP, is also a relief, even if they are close friends.
“It’s a big chance for me,” Budaj said. “It’s always something I dreamed about and wanted to do. I wish him (Theodore) all the best, he’s going to do great. Right now, I’m happy and focusing on helping (the team) win hockey games.”