One of the feel-good stories in the NHL right now is the recent return of Brian Boucher.
It was lost in the shuffle on another crazy NHL trade deadline day last Tuesday but the Sharks put out a release saying they had signed the 31-year-old netminder for the remainder of the season.
Which immediately begged the question – where have you been Brian Boucher? Was it not just yesterday that you were a first-round pick and a No. 1 goalie in Philadelphia?
“I sit back and I ask myself that same question,” Boucher told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “It just seems to have been too dramatic of a drop-off. At first it really is a blow to one’s ego to go from getting a chance to play as the No. 1 goalie to completely out of the league.”
Boucher says it’s especially frustrating and perplexing because he feels he’s a better goalie today than when he broke into the league with the Flyers.
He was still a No. 1 goalie in Phoenix four years ago, appearing in 40 games, when the NHL lockout came. Then it went bad.
“The lockout, from a personal standpoint, hurt me,” said Boucher. “I only played for six weeks in Sweden that year (2004-05) and then I got hurt right out of gate in camp after the lockout. I was out three months with a groin injury.
“I fell behind the 8-ball there and it’s been trying to play catch-up after that.”
He’s appeared in only 33 NHL games since the lockout and certainly not with the same team.
“After Phoenix there were stops in Calgary (three games), Chicago (15 games), Columbus (three games),” says Boucher. “They were just little pit-stops.”
Shoulder surgery last summer didn’t help his chances to land an NHL job. But he also wanted to get some games under him after being a bit part in his last few “pit-stops.”
He signed an AHL contract with the Philadelphia Phantoms and play he did, to the tune of 42 games this season. He posted a 23-16-1 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
“This year was the chance to come back and play, which was nice for me,” said Boucher. “As opposed to just kind of practising and just hanging around. It was nice to play some games and get my game back.”
The Sharks decided they needed an experienced backup for star Evgeni Nabokov. That allows youngsters Dimitri Patzold and Thomas Greiss to get proper playing time in the AHL as opposed to sitting on the bench in the NHL.
More importantly, should something happen to Nabokov, the Sharks know they’ve got a guy in Boucher who can do the job.
“I’ll get in there on some nights and give Nabby a rest so he can be fresh come playoff time,” Boucher said of his role in San Jose. “I think that’s a good gameplan.”
Head coach Ron Wilson gave Boucher a start right off the bat last Friday and he responded with a 24-save shutout against St. Louis.
“It really felt terrific,” said Boucher. “You don’t expect that to happen in your first game. …
“That helps you feel like you’re part of it.”
He’s back, and he hopes for good.
“Hopefully that stop in the American League this year was just that – a stop along the way,” said Boucher, who has played in 221 NHL games. “Hopefully I can parlay this into a good second half of my career.”
The last three years have been trying to say the least.
“It’s been a hell of an experience for me, a life experience, to go through these types of things,” said Boucher. “I think I’m a stronger person for it. I think I’m much more grateful for the opportunities that I have gotten here recently. And I’m better prepared to deal with whatever is thrown my way.”
Boucher is just the latest example of how tough it is to keep a regular netminding gig in the NHL. There are only 60 full-time jobs.
Ty Conklin began the season in the AHL, No. 3 on the depth chart in Pittsburgh, before injuries gave him a chance. He now leads the NHL with a .927 save percentage.
Boucher isn’t surprised, having played against Conklin earlier this season in the AHL.
“The timing was right. He came up and did a hell of a job for them. Good for him,” said Boucher.
The man who replaced Boucher in Philadelphia six years ago is no longer in the NHL either. Robert Esche is playing in Russia this year – just another example of a goalie exiled.
“I almost ended up there, too,” said Boucher. “I got an offer in December to go for the last four months for a lot of money but I decided not to do it.
“Hopefully it was the right decision.”