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If there was a 'season saver’ award, Kings' Budaj would be runaway winner

Peter Budaj was an afterthought in Los Angeles when the season began, but with Jonathan Quick out and the club scrambling for a starter, the 34-year-old has stepped in and become the Kings’ most valuable player.

It’s amazing how a few months has changed the conversation around the Los Angeles Kings. 

When Jonathan Quick went down on opening night with a groin injury — one severe enough he was set to be on the shelf for three to four months — there was an urgent feeling in Los Angeles that the Kings needed to make a move. The belief was GM Dean Lombardi would somehow, someway, have to find a trade partner and the cap space to get a solid backup who could keep Los Angeles afloat while Quick was on injured reserve. And few figured the Kings had that goaltender all along.

Following Quick’s injury, Los Angeles turned to Jeff Zatkoff, one of their few off-season signings, to man the crease. In his first appearance, Zatkoff didn’t fare too poorly, but his second and third outings left much to be desired as he allowed a combined nine goals against on 46 shots in less than 100 minutes of work. Zatkoff’s difficulty through his first two starts led Los Angeles to turn to Peter Budaj, their third-string option, and he hasn’t given up the crease since.

Budaj, 34, has been an unlikely revelation for the Kings. Signed to a one-year, two-way deal in the off-season to continue his role as the Ontario Reign’s experienced veteran netminder, Budaj has instead turned into the experienced veteran savior of Los Angeles’ season. Savior might seem like high praise for Budaj, but it’s a hard handle to argue. 

Consider the season he has put together: with his shutout on Wednesday, he tied Braden Holtby for top spot with six clean sheets on the season. Budaj also boasts the fourth-best goals against average in the league at 2.01, his .922 save percentage is tied for 10th in the league alongside Carey Price and Matt Murray and Budaj’s 5-on-5 save percentage of .932 puts him right alongside Sergei Bobrovsky and John Gibson.

Maybe the most important part of Budaj’s year, though, has been that his play hasn’t made it necessary for the Kings to make a stopgap deal for a netminder or rush Quick back from injury. As it stands, Quick has already been out more than three months and it was reported last week that the Kings’ longtime starter wouldn’t be back until at least March. Had Zatkoff remained the starter and struggled or Budaj posted numbers that paralleled that of his career totals — 2.66 GAA, .905 SP — there would have been no other choice for the Kings but to make a move.

It should be made clear that Budaj’s numbers aren’t Vezina Trophy worthy and it’s not as if he’s about to go out and pull a Carey Price, winning the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award as league MVP. But if there was an award handed out at season’s end to the player who did the most to singlehandedly rescue his team’s season from certain demise, Budaj would have to be the runaway winner.

Some will argue that Budaj’s totals, and his ability to succeed in Los Angeles, have been the result of the Kings’ system. There’s no doubt some validity to that, as coach Darryl Sutter’s teams in Los Angeles over the past several seasons have been some of the most defensively smothering squads in the league. However, you need look no further than the way Zatkoff has struggled to understand that there’s more at play than the system. Budaj has simply been good and the perfect fit at the perfect time for the Kings.

Zatkoff’s struggles are important to understanding how important Budaj has been to the Kings’ season, too. In the 12 games Zatkoff has suited up, he has posted a 2-7-1 record, 2.94 GAA and .881 SP. Of the 57 goaltenders to play at least 400 minutes at 5-on-5, Zatkoff’s .879 SP is the worst. That has meant the Kings, who are holding down the top wild-card spot, have had to rely on Budaj heavily.

How heavily? Well, at his current pace, he would finish the season having played in 71 of the Kings’ 82 games. The goaltenders to have done that in the past include the likes of Quick, Braden Holtby, Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider and Pekka Rinne. That’s to say that anyone short of a franchise goaltender doesn’t see as much action as Budaj, yet here he is among some of the league’s best when it comes to workload. With what we know about goaltenders struggling in the second half of a back-to-back, the general expectation is that even the best starters get the second night off. This season, Budaj has played in both halves of a back-to-back five times. That’s what reliance on a netminder looks like.

It’s not as if goal support has been major in Los Angeles, either, meaning Budaj hasn’t been able to have many off nights if he wants to skate away with a win. Through 51 games, the Kings’ 2.55 goals per game ranks 22nd in the league and the Boston Bruins are the only playoff team currently faring worse in goal scoring on a game-by-game basis.

Some could argue that it’s Jeff Carter, not Budaj, who has really saved the Kings’ season. After all, Carter’s 26 goals make up 20 percent of Los Angeles’ goals for and he’s been one of the sole sources of offense on a nightly basis. But you can’t often outscore poor goaltending — ask the St. Louis Blues — so no matter how well Carter has played, it would be all for naught if it wasn’t for Budaj.

Of course, Budaj will be relegated to backup duty when Quick returns and no one will be surprised if Quick is the opening night starter should the Kings make the post-season. But no matter how this season ends, be it playoffs or not, first-round exit or deep run, fans in Los Angeles and Kings supporters the world over should be appreciative of what Budaj has done. He has been Los Angeles’ last line of defense, their most valuable player and, without exaggeration, the Kings’ savior in what could have been a disaster of a season.

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