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Pavel Francouz took the long road to the NHL – and he's thriving

Shining in his first full season as an NHL goaltender at 29 years old, Pavel Francouz’s persistence is paying off in big ways for both him and the Avalanche.

The sequence never changes. While his netminding peers might kick back on the crossbar and casually slug from a water bottle, or head to the bench to chat up teammates, Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz always begins every television timeout with a practiced ritual.

First he skates to his right along the goal line, stopping in line with the faceoff dot and dropping onto his knees in a butterfly position. He sits back, head down, and stretches for a bit. Next he goes through a visualization exercise, shifting his body as he pictures saving invisible shots. When this is done, he rises up, shakes his legs, shrugs his shoulders, works his neck, and takes a few deep breaths. Finally, he stands motionless and stares ahead, a masked mannequin for one … three … five seconds, paying no mind to the arena buzz around him.

“I’m trying to shut off and not think about anything connected with the game, have a little chill time and reset,” Francouz says. The whole thing doesn’t last long before he glides back, typically arriving as the ice crew finishes shoveling his crease. But it’s still an important tool for Francouz to manage the topsy-turvy emotions inflicted on his position. “I’m just trying to stay calm,” he says. “Of course there are some inner battles in me, but I’m trying to not show it.”

He takes a similar approach to stopping pucks. Listed at 6’0” and 179 pounds, hardly one of the skyscrapers that populate today’s creases, Francouz compensates for his size with simple yet efficient movements in the net. “Doesn’t do too much,” says Philipp Grubauer, his goaltending partner in Colorado. “You see all these guys, all over the place the first couple of years when they come into the league, chasing their way. He’s patient. He’s calm. That impresses me.”

There are many things to be impressed about with Francouz, whose .927 save percentage was tied for fourth among all goalies through Monday. At 29, he’s too old to be a rookie by NHL standards, though he entered this season with only 61 minutes of previous action as a callup last season. And besides, the word not only belies his wealth of past experience—before leaving Russia’s KHL in May 2018 to sign a one-year deal worth $650,000 with Colorado, Francouz had appeared in four world championships and one Olympics for his native Czech Republic—but fails to adequately convey the long road that he took to get here.

But his persistence is paying off. Over the weekend, Francouz inked a two-year, $4 million extension and recorded his first NHL shutout mere hours apart, helping the Avalanche keep pace with defending-champion St. Louis in a tight Central Division while Grubauer continues to recover from a “lower-body” injury. That tidy, 1–0 win over Anaheim was part of a 3-0-1 stretch (.941 save percentage, 1.46 goals against average) that earned Francouz first star of the week honors from the league.

“Slow journey, you know?” he says. “Small steps. It [took] a while, but the better it feels now.”

• • •

This was never the goal. Sure, Francouz now describes the NHL as “like dream come true,” between its top-notch competition and five-star accommodations. “We’re staying in the best hotels in every city, playing in nice rinks, great crowds,” he says. “It’s just great.” Growing up in the Czech Republic, though, his sights were set lower. “I was having smaller dreams, smaller steps.” Maybe, he hoped, he could make a living at the country’s highest level, the Extraliga.

Born in Plzen, Francouz started playing hockey around age 8, initially as a defenseman. “For one or two months,” he says. “But I was usually the one who was around the net, trying to prevent the goals, so I ended up in the net. I wanted to try it, and I never left.” Like all aspiring netminders of his generation, Francouz idolized Dominik Hasek and remembers where he was that February 1998 morning when The Dominator led the Czechs to Olympic gold in Nagano. “We were with my family, in my grandmother and grandfather’s house,” he says. “It was crazy. Everyone went out. We were celebrating. It felt like some kind of revolution or something.”

He played other sports as a kid—soccer, field hockey, floorball, gymnastics—but goaltending soon took over. A wise choice in the long run, though not without its hardships. After breezing through the Czech junior hockey ranks and posting solid numbers as an 18-year-old during his rookie Extraliga season, Francouz wore four different jerseys in ‘09–10, twice loaned out by his hometown team, Plzen, to a lower level. “It was weird season,” he says. “I had to start over.”

A boost came from his parents, who helped pay a fee that Francouz says amounted to more than 1 million Czech Koruna (roughly $43,000 today) for Plzen to release his rights so he could sign with another club. Five years later, when Francouz was preparing to sign with Russia’s Traktor Chelyabinsk, having led HC Litvinov to the ‘15–16 Extraliga championship while earning playoff MVP honors, he put a clause in his contract to ensure his parents were paid back. (They also received a portion of a transfer fee that Litvinov got from his new team, Francouz says.)

Where reaching the Extraliga was once his “No. 1 dream,” his success there had caused his ambitions to grow. “I was really hoping I could make it to the KHL, and it happened,” he says. Even then, though, the NHL never crossed Francouz’s mind; he was having a tough enough time adjusting to Russia. “Different mentality, different style of life,” he says. “The first shock was really big. But I learn the language, so it helped a lot too.”

On the ice, he was as sturdy as ever. Limited by an ankle injury in ‘16–17, Francouz went on to lead the league in save percentage over the next two seasons (.953 and .946, respectively), lifting Chelyabinsk to consecutive playoff berths and winning best goaltender in ‘17–18. He also started all six games as the Czech Republic finished fourth at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

And so, as always, Francouz set his sights one notch higher. “I really wanted to come over to U.S.,” he says. Another NHL team made an offer, but Francouz says it wasn’t “the best situation to come to. All of a sudden, Colorado showed their interest. It was a no-brainer to me.”

The entire negotiation, Francouz adds, took two days.

• • •

The Avalanche practice facility is part of a larger sporting complex in southeast Denver, situated directly down the block from the top of Centennial Airport. While far from the main reason why signing there was an obvious call, the location is a nice perk for Francouz. Back when he was playing in the Extraliga, he filled some spare time by studying for—and obtaining—his pilot’s license. “I just like the freedom,” he says. “You see the world from a different perspective.”

It was with a similar attitude that Francouz arrived stateside for his first NHL training camp, reporting to the AHL’s Colorado Eagles as planned while Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov shared duties with the big club. There he quickly made an impression on Eagles coach Greg Cronin. “When you talk about a low-maintenance guy who’s got high standards … unbelievable,” Cronin says. “Nothing gets him rattled, either. There’s a confidence to him, a self-assuredness. When you look across the room, he’s like, ‘I got this guys, I’m good.’”

Thrust into another unfamiliar environment, Francouz once again thrived, making the AHL All-Star game and guiding the Eagles into the first round of the postseason. “We don’t make the playoffs without Frankie in the net,” Cronin says. “He was a game-changer.” Off the ice, despite his newbie North American status, Francouz also became something of a mentor figure for winger Martin Kaut, a fellow Czech who had been drafted 16th overall in 2018 before coming over for his rookie season. “They weren’t living together, but Martin was over there all the time, having dinner with Pavel’s family,” Cronin says. “So that tells you how much of a good person he is.”

Promoted to the Avalanche for the first time last week, Kaut debuted in a 3–1 win over the Islanders and Varlamov, with Francouz making 27 saves, then skated both ends of a Southern California back-to-back that Colorado also swept thanks to its backup-turned-starting goalie. “It’s easy to cheer for him because of what he’s gone through to get here, and his age and his passion,” Bednar said of Francouz earlier this season. “He’s a real good teammate, real selfless guy. They play hard for him.”

Just don’t expect Francouz to slide behind the wheel of the Avalanche charter plane anytime soon; his license is only valid in the Czech Republic, so he’d need to study for another round of tests. And he’s far too busy for that.

Francouz had already proven himself to be capable of spelling Grubauer, winning 11 of his first 13 decisions and posting a .927 save percentage through New Years’ Day. Then Grubauer went down in the Stadium Series game at Air Force against Los Angeles. An overtime loss to Tampa Bay followed, but Francouz has allowed two goals on 75 shots since, continuing to prove himself capable of shouldering a No. 1 workload in spells.

Whether he’ll keep the job when Grubauer returns should depend on his play, but having two solid options is a must for most Cup contenders; Grubauer knows this well, having supplanted Braden Holtby in the Capitals’ crease for the first round of their championship run in ‘17–18. “Great guy, great teammate,” Grubauer says. “He knows what he’s doing and he’s a huge part of our team.” The tandem doesn’t spend much time together outside of work, not with Francouz and his wife welcoming their first child last April. But their cost-effective cumulative salary ($5.33 million next season) will help keep Colorado’s window open beyond this spring.

Not bad for someone who once barely bothered to consider what it would be like to make it this far, now flying higher than he ever could've imagined.


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