Somebody once told me the best way to think of goaltenders is to imagine them as tightrope walkers; the best of the bunch always are able to properly combine physical agility with mental mastery and can consistently limit the subtlest of shifts and remain focused despite the surrounding dangers.
Often, young goalies – say, a Steve Penney or a Blaine Lacher – will burst upon the NHL scene and demonstrate above-average skills that tempt fans into believing they’ll be able to match that early elite play year after year. And soon thereafter, the fans and netminders learn it isn’t nearly that simple a task.
Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason is learning that lesson the hard way this year. But even if the Blue Jackets starter squirms out of his sophomore slump, there’s no assurance he’ll regain the balance to keep his feet firmly planted on hockey’s ultimate walking wire.
For all goalies, the fight to stay atop the tightrope lasts the length of their careers. And the added weights placed upon them – due to circumstances that, for the most part, are beyond their control – inevitably make the balancing act more difficult.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the newest starting goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs, provides a perfect example.
The 32-year-old was drafted 13th overall by Hartford in 1995, but was traded twice (first to Calgary and then to Anaheim) and didn’t play more than 15 games in an NHL season until 2000-01, when he finally found a home with the Ducks.
“When J-S was in Calgary, things didn’t go that well and I think he wasn’t playing up to his potential there, so we got him in the summer for a second round pick,” said then-Ducks goalie coach Francois Allaire, who has been reunited with Giguere in Leafs land. “Even then, he got cut by us and went to the minors for a fifth season, but by Christmas I really felt he was ready for the NHL. And since we waived Guy Hebert, J-S was the top guy over there and he’s been one of the most consistent (goalies) in the game.”
Allaire isn’t unnecessarily flattering one of his most famous proteges: A statistical analysis of the past decade puts Giguere in the top 10 in NHL wins (207) and save percentage (.915).
The battle to stay relevant, however, continued after Giguere earned the Conn Smythe Trophy (in a losing cause in the 2003 Stanley Cup final); a Cup championship three years later; and, a four-year, $27-million contract extension (with a no-trade clause) in 2007 that suggested he’d retire in Anaheim.
But the superb play of Ducks understudy Jonas Hiller put an end to that notion and led to the trading of Giguere to the Leafs (in a late January swap that miraculously unloaded Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake on Anaheim). The concerns about whether or not Giguere will thrive in Toronto’s fishbowl existence ignore how much pressure all NHL puckstoppers feel to produce every day.
“It’s super-competitive out there,” said Giguere one day after his Leafs debut (a 3-0 shutout of New Jersey). “Every year there are young guys coming up and in today’s game, since the lockout, it’s a young man’s game.
“It’s a high-paced, high-energy game and you have to compete against those young guys and all the energy they bring. And at the same time, you have to worry about being ready for each game. It’s a tough battle, but that’s what keeps you going and motivated.”
His goalie coach agreed.
“If you have one or two years where you don’t reach the expectations your team is putting on you, there will be changes for sure,” Allaire said. “That’s part of the business, but the athletes here are so good and have battled for spots from a very early age, so they’re used to it. It’s just a normal part of their life.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson already is on record as saying he expects Giguere to play the majority of Toronto’s remaining games, while easing in goalie-of-the-future (and relatively cheaper rookie) Jonas Gustavsson.
That fits in with the strategy Giguere can see many NHL teams employing in the salary cap era.
“I think teams are going to look more and more at trying to get a good No. 1 goalie and then maybe a cheaper backup,” Giguere said. “If you’re making a big salary, you’re going to be expected to play a lot and play well. And they won’t have much patience for you if you don’t.
“That’s the reality of today’s game.”
This article appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hockey News.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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