By Stu Hackel
Will goaltenders Dominik Hasek and Cristobal Huet actually return to the NHL and can they really play goal in the game’s best league despite their advancing years and seasons spent overseas? They think so.
Hasek, the 47-year-old former all-world goalie who Ken Campbell of The Hockey News last month ranked as the top European born player of all time, and Huet, who will be 36 in September and was really a journeyman (albeit a well-paid one), have both sought to return to North America and are hoping some team will consider giving them a chance.
We tend to think of the post-lockout NHL as a young man’s league, with many of its top stars achieving that status in their early 20s, if not as teenagers. And then you have to pause and consider the great seasons that some older players logged in 2011-12. Teemu Selanne had another productive season at 41 and is coming back for more. Ray Whitney at 39 had a terrific campaign with the Coyotes, earning a Second Team All-Star selection — and a new UFA contract with Dallas. Daniel Alfredsson, who will turn 40 in December, continues to lead the Senators as their top rightwinger. Nick Lidstrom, who turned 41 in April, was in the discussion for the Norris Trophy in his final NHL season. And after a three-year absence from the NHL, 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr played well enough for the Flyers that the Stars gave him a UFA deal this summer.
It was a bit different for aging goalies last season, however. Dwayne Roloson, who had been the savior in net for Tampa Bay in 2010-11, faltered last year as a 42-year-old. Marty Brodeur had something of a bounce-back season for New Jersey, and fared well while turning 40 during the Devils’ march to the Stanley Cup Final, although he’s no longer the consistent bulwark he was during his prime. Tim Thomas, who became 37 in April, slipped a bit from his amazing 2010-11 campaign and now vows to sit out next season to apparently recharge his battery and post provocative messages on Facebook.
As crazy as it seems, you may not want to bet against the Dominator. No goalie has ever played as effectively as Hasek into his 40s. The greatest generation of NHL goalies — the guys who stood in the crease as the Original Six Era ended — was also the most durable. Johnny Bower of the Maple Leafs was 45 (well, no one was ever sure how old Bower really was) when he retired in 1969, the oldest active goalie ever in the NHL. My hero Gump Worsley and Jacques Plante were both 44. Terry Sawchuk was 40 when he died and might have played (and suffered) longer. Glenn Hall, who may have been the best of this Hall of Fame group, was 39. As you’d expect, all of them faded toward the end of their careers. (SI.com Photo Gallery: The NHL’s All-Time Oldest Players)
Hasek left the NHL after the 2007-08 season, which he spent as a 43-year-old backup for the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup team. His game, too, had diminished from his prime years. With the Sabres in the ’90s, his level of play — six Vezina and two Hart trophies — made some people believe that he was the best goalie of all time. He was twice a Cup champion with the Red Wings. He took a season off after leaving the NHL, then returned to the ice with his hometown Pardubice team in the Czech Extraliga. In 2010-11, he played a full season for the KHL’s Spartak Moscow at age 46, posting a 2.48 GAA and seven shutouts, which is quite amazing.
He sat out again last season, but in July made it known that he wants another crack at the NHL. The Sabres politely declined, GM Darcy Regier saying, “I know better than to question Dom’s desire and his ability. Unfortunately, it’s not something that was going to fit here.”
Undaunted, Hasek has been training with Pardubice and he told the team’s website on Thursday that the reason was not to play again for his homeboys, but to get ready again for North America. “I do not want to change my decision,” he said. “I want to play well in the NHL once again.” He added that if he couldn’t catch on with an NHL team, he’d finally retire.
Hasek added, “I have not received an offer. My agent is in contact with three clubs….Maybe nothing will come of it. I believe that I’m going to prove that I can outplay others and some team will want me as their goalkeeper.”
He also said that he just wants a shot at making an NHL team and to take another run at the Cup. If he has to be a backup, he’ll be OK with that. He just wants to be wanted. “I will not return as the Dominik Hasek of the nineties who won individual trophies,” he admitted. “But I believe I have the form that I could stay in the NHL, and can be beneficial to the team. It is my goal.”
Having not played for over a year, Hasek went into his garage and pulled out his goalie equipment, which he said was exactly where he threw it after he last played in 2011. He joked that some mice may have been living in his gear, but he was more concerned with getting back into shape. “After a long time, it is always about the pain,” he admitted.
Cristobal Huet has been playing in Europe for two seasons, a victim of the salary cap and the overestimation of his worth by someone in the Blackhawks organization. He was a good, sometimes very good, NHL netminder and an excellent team guy for the Kings, Canadiens and Capitals who nevertheless had exploitable flaws, most notably his rebound control. Chicago signed him to a four-year, $22.4-million UFA contract in July 2008, but he never played as well for the Hawks as he had earlier and certainly not up to the standards expected of a $5 million goalie. By his second season with them, he had lost his job to Antti Niemi, who backstopped Chicago to the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Cap problems forced the Blackhawks to shed almost half of that championship roster during the offseason and Huet was most vulnerable, essentially loaned to HC Fribourg-Gotteron to burn off the final two seasons of the deal. After a mediocre first year in the Swiss National League A, he played quite well last season, with a .932 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average. “I still belong (in the NHL), I’m better than some other guys, and I’d like another shot,” he told Kevin Woodley of InGoal Magazine in July. “I’d love to come back, but I know once you are out of the League a little bit guys tend to forget about you and that’s the nature of the beast. But I still think I have something to show in the NHL, and to prove I still belong there. For me it would be a great second chance to come back and play in the best league.”
Some question whether Huet can make the return trip, claiming that if he could still play at the top level, the Hawks would have brought him back last season when their netminding turned questionable. As a free agent again, he’s hoping that his NHL experience, plus the skills he’s honed in Europe, will make him attractive to someone. He reasons that goalies in Europe learn to read plays better and stay on their feet since those leagues feature so much passing and the NHL is headed in that direction with a preponderance of shot blocking taking away the shooting lanes.
The rumor mill has been active on Huet’s behalf. He was quoted by the French daily sports paper L’Equipe this week saying he’d been in contact with the Kings and Canucks, who are both considering dealing a netminder. Theoretically, either team could be a fit for Huet. Vancouver, which is looking to deal Roberto Luongo, employs Rollie Melanson as goalie coach. Melanson was Huet’s coach during the time of his best NHL work in Montreal. But on Wednesday, Huet’s agent Steve Bartlett told Jim Jamison of The Vancouver Province that he hadn’t had “any substantive discussions with Vancouver about Huet specifically.” He added, “I probably sent out a memo to all teams, including them. We’ve been trying to talk to every team. I haven’t had any specific discussions with Vancouver about him, just in general identifying teams that may or may not be in a position to look for goaltending, Vancouver being one of them. It’s depending on what happens with Luongo.”
Bartlett sounds more tentative than what a lot of people are writing about Huet and these clubs (like this). So either Huet contacted teams on his own — which is unlikely — or something has been lost in translation. Bartlett added, as did Huet in the item in L’Equipe, that he might again play in Swizterland next season, perhaps with Lausanne. But the desire for both Huet and Hasek is to return to the NHL. It’s the same for most players who still have an ounce of competitive fire. Once they’ve been there, it’s very hard to go elsewhere.
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