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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
“The (contract) is not something you can think about. You just try to do your best all the time you’re on the ice. That doesn’t change from last year or the year before. All that matters is how you play your next game”
-Cristobal Huet speaking to the Montreal Gazette, September 24th 2007
A quick look at the NHL standing reveals a stunning truth. The Montreal Canadiens, predicted by many observers to be the doormats of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, find themselves looking up as only two team’s stand between them and first overall in the league standings.
This stunning and surprising reversal of fortune has led many of these same scribes to frantically search for the reason behind this unexpected success.
For many the renewal of Alex Kovalev has been the main focus. Others have pointed to the maturation of Guy Carbonneau behind the Montreal bench. The emergence of Mike Komisarek and the All Star form of Andrei Markov have also garnered much praise, as has the surprising success of the popular Kostitsyn brothers. The continued improvement of Tomas Plekanec and the unexpected emergence of the Canadiens young stars have been noted.
But what has received considerably less attention has been the play of Cristobal Huet, the one Montreal Canadien who always seems to be lost in the shuffle.
Huet, in his third season with the team continues to excel beyond other’s original expectations of him when he was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in 2004.
On June 26th of that year Huet and Radek Bonk were acquired from the Kings in exchange for Mathieu Garon and a third round selection in 2004 (Paul Baier). At the time this deal was met with disbelief by those around the Canadiens. Garon, while full of potential was deemed expendable, as Jose Theodore had a lock on the number one slot in the Habs net.
To say that Huet was unknown would be an understatement, as his arrival was met with widespread skepticism. Tearing his ACL in the summer before the season did little to alter this belief and when he rehabbed in Hamilton by playing in four games with the Bulldogs, his four losses led many to label him as a non-factor.
After spending two and a half months on the sideline, Huet finally, assumed his role as the backup for the freshly signed Theodore, who had become one of the richest goaltenders in the sport the previous summer.
But then a funny thing happened, Theodore struggled mightily, and Huet, given an opportunity, took the ball and ran with it. Playing in 36 games, with the majority under intense pressure as Montreal fought for a playoff spot, Huet was spectacular, sporting seven shutouts and leading the Habs to the post season, while leading all NHL goalies in save percentage. Theodore, traded to Colorado by Canadiens General Manager, Bob Gainey, became a footnote as Huet assumed the starter’s mantle in the Montreal nets, armed with a new two year contract.
Huet, proving that the previous spring was not a fluke, was named to his first all-star game in 2006-07. The Canadiens in the driver’s position for the playoffs suddenly faltered and when Huet went down with a torn left hamstring on Valentine’s Day their chance of making the playoffs went up in smoke. Despite Huet’s heroic attempt to make a comeback in the season’s final game, the Habs loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs left them on the sidelines as the playoffs began a few days later.
With the final year of his contract looming Huet began an intensive training regiment throughout last summer. However, this was generally ignored and totally overshadowed, by the sudden emergence of Habs wonder kid, Carey Price, the young backstop who led Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships, and the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL to the Calder Cup.
For Canadiens fans, the hype over Price reached fanatical heights even before he played a game for Montreal. The expectations for Price revolved around championships, not if he would win one, but how many.
Splitting the Canadiens duties down the middle, Huet and Price started the season as 1 and 1A. On December 15th, Huet injured his groin, causing him to miss five games. However, given the chance to establish himself, Price faltered and when Huet returned Price was demoted to Hamilton, in an effort to regain his winning form.
Subsequently, as Price has struggled in Hamilton, Huet has shone as the sole guardian of the Canadiens crease. Having played the Habs last ten games, and fifteen of the last sixteen, Huet, by nature, a very quiet and private man, has let his performance do the talking.
"It's amazing to think that people wanted Carey Price to be the starter at the beginning of the year," said winger Christopher Higgins to the Canadian Press. "I mean, Carey's going to be an unbelievable goalie, there's no question. He's got the mindset and the talent. But Huet is great. We love him in the locker-room. He's got a great personality. He's very humble but he's competitive. He hates giving up even one goal. That's all you can ask of a goalie."
With Price’s struggles, it’s hard to see the Canadiens sitting where they do now, if it weren’t for the play of Huet. Without his stellar play, the Canadiens probably would be at best, struggling to make the playoffs.
What gets overlooked however is that the play of Huet and the fate of the Canadiens have been intertwined for the past three seasons. In his time with Montreal, Huet has undoubtedly been the Canadiens most important player, while at the same time being the most underappreciated.
For whatever reason, Huet has been viewed by many in the media and the fan base as a caretaker goaltender, a goalie that while efficient and successful, has had to deal with the assumption of something better being around the proverbial corner. His faults are magnified while his strengths are taken for granted.
The truth can be found however, within a closer examination of Huet’s numbers, in this case his yearly save percentage during his time in Montreal.
2005-06 .929 first amongst NHL goaltenders
2006-07 .911 eleventh amongst NHL goaltenders
2007-08 .923 currently sixth amongst NHL goaltenders
For an idea of Huet’s value this year, consider this; his save percentage is equal to Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, and is better than some of his more well known contemporaries, such as Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Rick Dipietro, Henrik Lundqvist, Marty Turco, and Dominic Hasek.
And while the Habs media and fandom have been slow to realize Huet’s stellar play, his teammates realize how important he is to the team.
“Since he's been in Montreal, he's been absolutely phenomenal. Lights out,” adds Higgins. “Hopefully he can keep going because we need him.”
On the first day of February, Huet received a rare form of recognition as he was named the NHL’s third star for the month of January.
Typically, Huet deflected the adulation. "We had a good month overall," Huet told the Canadian Press. "We we’re able to score a lot of goals and our defence played really good. I managed to play well when they needed me, but for the most part, the team played well in front of me."
As the Habs seem content to ride Huet as the season continues, the question that hovers over their success is the future of arguably, their most valuable player, who at the conclusion of the season will become an unrestricted free agent.
Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey, a man who plays his cards close to his vest, is faced with a crucial decision; one with no shortage of options.
As a free agent at the end of the year, Huet is bound to garner significant interest on the open market, especially if he continues to play at the high level he’s currently establishing.
The one knock on Huet throughout his tenure with the Canadiens has been his inability to stay healthy for the entire year, with 42 games being his career high. Having played 32 games so far this year, the Canadiens are hoping that Huet can be their workhorse. But will they benefit in the long run? Simply put, the better Huet plays, the higher the potential price tag.
Are the Canadiens, a young, emerging powerhouse, willing to start next year with Price and Halak, two young, unproven goaltenders as their main tandem?
Should Gainey, a man who doesn’t negotiate contracts during the season, break with protocol and sign Huet right now, ensuring stability at the most important position on the ice? And while Carey Price is the future of the Canadiens, how far away is the future?
"I understand that Carey is a great goalie and he's going to have a great future,” Huet explains to CP. “I understand the organization's standpoint. The only thing I could do to help the team and myself was to try to play well when I was in and prove that I can be an elite goalie in this league."
And while Huet is taking things one day at a time, it’s his future that’s looking better every day.
“He's playing himself into a lot of money right now,” adds Higgins, “and deservedly so."