Ever since that dark, December day in 1995, there has been a gaping hole within the Montreal Canadiens organization. Call it the curse of St. Patrick if you must, but there can be no denying that the Canadiens have found themselves in an extended period of darkness since the trade of Patrick Roy. For Montreal fans, Patrick Roy represented more than just a superstar goaltender, during the time he played for the team, he was the Montreal Canadiens. And when he left it seems that something else departed that day. Playoff successes have been few and far between since Roy’s departure, and the Canadiens once vaunted tradition and mystique has been slightly diminished by the ensuing twelve years of mediocrity.
For the last twelve years both Canadiens fans and management have searched for the elusive answer to this ongoing problem. Not only are they looking for the next Patrick Roy, but they are looking for the man to bring the team back to its former glories.
For one brief, bright season, they felt that they were watching the answer unfold in front of their very own eyes. The spring of 2002 was a magical time for the Canadiens and their fans, between Saku Koivu’s inspirational return from cancer, and the team’s push to the playoffs after a five year absence, there was a sense of rejuvenation in the city of Montreal.
And the key ingredient of this success was a twenty five year old, homegrown goaltender named Jose Theodore. Theodore was not new to Montreal fans, he had played his first game with the team six years before, and despite the occasional glimpses of brilliance he had been maddeningly inconsistent, and had ironically become best known for scoring a goal against the Islanders in 2001.
But in 2001-02 he put it all together, during a season in which he was finally able to wrestle the starting goaltending job, Theodore finished fourth in the league in goals against average and first in save percentage. In the playoffs he helped carry Montreal to a stunning upset of heavily favored Boston before the Canadiens bowed out in the second round.
At the conclusion of the season, Theodore was rewarded with both the Vezina and the Hart trophies. Theodore became the first Hab since Guy Lafleur to win the league’s most valuable player, and the first since Patrick Roy to take home the award for top goaltender. Ironically, one of his main competitors for both trophies was the one and only Patrick Roy.
It seemed at the moment on June 20th, 2002 as if the Roy malaise had finally lifted. Here was our new superstar, the guy who was going to carry the team to greatness, who had just become only the second goaltender to win the Hart trophy in the last forty years, something that the sainted Roy had never accomplished.
Though no one could have predicted it at the time, this relief would prove to be only temporary, and what the fans and the team had seen was a comet, something that’s stay in Montreal was too brief and ended as quickly as it had seemingly appeared. And even to this day the mysteries behind that comet’s disappearance are not entirely known.
With the success came increased pressure on Theodore, he was now the team’s poster boy, the unquestioned superstar of the Canadiens. He had assumed the mantle as the natural successor to the Canadiens great goalie lineage, the next one on a list of legendary goaltenders unmatched by any franchise in hockey. With all of this comes and added scrutiny, an added responsibility, and with that can come some new pressures.
In 2002-03 both the Canadiens and their fans were waiting for the team to take the next step, unfortunately for both the step taken was a backwards one. Coming off his MVP year Theodore dropped from fourth to thirty-sixth in goals against average, and went from leading the league in save percentage the year before to twenty-second in the same category a year later. With this type of performance from their star player, the Canadiens playoff chances were doomed.
The next year, 2003-04 was a rebound year for both Theodore and the Canadiens. Theodore seemed to rediscover his form of two years previous, he increased his win total by thirteen to a career high thirty three, good enough for a tie for fifth best in the league. His goals against average, was good enough for eleventh in the league and his save percentage ranked ninth in the league. This solid bounce back year came at a critical time for him professionally as he was eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.
His stock only rose following the playoffs, where thanks in large part to his heroics, the Canadiens for the first time in their illustrious history overcame a three games to one deficit and once again, upset the Boston Bruins in their first round playoff series. For many the prime accomplishment of the year was Theodore’s shutout in Boston, in the deciding game. This had clearly been the biggest game of his career, and in the most pressure packed and intense situation of his young hockey career; Theodore came through.
That was the last shutout Jose Theodore ever recorded in the NHL.
Due to the NHL lockout, Jose Theodore would not play again for the Canadiens until the fall of 2005. Before playing for the team, there was a contract that needed to be worked out. Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey signed Theodore to the most lucrative contract in Canadiens history, a three year contract totaling $16.5 million, paying $5 million in 2005-06, $5.5 million in 2006-07, and $6 million in 2007-08.
If one goes back to the fall of 2005, they will recall the pressure on Gainey and the Canadiens to get this deal done with Theodore. Here was the Canadiens top superstar, coveted by other teams, and the most marketable player in Montreal in many years.
But as soon as the ink was drying on the contract, it seemed like the Canadiens had made a big mistake. On the ice, Theodore struggled mightily as the distractions off the ice multiplied.
A year earlier his father, an uncle, and four half brothers were charged with operating a loan sharking ring in Montreal, Theodore was cleared in the case but it must have weighed on his mind. There were pictures of him hanging around in a Hells’ Angel’s clubhouse, him flipping the bird to photographers in training camp, and then in February came news of his positive test for a steroid masking agent. And even though, Theodore had a prescription his status had been damaged. After all his explanation of taking a hair growth supplement when Theodore himself has long hair, seemed to defy all explanation.
Theodore’s poor play saw him lose his starting job in Montreal to the previous unheralded Cristobal Huet. Theodore saw his stats fall to thirtieth in wins, forty-fifth in goals against average, and forty seventh in save percentage. The depth of Theodore’s fall was staggering in its quickness and all of a sudden Montreal was stuck with a goalie paid amongst the top five goaltenders in the league, and who performed in the ranks of the bottom five, with two more seasons left on his contract.
Theodore’s nightmare season reached its nadir, when during the Olympic break he slipped on ice outside his home and broke his heel and was out for the next six weeks. On March 9th, 2006 only seven months after signing Theodore to his lucrative deal, Gainey dealt him to the Colorado Avalanche for David Aebischer in what was essentially a salary dump by Montreal. Apparently, Gainey felt that Theodore’s slump was not likely to improve, and the time to trade him was now, before the list of potential suitors would shrink to zero.
It is hard to recall a fall more sudden than that of Jose Theodore.
The overriding question is what happened?
After the one season NHL lockout, a different Jose Theodore emerged than the one we had previously seen. Many have pointed to the changes in NHL equipment as a possible reason for Theodore’s meltdown. Jose Theodore is not a particularly big person. He is approximately 5-11 and weighs 182 pounds. As a point of comparison, Canadiens super prospect Carey Price is 6-3 and weighs 222 pounds. How much of his success was due to the pucks hitting his enlarged equipment?
To draw a conclusion between the shrinking of Theodore’s equipment and the ballooning of his statistics is an easy conclusion to draw. The one thing that is inescapable is the deteoration in Theodore’s game. His rebound control seems to have abandoned him; he seems tentative, and at times looks lost on the ice.
However, I think the answer to Theodore’s problems lies somewhere in the man’s head. Now I don’t pretend to know Jose Theodore and all of this is speculative, but to me it seems like the most logical answer.
Once Jose Theodore reached the pinnacle of his success in Montreal, it was the beginning of his descent. Perhaps, he couldn’t handle the pressure of being the Canadiens standard bearer. Perhaps, his contract made him feel more important and his ego blossomed. Perhaps, his personal life started affecting his professional life. Perhaps, with success, his work ethic went downhill. Perhaps, he wasn’t open to changing and/or improving his game. And maybe, just maybe the motivation to succeed was replaced by a sense of complacency that he couldn’t get over.
The magic that Theodore seemed to once have seems to have disappeared overnight, like in the old testament story about Samson’s powers leaving him while he slept, as Delilah cut his hair.
Many thought that the change of scenery would be good for Theodore. At least that’s what the Avalanche hoped for. Avalanche general manger Pierre Lacroix expressed his joy at acquiring what they felt was an elite goalie. Much to Colorado’s dismay Theodore’s game didn’t improve.
Unfortunately, the off-season was not a quiet one for Jose Theodore. His off-season “evening out” with Paris Hilton, while his girlfriend and child were at Sick Kids hospital, showed a stunning lack of character if nothing else.
Things went from bad to worse this year for Theodore in Colorado. In his much ballyhooed return to Montreal, Theodore surrendered eight goals to the Canadiens before an overjoyed Montreal capacity crowd.
As the year went on Theodore lost his starting job to Peter Budaj, the lowest paid goaltender in the league, a man who was paid a stunning $5.4 million dollars fewer than Theodore. Theodore finished the season as the Avalanche’s back up goalie after finishing thirty-fifth in wins, fortieth in goals against average, and thirty-ninth in save percentage.
So where does Theodore go from here. Undoubtedly, the Avalanche would love to trade him, but there aren’t many teams interested in paying $6 million dollars this year for a goaltender, who statistically may be the worst in the NHL. The Avalanche has thought of buying him out, but for now have decided to hang onto Theodore to avoid a major cap hit.
Needless to say, when his contract is up at the end of this year, it is safe to say that Theodore will not be able to retain his position as the league’s second highest paid goaltender. To say that he will be facing a substantial pay cut is an understatement. Whether some team is willing to take the gamble on Theodore remains to be seen.
Any team that signs Theodore from here on in is hoping to strike lightning in a bottle again. And while all signs point to Theodore being unable to regain his MVP winning form, it is wise to remember that even Samson regained his former power, but only when his hair eventually grew back.