|Pascal Leclaire came back strong this season from a knee injury that wiped out most of his 2006-07 season. Pascal Leclaire video |
The personal statistics, which include a career-high 24 wins and an eye-catching nine shutouts, tied for the NHL lead, certainly are nice.
The team's success -- a franchise record for points in a season and the pursuit of its first-ever playoff berth -- ranks even higher.
But for Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Pascal Leclaire, the best part of the 2007-08 season simply has been being there for the entire ride.
Leclaire, the Jackets' first pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft (No. 8 overall), encountered numerous detours on the road to becoming their No. 1 goaltender -- namely, injuries that prevented him from playing more than 46 games in a season prior to this season.
A knee injury wiped out most of the 2006-07 campaign for Leclaire, but it didn't prevent him from coming back strong and proving he's durable enough to be a starter at the NHL level. The Columbus chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association made him their nominee for this season's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
"This year has been a lot of fun," Leclaire said. "Obviously last year I missed a lot of games and it got boring having to do all that rehab. But I'm not the type to get down. I believe it's part of the game and everybody gets hurt. I just had a couple happen close to each other.
"It's just been fun to go to the rink and compete instead of being in the gym by yourself. I've always had a good time this year."
With good health has come the consistent play Columbus sought in goal when it handed Leclaire the job. At times the results have been nothing short of spectacular. He started the season with consecutive shutouts -- defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim went down, followed by Phoenix -- and racked up five in his first nine starts after coming into the season with just one in 59 previous NHL games.
Leclaire's most recent shutout may have been his most thrilling. The native of Repentigny, Quebec, went into the Bell Centre in Montreal and stopped 31 shots to blank the Canadiens. Still, after so much time spent waiting and working for this kind of success, Leclaire remains humble when questioned about it.
"Our team's better this year and that's a big part of it," he said. "People get excited about the nine shutouts, but I believe you need some luck -- maybe a post here or there -- otherwise it could've been a one- or two-goal game.
"I just want to be the type of goalie who gives his team a chance to win. If I can't do that, than I am upset."
Leclaire, along with backup Fredrik Norrena, has given Columbus the chance to compete on a nightly basis in the tough Western Conference, enough so that the Blue Jackets surpassed the previous franchise mark of 74 points in a season with a few weeks to spare.
That's not enough to satisfy Leclaire, though, who would like to see Columbus reward its loyal fan base with their first taste of playoff hockey.
"I think we're improving as a team and we put out a good product," Leclaire said, "but the most important thing, I believe at one point or another we have to get in the dance. People have high expectations."
In the true spirit of a Masterton nominee, Leclaire has shown his dedication to hockey not only by providing thrills to the fans through his play between the pipes, but with his service in the community.
Earlier this season, Leclaire spoke to a French class at Ohio State University, talking about his heritage and answering questions. Students brought in French-Canadian dishes to sample and Leclaire called it a "fun environment."
Likewise, he understands the importance of relating to the game's younger fans, who represent the future of the game.
"You try to see the kids, give them autographs … hockey is getting bigger and more kids are playing," Leclaire said. "Growing up, for me, the Montreal Canadiens were such a big deal and you don't forget that kids look up to you. They get so excited by the little things, like if you give them a high-five or just say hi."
Leclaire called his Masterton nomination "a great honor," while admitting it took him a little by surprise.
"To me, I just came back and did my thing," he said. "I'm trying to play as good as possible right now."
Author: Brian Hunter | NHL.com Staff Writer