Many players and factors are responsible for the Capitals’ recent run of sustained success, but one of the most prominent is goaltender Cristobal Huet. Obtained from the Montreal Canadiens for a second-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft on Feb. 26, Huet has won a career-high nine straight starts, the first Caps goaltender to reel off a spree of that length since Pete Peeters won nine in a row from Jan. 28-Mar. 3, 1987.
A native of St. Martin D'Heres, France, Huet did not take the traditional route to the National Hockey League. He started playing the game at an early age and has been hooked ever since.
“We had hockey in my hometown and my dad loved hockey,” says Huet. “We went to the game and we loved it. It was a passion for me and my brother like any Canadian teen. We just loved it.”
Beginning when he was 20 years old in 1995-96, he spent two seasons playing for Grenoble in the French League, very near his hometown. In 1997-98, Huet was named both MVP and goaltender of the year in the French League.
Starting in 1998-99, Huet moved to Lugano in the Swiss National League, where he spent the next four seasons. He earned goaltender of the year honors twice in that circuit, in 1999-00 and 2000-01.
While with Lugano, he began to attract the attention of some NHL scouts. Back in the days when it was commonplace to take a late-round flier on older European players, Huet was a seventh-round (214th overall) choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, Huet was a couple months shy of his 26th birthday.
“Really late,” says Huet, when asked at what point he believed he could play in the NHL. “I moved from France to Switzerland. I didn’t really have a goalie coach before, so I had to fix that a little bit. That one guy told me I should prepare myself to play in the big league. The year after, I was drafted by L.A.
“I had some option of going to college but I stayed in France. It is a very unusual road. I had to climb the French League and then the Swiss League and then start all over again here.”
In those days the Swiss League was dotted with players who had NHL experience, including the likes of Daniel Marois, Chris Tancill, Ken Yaremchuk, Paul DiPietro, Todd Elik and Phillipe Bozon, one of the few French natives to play in the NHL. Bozon and Huet are the only two French born-and-trained players to reach the NHL.
Huet’s team won the Swiss League playoffs in his first season in the league, and his 1.72 goals against average in the playoffs was tops in the circuit. The following season, he led the Swiss League with a 1.59 GAA and eight shutouts. In 2000-01, Huet again led the league with a 1.96 GAA and six shutouts. His performance that season convinced the Kings to spend a pick on him.
“There is some good leagues in Europe,” Huet notes. “I would say it’s good skating teams, especially in Switzerland. Well organized, but not as physical as here. Bigger ice so guys with skills can express themselves. Germany is more like North American style.”
After one more strong season with Lugano, Huet came to North America for the 2002-03 season. He was 27 years old at the time, and he started the season with Manchester in the AHL, playing under Bruce Boudreau, then the head coach of the Monarchs.
“We never expected much out of him in Manchester, quite frankly,” says Boudreau. “Here’s a kid that played in France, not exactly a world hockey power at that time. So he came over and he was our backup goalie to Travis Scott. And every game he just seemed to get better and more calm and better and better. Every game he was in, we were winning.
“You’d phone L.A. and say, ‘Listen, this guy’s a lot better than we thought. You better get down here and look at him a couple of times.’ They did, and they really liked what they saw. And he stayed up there the next year.”
“I was very nervous, I remember that. I think we won the game, 3-1. We played pretty good and I didn’t face that many shots. It was a dream come true, and obviously it was good to start off with the win.”
“The next year he was a little inconsistent. In their minds, they didn’t know if he would be a No. 1. So that’s why they traded him to Montreal for [Mathieu] Garon.”
Nearly three years to the day after they drafted him, the Kings traded Huet and center Radek Bonk to Montreal for goaltender Garon and a third-round choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
After spending the lockout season of 2004-05 in the German League, Huet debuted with the Habs in 2005-06. That debut was delayed by a knee injury suffered late in training camp. Huet played four games in a rehab assignment for Hamilton of the AHL before donning a Habs sweater for the first time in Dec. 2005. Within two months, the Canadiens had signed him to a two-year contract extension.
Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the paper, Huet went on a roll that helped propel the Habs into the playoffs. It was not unlike his performance with the Capitals this season.
The Habs were a game over .500 at the beginning of February that season. Huet went 15-7-3 with a 1.87 goals against average and a .937 save pct. in starting 25 of Montreal’s last 32 games. The Habs went 10-4 in their last 14 to slide into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
Huet authored seven shutouts during that stretch, and allowed three or fewer goals in 22 of those 25 games. He allowed two or fewer in 16 of them.
“There is some similar stuff, obviously,” he says, comparing that season to this one. “I don’t think we had to win 12 out of 13 to get in. But still it was an amazing year with Montreal, the second part of the year. It’s always nice to play hard and get rewarded to be in the playoffs.”
Huet won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save pct. (.929) that year. The following season, he played in his first NHL all-star game.
Montreal missed out on the postseason party in 2007, but their Hamilton affiliate in the AHL did not. With 19-year-old wunderkind netminder Carey Price leading the way, the Hamilton Bulldogs won the 2007 Calder Cup championship. Suddenly, Price was firmly positioned as the Habs’ goaltender of the future; the immediate future. Playing in the final year of his contract extension in 2007-08, Huet was -- just as suddenly -- expendable.
With both Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson playing well throughout the month of February, it was a surprise to learn that Washington had obtained Huet from the Habs on the morning of the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline. The relatively low price (a second-rounder in the 2009 draft previously obtained from Anaheim) was a bit surprising, too.
“I thought it was a possibility,” said Huet of being traded, shortly after his arrival in Washington. “They are very high on Carey, and my contract is up.”Next page