It’s not difficult to figure out why Dwayne Roloson may just be playing his best hockey in his 40s. You only have to watch him do his job in net.
Roloson, acquired by the Lightning from the Islanders January 1, spent tireless hours transforming his style in the middle of his career and has left everything on the ice each night since.
“He’s a battler,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “I saw it in his attitude and his drive. When you play teams like that and you see the goaltender going after every little shot, you know that these guys are hard to beat. It’s like Tim Thomas in Boston. You think you have him beat. You’ve got him beat. It’s an open net. Then his glove or his stick comes out of nowhere. Those guys are hard to beat and it wears you down. You keep knocking on the door, knocking on the door. That’s why I find he’s at a level where you could say he’s 30-years old.”
If the Lightning players didn’t know enough about the 41-year-old Roloson, they got a really good look at him December 22 in Long Island. Roloson stopped 34 of 35 shots, sending Lightning players back to the bench shaking their heads and then back to the bus with a loss. He made saves that looked easy because he was in great position and others on shots that looked like sure goals.
Just short of two weeks later, Roloson did the same in his first Lightning start by shutting out the Capitals with 34 saves in a stirring, 1-0, overtime victory.
“He’s proven himself to be a very good goaltender in this league for a lot of years,” Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. “Whether he’s played on good teams or teams like the Islanders who struggled this year, he’s performed well. He gives us another veteran presence and I’m sure it’s going to help our team.”
Roloson’s route to Tampa has been a long road with many ups and down. When asked if there was a turning point in his career, he said there have been many.
His NHL story almost never got started.
Roloson, a native of Simcoe, Ontario, went undrafted and played four seasons at UMass-Lowell. He did not play much his first two seasons, but when he finally got a full chance he was team MVP his final two years for the River Hawks with 43 victories combined.
The Calgary Flames signed Roloson as a free agent in 1994 and he spent the next two seasons with Saint John of the American Hockey League before getting a chance in the NHL in 1996-97, playing 31 games for the Flames.
Roloson played another season, mostly in the NHL, before being traded to Buffalo to act as the backup to Vezina-winner Dominik Hasek. He played just 32 games in two seasons and seemed at a crossroads.
“It’s tough to play [well],” Roloson said. “When you not getting in there.”
Roloson was selected in the 2000 expansion draft by Columbus, but opted to sign with the Worcester Ice Cats of the AHL instead and work on his game. He took a step back to take a step forward.
He worked a lot with Worcester’s goaltender coach at the time Keith Allain, who was the head coach for the United States at the 2011 World Juniors recently and coaches No. 1-ranked Yale. Roloson had a solid season (32-15-5, 2.17 goals-against average and .929 save percentage).
Roloson signed with Minnesota the next season and worked with former NHL netminders Bob Mason and Pete Peeters on transforming him to more of a butterfly-style goalie.
“All three of them have the same mindset,” Roloson said. “Working with those guys really helped my game to bring it to the level that it was. When I came out of college, I was a stand-up, skate-save goalie. They sort of turned me into the goalie I am today. It’s a lot of time to get my game down. Anytime you make changes, it’s tough. Once I got it, it has been working.”
Roloson, sharing the goaltending duties with Manny Fernandez, was 23-16-8 in 2002-03 and helped the Wild reach the Western Conference finals. “Roli the Goalie” had a .927 save percentage, a 2.00 goals-against average and four shutouts in the regular season. Roloson followed that up by being named to the 2004 NHL All-Star Game and bettering his numbers (1.88 GAA, .933 SP) while winning the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award with the league’s best save percentage.
Then, the lockout. Roloson played in Finland, where he was 20-10-4 with similar numbers to the previous two seasons in Minnesota. When Roloson returned, the Wild was in transition and did not want to go with both Fernandez and Roloson. Edmonton sent the Wild a first-round draft choice for Roloson in early March of 2006.
Many criticized Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe for the move, but Roloson went 12-5 in the playoffs as eighth-seed Edmonton reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for Roloson, he suffered an elbow injury in Game 1 and could not continue.
That was the last playoff game Roloson played in. The past four and a half seasons, Roloson has put up solid numbers for teams in rebuilding phases. He wasn’t fading away in his 40s. He’s only getting better.
Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman played the final NHL game of his career against Roloson during that 2006 playoff run as the Oilers shocked the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Yzerman said he made the move to add Roloson a day after the veteran beat the Wings on New Year’s Eve to “provide stability in net.”
“He’s able to make crazy saves at major moments of the game that will kill the other team,” Boucher said. “He did it against us and he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s got playoff experience and there’s a poise to his game, but there’s a battling level that’s extremely high. He’s got that in practice, too. That’s the reputation he has and that fits right in with our team.”
Roloson has a simple philosophy coming in.
“All I believe in is just going out and working hard, trying to give our team a chance to win, day in and day out,” Roloson said. “I try not to put extra pressure on myself to control things I can’t control.”
Roloson said he liked the attitude of the young Islanders, but he saw a difference when he got to the locker room for his first practice in Brandon.
“I’m really excited to be here,” Roloson said. “Coming in, you don’t know what to expect. But I am fortunate to know five or six guys already, and coming into the locker room it felt like home right away. It’s a great bunch of guys, so I’m looking forward to it.”