At age 34, and having played one NHL game during the previous two seasons, Peter Budaj was having a historic comeback season when he was traded by the Los Angeles Kings to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 26.
Prior to the trade, Budaj had started 51 games, tying him with Martin Jones of the San Jose Sharks for second behind Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers (55). That was more than Budaj's combined total of 49 NHL starts since the last time he was a No. 1 goalie, for the Colorado Avalanche in 2010-11.
In those 51 games with the Kings, Budaj posted an above-average save percentage 34 times, for a quality start percentage of 66.7 percent that was tied with Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators for third in the League, according to data compiled at hockey-reference.com.
Budaj's .917 save percentage with the Kings equaled his career high and ranked No. 11 among the 33 goalies to play at least 25 games prior to Feb. 26. Budaj also had seven shutouts, tied with Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals for the NHL lead.
Budaj's solid play was more than just a personal vindication; it kept Los Angeles in the mix for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Video: TBL@NYR: Budaj turns aside Kreider's breakaway
When goalie Jonathan Quick, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, injured his groin in a 2-1 opening-night loss to the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 12, there were fears the Kings season could be over before it even started. However, their playoff hopes were still alive when Quick made his return in a 4-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 25.
In Quick's absence, Los Angeles allowed 146 goals, the fifth-fewest in the NHL.
That success partly reflects the team's commitment to defensive play, but Budaj prevented 4.42 goals relative to a League-average goalie, according to the GSAA statistic calculated at Hockey Reference. When considering the difficulty of finding a League-average goalie when the starter is injured on the first game of the season, Budaj was worth far more than that.
As it stands, the Kings are 33-29-7; with 73 points, they trail the St. Louis Blues by four points for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. Various statistical models place Los Angeles' chances of making the playoffs at about 25 percent.
Even if Budaj only gets credit for preventing 4.42 goals in Quick's absence, each 2.8 goals prevented is worth a point in the standings, which means he has saved the team a point or two. Even that small difference would have been enough to have effectively knocked the Kings out of contention prior to Quick's return.
So what happens to Budaj now? Andrei Vasilevskiy is the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay and has started six of the team's eight games since Budaj's arrival.
If Budaj is going to resume his hard-fought status as a No. 1 goalie, it either will have to be with the NHL's newest team, the Vegas Golden Knights, or by winning the starting job all over again with another team after signing as a free agent in the offseason.
Video: TBL@PIT: Budaj comes up with a pair of great stops
Normally, expectations for the future can be set by examining the past, but Budaj's achievement is almost without precedent.
Going back to the 1967-68 expansion and identifying goalies who had established themselves as starters, then spent four or five seasons outside the NHL or as backups before re-establishing themselves as No. 1 goalies in their 30s produces a list of four: Ron Low of the New Jersey Devils in 1983-84, Bob Essensa of the Edmonton Oilers in 1998-99, Brian Boucher of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10 and Curtis Sanford of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2011-12.
These four goalies played an average of 38 more games before leaving the NHL and/or retiring. Essensa remained a No. 1 goalie for two more seasons, but did so by changing teams each summer. That may be exactly what Budaj will have to do.
Regardless of what the future holds for him, Budaj has opened the door for other goalies to receive similar opportunities in the future, such as Jonas Gustavsson of the Edmonton Oilers and Michael Leighton of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Based on Budaj, the key is to find a former No. 1 goalie performing well in the American Hockey League. In 2015-16, Budaj had a .932 save percentage, a 1.75 goals-against average, and a record of 42-14-4 for Ontario, the Kings AHL affiliate.
There's not a lot of AHL data with which to judge Gustavsson, 32, who has averaged 13 NHL games per season for three different teams in the five seasons since he played in 42 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011-12. He has an AHL career save percentage of .928 in 20 games.
AHL success draws attention to Leighton, who will be 36 next season and was the No. 1 goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003-04, then went 16-5-2 during the regular season and 8-3 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Leighton has a combined .919 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average in 111 AHL games, with a record of 61-28-12. Could he be next year's comeback story?