With Nikolai Khabibulin
in Edmonton, goaltender Cristobal Huet
has the platform to prove he's worth the money. Chicago Blackhawks
General Manager Stan Bowman has reason to believe the team's undisputed No. 1 netminder will do that this coming season.
"Huet's best game is excellent, and with the change to him being the guy, he'll be able to get in that groove a little bit easier," Bowman told NHL.com.
Huet may be the one wild card that prevents preseason prognosticators from picking the Blackhawks to win it all.
Will he or won't he live up to the four-year, $20 million contract he signed in the summer of 2008?
It's a fair question now because the first season didn't go exactly as planned, leaving some to question if Huet can be a championship-caliber No. 1 goalie or just a guy who got really hot at the right time for Washington two seasons ago.
Huet played in 41 games last season, posting 20 wins and a 2.53 goals-against average, but Khabibulin earned the job as the Hawks' No. 1 goalie and led them to the Western Conference Finals.
He's gone now, though, and the Hawks don't have a veteran backup to cushion Huet, meaning their success could very well be tied into his success.
"It's a good chance for me to show, especially here in Chicago, that I can play and respond," Huet told the media at the Blackhawks' annual convention. "I look forward to that, playing more games and competing every night."
Huet, who for the record was no pushover when he did play last season, believes he can play better and wants to be more consistent. He said he's preparing himself this summer to be physically ready to handle a much heavier workload next season.
Unless something changes, his backup will be either Corey Crawford
or Antti Niemi
. They have played a combined 10 games and have just two wins between them.
"There will be a lot of things that are different for me," Huet said. "I want to rebound."
Bowman said history is on Huet's side.
First, the new GM believes players who sign big contracts tend to struggle in the first years of those deals because, "they have a tendency to want to earn the contract all in one year so they put a lot of pressure on themselves and there is a lot of scrutiny."
He cited Khabibulin as an example. He won only 17 games and had a 3.35 GAA in the first year of the four-year contract he signed after the work stoppage. Over the next three seasons, though, he won an average of 24.3 games, with his GAA dropping and save percentage rising every season.
"His first year here was his worst," Bowman said. "He got better and better as our team got better and better."
The Hawks, at least on paper, haven't been as good as they are right now in some time.
Second, Huet played his best when he was fully entrenched as the No. 1 in Washington. It only might have been for the final 13 games of the 2007-08 regular season after he was traded by Montreal, but he was as much a reason for the Capitals' surge to the Southeast Division championship that year as Alex Ovechkin
"It's a good chance for me to show, especially here in Chicago, that I can play and respond. I look forward to that, playing more games and competing every night." -- Cristobal Huet
Huet was 11-2 with a .936 save percentage and miniscule 1.63 GAA after landing in Washington. The Caps were knocked out of the playoffs by Philadelphia, losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in overtime. Huet, though, stopped 63 of 67 shots in Games 5 and 6 to force Game 7.
"In some ways, he may be one of those guys that thrive when he is the guy," Bowman said. "Last year he never got in that rhythm because he didn't play regularly. When he has shown that he is going to be given the responsibility, he has had a better record than when he tends to be rotating in and out."
The stage is his now and it's time for him to prove that over the course of an entire season.