Cristobal Huet wants to come back to the NHL after a two-year exile in Europe.
Sent overseas by the Chicago Blackhawks to provide salary-cap relief from the final two seasons of a four-year, $22.4 million contract after they won the 2010 Stanley Cup with Huet on the bench, the French-born goaltender is eager to prove he should still be playing in the sport's top League.
"I still belong, I'm better than some other guys, and I'd like another shot," Huet said recently from Europe, adding his agent had talked to "a few" NHL teams. "I'd love to come back, but I know once you are out of the League a little bit, guys tend to forget about you and that's the nature of the beast. But I still think I have something to show in the NHL, and to prove I still belong there. For me, it would be a great second chance to come back and play in the best League."
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It's a good thing Huet is willing to be patient, because he may have to wait a while for a secondary goaltending market that appears to be in a holding pattern until the Vancouver Canucks trade Roberto Luongo. And given recent talk from Canucks general manager Mike Gillis about waiting until after the season starts if necessary, there doesn't appear to be any rush for a thin list of remaining free-agent goalies.
"Luongo seems to be the goalie that is kind of in charge in the goalie market right now," said veteran goalie Dan Ellis, who appeared in 10 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season. "Right now, I think we're in a position where things are in a little bit of a holding pattern, things are waiting to shift again."
Until then, Ellis and Huet remain atop an aging but experienced unemployment line that includes Dwayne Roloson (42), Ty Conklin (36), Marty Turco (36) and Brent Johnson (35), as well as Peter Mannino (28). Ellis, who is back on the ice and fully recovered from the groin tear and subsequent abdominal surgery that hindered him last season, is the youngest proven option at 32. But Huet may be most intriguing.
Huet lost his job not because he couldn't play in the NHL, but because he was being paid too much to do so on a Chicago team forced to break up its Cup-winning roster because of a salary-cap crunch. A late-bloomer after coming over for the first time at 27, Huet posted strong numbers in Los Angeles, Montreal and Washington -- including a League-leading .929 save percentage in 2005-06 that pushed Jose Theodore out of Montreal -- before an up-and-down second season in Chicago, and a hot Antti Niemi, cost him his first true NHL starting job.
Huet, who went on an 11-2 streak with a .936 save percentage after being traded from Montreal to Washington at the 2008 deadline to earn the big contract in Chicago, has a .913 career save percentage despite playing most of his NHL games shortly after the work stoppage, when goalie numbers slipped.
Perhaps more important now, he's excelled since returning to Europe, where the east-west, pass-first style requires patience on the skates for goalies, who are forced to read the play and react to shots rather than defaulting to a blocking butterfly. It's a trait that made other European goalies desirable to NHL teams, often earning one-way contracts despite no North American experience.
"Guys have so much room here and the ice is bigger and the skill level is pretty high, so obviously you can't, how do you say, make the first move, or anticipate too much on things to happen, so it gives you a lot more reading the play and patience on the skates is key," Huet, who posted a .932 save percentage last season, said of a style some think translates better to today's NHL, which he's kept an eye on. "I think I try to be a little more reacting goalie in the sense that you can't go down too early these days with NHL shots. I still try to be as good as I can technically -- that's kind of my bread and butter -- but I watch the League a little and know you have to be patient and have a good read on the shots."
Huet, who worked with Francois Allaire at his summer camps in Switzerland before first coming over and was always considered a technically sound stopper, has 272 games of NHL experience, which should make the adjustment to things like more traffic, different angles on smaller ice, and a harder forecheck easier to adjust to than it is for less experienced pros from Europe. Huet also knows he'll come back to a backup role -- something he's done before -- and a job description his recent experience in Europe may also help with.
"The latest possible to give me a chance to be back to NHL. I'm ready to take the risk, and then if nothing, I will wait until something opens in Europe." -- Former NHL netminder Cristobal Huet
"It's a different rhythm in Europe, a lot more practices," he said. "It's kind of hard to practice for 10 days and not have any games and you have got to learn how to manage your body and manage your head when you have breaks."
As for where he might fit in the NHL, the most obvious position might be the one Luongo eventually vacates -- assuming he ever does. Huet had success working with current Vancouver goaltending coach Roland Melanson in Montreal, and the Canucks will presumably need to bolster their goaltending depth behind new No. 1 Cory Schneider even if Eddie Lack is ready. Another former team, the Los Angeles Kings, may also need help should they honor the reported trade request of current Cup-winning backup Jonathan Bernier.
Beyond that, the market for goaltenders may be as thin as the available list.
Despite their inclusion atop the Luongo trade rumors, the Florida Panthers still have Theodore, who also could fill the Vancouver vacancy in a deal, and Scott Clemmensen holding the fort for promising youngster Jacob Markstrom.
Boston is well equipped to handle the Tim Thomas sabbatical with Tuukka Rask as the starter, but is thin on experience beyond that, with Anton Khudobin set to start the season as the No. 2. The Carolina Hurricanes, for all their other signings, are set to go into the season with Cam Ward and Justin Peters while Brian Boucher recovers from summer shoulder surgery that will keep him out until at least November and possibly to the end of December. Philadelphia has Michael Leighton penciled in to back up Ilya Bryzgalov. Buffalo, Dallas and Colorado all have returning NHL tandems, but very little experience beyond that.
Toronto appears to have a need in net, and has also been linked to Luongo, but Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke insists he is content going into the season with a now-healthy James Reimer and AHL playoff standout Ben Scrivens. Of course, a lot can change between now and that start, including injuries and ineffective preseason performances. Huet seems willing to wait it out.
"The latest possible to give me a chance to be back to NHL," he said. "I'm ready to take the risk, and then if nothing, I will wait until something opens in Europe."