As a follow-up to my last blog, that tried to delve more deeply into the rationale behind some of the most criticized free agent signings of the Dale Tallon Era in Chicago, I want to now focus more closely on the Jean Girard of the NHL: Cristobal Huet.
Like the crepe-eating, jazz-listening NASCAR driver who drove the #55 Perrier car (classic stuff!) in Talladega Nights, Huet is a Frenchman who just doesn’t seem to sit right with a lot of fans, and even some media.
I am not here to nominate Huet for a Vezina, the Hall of Fame, or to say he’s an elite goalie.
I am going to make the argument, however, that he is a better goalie than generally given credit for, and certainly capable of turning in a solid season backstopping the Blackhawks in 2009-10.
Again, I’m sure the board is going to be flooded with caustic remarks in response to this; I’ll be called an “apologist” (or worse).
But also, again, before letting the invective fly, I ask you to push the plate of Freedom Fries away (besides poutine is much better anyway), and look honestly and fairly at the facts presented here.
Because they tell an interesting story. And it is kind of amazing that Huet takes as much heat and condemnation as he does.
To most observers, the two most reliable statistics for goalies are goals against average and save percentage. Here’s how Huet stacks up versus the last four Stanley Cup winning goalies over their NHL careers.
CAREER GAA SAVE%
Huet 2.45 .917
Osgood 2.47 .906
Fleury 2.87 .907
Giguere 2.49 .914
Ward 2.81 .903
All of these players have played with good and bad defenses in front of them.
The point is, legions of fans seem to be saying the Hawks can’t win the Stanley Cup with Huet in net. “He’s too inconsistent.” Yet the stats tell a slightly different story; over time, he’s pretty consistently good.
Insert: “Yeah, but he’s a choker. He can’t win big games” here.
Recent history would suggest otherwise. After being traded from Montreal to Washington in 2008, Huet went 11-2 down the stretch, with a 1.63 GAA and .936 save%, while the Caps were in the midst of a playoff race— and with an entirely new set of defensemen.
Certainly he was not as effective in the playoffs, but not terrible either. The third-seeded Caps fell in 7 games to the sixth seeded Flyers with two games going to OT, one of which was won in two OT’s by the Caps. Huet’s GAA was 2.93 and his save% was .909.
While Huet did not win Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2009, he did nothing to lose it. In fact, anyone who saw the game will tell you he was brilliant, perhaps making the save of the playoffs on an open side shot by Johan Franzen that would have won the game in regular time for the Wings.
And bear in mind, aside from a poor performance in Game 4 of the WCF, he had not played in 6 weeks.
But to me, what made his Game 5 performance more remarkable was the way he responded to the poor performance in Game 4. In a May 27 article in the Daily Herald, Tim Sassone wrote:
Huet was his own toughest critic much of the season and he didn't try to sugarcoat the fact he didn't think he was at his best in Sunday's loss. ‘(Tonight) is going to be a game where we fight for our lives and we want to play better, myself first, obviously,” Huet said.
What Sassone points out is true. Huet never sulked last season; and always took responsibility when he wasn’t playing well, while sharing credit with his defense when he did.
There are those who claim Huet does not have the confidence of the rest of the team. This also seems to be untrue, based not just on player quotes, but on the reaction of his teammates to him on the ice after the Game 5 loss, when a blown defensive assignment led to the OT winning goal for the Wings.
Others scoff and say: “he wasn’t even first string last year.”
Also, not true. He played 40 games and alternated with Khabibulin all season. Yes, Quenneville chose to go with Khabibulin for the playoffs. Well, alternating with Huet, Khabibulin had slightly better stats last season— and had won a Stanley Cup before. He was also making $1.5 million more than Huet. So was Quenneville’s choice a referendum on Huet, or just the slightly safer bet at that time?
Sure, there is a downside to Huet. Unlike a fiery goaltender like Patrick Roy or Roberto Luongo, Huet is one of those very calm netminders, so calm that he almost appears not to care at times (though the bulk of evidence suggests he does care).
Like Fleury, and to a degree Nikolai Khabibulin, he goes into the down butterfly position early and will play from it for extended periods, taking away the bottom of the net— but leaving himself vulnerable to high shots. And some have observed that he can be shaky high on his glove side.
Also, while he can be amazingly hot at times, he can let a bad game get him into a funk (not unusual for a goalie). And, he has had some injuries in his career, throwing light on the Hawks’ perhaps greater goaltending need— a proven backup.
But again, over time, Huet’s performance is generally very good. And he has proven he can carry a team for long stretches.
Again, I’m not trying to write the legend of Cristobal Huet here. Nor am I saying he’s good enough to guarantee the Blackhawks will win the Cup.
But I am saying, those who are ready to write Huet off, or (as inexplicably, some Blackhawk fans are) to “dump Huet’s contract” and go with Corey Crawford in net, are suffering from a kind of anti-Huet Hysteria.
For now, the Blackhawks seem comfortable with the Man from France as their #1 goaltender. And the numbers, at the very least, seem to say they have no reason to panic.