Monday, April 30, 2012

Memory Monday: Cristobal Huet

[Memory Monday Archives]

At the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the Los Angeles Kings wanted to strike a deal for a young and promising goaltender.  Fortunately, the Canadiens had such a player available in 26-year old Mathieu Garon.  Garon had just played a career-high 19 games for the Habs, finishing with a sparkling .921 save percentage and a 2.27 GAA, but the starting job in Montreal remained Jose Theodore's.  The Canadiens needed to get bigger at center, and so in order to strike a deal, the Kings sent a draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for Radek Bonk, then sent Bonk and back-up goaltender Cristobal Huet - seen almost as a necessary throw-in - to the Habs for Garon and a pick.  Of the three players in the deal, we now know that the one who few paid attention to the day it was completed was the one to go on to enjoy the greatest success.

Huet was 28 when acquired by the Canadiens and had just completed his first real season as a full-time NHL'er, appearing in 42 games with the Kings.  He spent the locked out season with the Mannheim Eagles in Germany's DEL before finally becoming a Hab in 2005-06.  His role with the club grew as the season went on, as he posted 7 shutouts in just 36 games, putting up a 2.20 GAA and .929 save percentage.  It seemed Theodore's Hart Trophy season was long behind him but the Habs had lucked into his successor.  Huet would play for the Canadiens for two more seasons, and despite being among the league's best when he was "on," he remained inconsistent and was never truly a clear-cut #1.  Prior to the 2008 trade deadline, when it seemed Carey Price was nearly ready to take over as Montreal's starter, the Canadiens dealt Huet to the Washington Capitals for a 2nd round pick.  Many viewed the move as highly risky, with few confident in the team rolling with two young goalies in Price and Jaroslav Halak.  But Huet was an unrestricted free agent to be, so the team extracted maximal value for him while they still could.

Huet would post incredible numbers with the Caps in 13 games (a .936 save percentage and 1.63 GAA).  But the third seed Capitals were upset by the sixth seed Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, and Washington opted to seek other solutions in goal that summer.  Huet signed a four year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks - 4 years at just over $5.6M per season - which would prove to be the final contract of his NHL career.

The native of St. Martin-d'Heres / Grenoble, France never lived up to his rich contract.  Though his first season in Chicago wasn't horrendous - a .909 save percentage and a 2.53 GAA - it was hardly what the team expected from a top dollar netminder.  After splitting duties with Nikolai Khabibulin that year, he again failed to claim the starting position, losing out to Antti Niemi in 2010 when the Hawks went on a run to snap their league-longest Stanley Cup drought (with that title now falling to the Toronto Maple Leafs).  Faced with a large burden on their salary cap for two more years of a back-up goalkeeper, the Hawks convinced Huet to leave North America and join HC Fribourg-Gotteron SA of the Swiss National League A.

After a solid 2.86 GAA and .919 save percentage in his first year with Gotteron, he led the club to a third place finish with a 2.12 GAA and .920% this season.

With his season in the books, Huet's next challenge will be the World Championship.  He will play for Team France as one of only two with NHL experience (the other being Ottawa's Stephane Da Costa).  France has no legitimate shot at a run for the title, and Huet knows this, stating in a recent interview that a main goal is to avoid relegation.  France will play in Group A beginning Friday, meaning matchups against Canada, the United States, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Belarus, and Kazhakstan in the preliminary round.  Certainly the games against the last two are most critical, with the first five representing significant challenges and Belarus missing its starpower in the Kostitsyn brothers.

Relegation isn't the only thing on the team's mind, however.  The IIHF WHC represents the last tournament that determines rankings for the Olympics in 2014.  France currently sits 14th in the world rankings, with only the top 9 seated nations earning automatic berths.  With 260 points separating them from 9th place Norway (and Slovakia, Belarus, Denmark, and Latvia to pass in between), it is near impossible for them to completely close the gap in this one tournament, but they will get to participate in a final qualification tournament for one of the last three Olympic spots next February.  If Huet can help the team gain enough points to finish in the 10-12 spots per IIHF (still a huge challenge), then the country will serve as host of one of the final qualification events, giving them a slight edge.

Huet's contract is up at the end of this season, and he was asked not long ago if he would be considering retirement.  While he acknowledges he's entering the twilight of his career, he has indicated that he hopes to continue playing, whether it be in Switzerland or elsewhere, and will begin considering offers following the Worlds.  Certainly it would be a dream for him to conclude his career with the 2014 Olympics, but whether his country gets there or not, he can look back proudly on a highly unorthodox but nonetheless remarkable career.

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