Cristobal Huet has become the goalie the National Hockey League forgot, exiled to Switzerland not because he couldn’t play in the world’s best league, but because his level of play didn’t match an expensive contract in Chicago.
So the Blackhawks, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with Huet on the bench in favor of Antti Niemi, and facing a salary cap crunch that would break up their championship roster forever, sent Huet and the remaining two seasons of a four-year, $22.4-million contract overseas, where it didn’t count against the cap.
Now, with that $5.625-million per season deal expired, Huet is a free agent once again. And with NHL teams scrambling for experienced backup help after Martin Biron re-signed with the Rangers and Johan Hedberg made it clear to suitors he planned to stay in New Jersey, they could do a lot worse than Huet.
The French-born stopper is eager to prove he should still be in the NHL.
“I still belong, I’m better than some other guys, and I’d like another shot,” Huet told InGoal Magazine 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.”
Huet admitted it was tough to lose his job because of the lucrative contract, but knows the money involved isn’t going to invoke a lot of sympathy. He also knows it won’t be easy to get back to the NHL, and it didn’t get any easier after the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, two of the teams that wanted Hedberg, signed Al Montoya and Chris Mason, respectively, to be their backups.
That said, the free agent goaltending market is thin on proven, experienced goalies, Huet has a lot of the on-ice characteristics that made Hedberg such a hot commodity, and he is willing to be patient, even if it means waiting past the typical signing periods in Europe to see if a spot in the NHL opens up.
“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.”
So why should NHL teams consider Huet after two years out of the League?
After coming over to the NHL the first time as a late bloomer at 27, Huet posted some good numbers with Los Angeles, Montreal and Washington before an up-and-down second season in Chicago – and a sizzling Niemi – cost him his first true starting job. His best season was his first with the Canadiens, when he posted a .929 save percentage in 2005-06, pushing one-time Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore out of Montreal at the trade deadline that season.
Huet went on an 11-2 run with a .936 save percentage after being traded from Montreal to Washington at the 2008 deadline, a run that helped earn the big contract in Chicago. And while his numbers slipped that final season with the Blackhawks, Huet maintains a .913 career save percentage despite playing most of his NHL games shortly after the lockout, when goalie numbers slipped.
Huet’s real value may lie beyond the statistics.
Playing in the top Swiss League, where he posted a .932 save percentage for HC Fribourg-Gotteron last season, Huet faced a lot more east-west, pass-first, shoot-never play that requires more patience on the skates for goalies. It’s that same quality, and the need to stay patient and read the play and shots rather than defaulting to a blocking butterfly, that has helped make so many other late-blooming European goalies desirable to NHL teams in recent years, often earning one-way contracts despite no North American experience.
“Here you have to be able to read more of the play and the passing options, because teams tends to play a little fancier,” Huet said of a style some NHL goalie coaches think translates better to the NHL than the AHL.
“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. But for me that’s something that when I play well that has always been in play and that’s something I have to do even in North America if you want to be successful. I’ve always thought that.”
Huet, who once worked with Francois Allaire at his summer camps in Switzerland before first coming over, was always considered a technically sound stopper during his time in the NHL. But he kept on eye on the evolving style here and, combined with the need for it over there, worked to become more reactive.
“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,” Huet said. “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.”
Unlike other European goalies coming over for the first time, Huet brings 272 games of NHL experience, which should make the adjustment back to things like more traffic and tips, different angles on smaller ice, and a harder forecheck, easier to adjust to than it is for less experienced pros coming from Europe.
In fact, Huet thinks a transition back to the NHL will be easier as a goalie, for the same reasons so many goalies find it easier in ways than the AHL.
“Playing in the best league is always easier somehow, because you can rely more on everyone,” he said. “Everybody is more accountable defensively.”
Huet, who turns 37 in September, said he’s been totally healthy the last two seasons, understands he won’t be coming across to a starring role, and points to past success as a backup splitting time. The fact he didn’t play as regularly even as a No.1 in Switzerland, where there are several long breaks in the season for National team play, may also be an advantage coming back. For while there are talented younger goalies, few have experience sitting for long periods, especially in the NHL, which is part of what made Hedberg and Biron so desirable.
“It’s a different rhythm in Europe, a lot more practices,” Huet 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.
“I know my role would be this way now that I am out of the league,” he continued. “So for me it would be an opportunity to compete, but at same time help a guy, be a good guy in the room and try to be the best I can when I play.”
As for fits, the goaltending market could change once the Canucks move Roberto Luongo. Assuming they don’t get an experienced backup back in that deal, it may be worth noting Huet had some of his best seasons – and enjoyed working – with current Vancouver goaltending coach Roland Melanson in Montreal.
“He appreciated my work ethic, and I became a better goalie,” Huet said.
Huet knows there’s no guarantee they get to work together again, that he can’t be picky, and an NHL offer may never come. But given the alternatives on a free agent market with more questions than answers after Dan Ellis and Alex Auld, any team needing an experienced goalie should remember Huet is still stopping pucks, and eager to prove he’s still capable of doing it in the NHL.