The Last Days of Huet The Hawk?

Huet and the Hawks: going their separate ways? (Photo: Wikipedia)

The career of Cristobal Huet as a Chicago Blackhawk may be coming to a close. For some, it can’t come soon enough. When Huet gave up four goals on seven shots in six minutes in the second period of the Hawks’ game versus Detroit, Sunday, March 7th, the home crowd at the United Center seemed to issue their final condemnation. The internet fan forums reverberated with anger and frustration directed at the French-born netminder. The failed efforts to trade him, widely speculated upon in the press, appear to confirm his departure is just a matter of time.

From the day in July 2008 that former Hawk GM Dale Tallon announced Huet had signed a four year, 22.5 million dollar deal with an annual cap hit of over $5.6 million, the skeptics scoffed. If Washington Capitals GM George McPhee didn’t feel he should pay that much for Huet after he had backstopped the Caps to the playoffs in stellar fashion, why should Tallon?

As much as Huet’s statistics appeared to confirm him as a quality netminder, critics maintained that Huet’s inconsistencies—and his rich, lengthy contract—would come back to bite the Hawks.

Those critics have been many. The most savage of these has been the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom, whose column “Huet is French for ‘Mommy, make it stop’” was a withering attack on a goaltender “just good enough to break your heart”. Pierre McGuire, whose high-volume vocalese makes him a distinctive and often controversial figure on NBC’s “Game of the Week” and TSN’s hockey broadcasts, doesn’t hesitate to shred Huet, sometimes in mocking tones.

Even the measured assessment of Montreal-based French-language TV network RDS’ esteemed commentator Norman Flynn, who has watched Huet since his arrival in Montreal, confirms the prevailing view. “Cristobal has always had the talent,” observed Flynn during a pregame broadcast this season. “What has been the problem with him is lack of consistency.” Flynn went so far as to suggest, back in October 2009, in his column on RDS’ website, that the Hawks should trade Huet and bring in the Islanders’ Dwayne Roloson.

When the storm of rumors preceding the March trade deadline had Huet being ejected for either Roloson or Tomas Vokoun, Blackhawks Special Consultant and all-time hockey guru William ‘Scotty’ Bowman felt it necessary to declare on Toronto’s Sports Radio 590 that the chatter was laughable.

Given that Bowman himself reportedly had his own starting goaltender with the Red Wings during the 1993-94 season, Tim Cheveldae, traded due to Bowman’s apparent dissatisfaction, there is a touch of irony in the situation. Just as Chris Osgood emerged that year as a rookie to make Cheveldae obsolete, so has rookie Antti Niemi, a Bowman favorite, come to the fore in Chicago, prompting calls for Huet’s ousting.

While Bowman Senior is officially an ‘advisor’, the architecture and attitude of the current Blackhawks team have the irrevocable flavor of Bowman’s brew.

Much as Bowman may have tried to countermand the rumor mill, some of the hockey world’s most respected journalists, among them ESPN/Hockey Night In Canada’s Pierre Lebrun, gave substance to the scuttlebutt, both on television and in his web columns. Lebrun reported sources who both dismissed and insisted a deal was on the table.

In his post-Trade Deadline recap, the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, a six-year Hockey Night In Canada regular, went in to further detail on his blog. “Strongly believe there was one, possibly two teams who were willing to take Cristobal Huet from Chicago. (Should clarify: I’m more certain about one than the other.) But the Blackhawks decided to stand pat, much to the surprise of other GMs. Unloading Huet’s contract (two years remaining, $5.625 million cap hit) would have cost at least a first-rounder and an established player. (I know you’re going to ask, but I’d be guessing on whom. The source wouldn’t tell me.)

“Why did Chicago decline? Scotty Bowman believes strongly in the Detroit model: If you don’t have a top-three goalie, you protect him with great team defense and puck possession. The Blackhawks – disciplined and talented – have a shot. But, to duplicate the Red Wings’ success, they will have to show two things: their forwards are as committed to back pressure as Detroit’s and their defensive corps is as good. As great as the Blackhawks look, we’re talking Lidstrom/Rafalski/Kronwall/Stuart here. What a tough, tough call to make.

“Among those who agree: (Hockey Night In Canada commentators—ed.) Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. We had a great discussion over beers the other night where they made an excellent point: Chicago would pay a huge price for someone to take Huet, then trade for another goalie.”

Let us step back for a moment, and try to imagine what it must feel like for someone to be given millions of dollars to play hockey, be featured in a team’s advertising campaigns and on the covers of national sports magazines, and yet constantly be reported upon as being on the chopping block.

Others will argue that hockey being entertainment, and players being highly-paid public figures, they acquiesce to the slings and arrows that are part and parcel of what some call outrageous fortune.

And Huet is, after all, one of the highest paid men in his business. If the paying audience doesn’t feel he earns his keep, they feel he is fair game in an unfair game.

If Cristobal Huet is something of an enigma, it should not surprise us; to be a goaltender is the most pressure packed position one can play. Unlike the pitcher in baseball or the quarterback in football, the goalie cannot positively impact the game—he can only attempt to repair the mistakes made by his teammates in allowing shots by the opponent to be made.

Looking at the ups and downs of goalies over the years, finding more than a handful who have been consistently strong from the beginning of their careers to the end is a challenge, as is finding goalies who tell you how much fun it is. The legendary Glenn Hall, last Hawk netminder to win Stanley, was unequivocal about his distaste for the profession. The great Ken Dryden knew the hazards of the trade, and he saved his own skin and emotional well-being by making an early exit while still at the top.

In a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Hawk legend Tony Esposito weighed in with his goaltenders’ wisdom. “What people are truly talking about is that the goalies are not proven commodities as far as the playoffs are concerned. But they’re both capable. When a team is as good as the Blackhawks are, people are going to look for a weakness. And it’s an up-and-down position; there is no in-between. You’re either a hero or a bum.”

Having been called worse than a ‘bum’—many of the insults being xenophobic–it cannot be lost on Huet that he is not wanted by many of the faithful. How can anyone, in a city where the fanfare surrounding the Hawks and their Cup aspirations grows louder by the day, be impervious to the abuse heaped upon him?

The team may put on a brave face, from the GM to the players. Stan Bowman declares he is “comfortable with our goaltending”. Coach Joel Quenneville says the losses “can’t be blamed on Huey”. Star players like Captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp can attempt to deflect the media’s attention by saying that the team “has to be better”.

Huet, known as far back during his days in Montreal as a “stand-up guy who took the blame for the losses and shared the credit for the wins” according to The Gazette’s Dave Stubbs, now finds himself in a netherworld.

While he still wears the Indian Head, those who believe he is worthy do not appear anywhere to be found.

In an interview for a Monday morning story by the Chicago Tribune’s David Baugh, “The Chicago Blackhawks Can’t Give Up On Cristobal Huet”, Huet “had a good, clear view of the one of the worst losses of the season”.

Haugh reported, “‘Obviously, it’s my responsibility and I don’t hide from that,’ Huet said softly outside the Hawks’ dressing room. ‘But I felt pretty good. I thought I was ready. I’ll be fine. I think everybody let everybody down today.’”

Is that statement a not-so-subtle shift from his previous stance? After prior losses this season, Huet would talk about how he understood that he had to improve his game, and how he knew the responsibility was his. After the Olympic break and a vacation in Mexico, he has talked about how he feels refreshed and how the team needs to share the load.

He was given the chance to start three games in a row after Niemi, Quenneville’s first choice, stumbled in the Hawks’ first post-Olympics outing. Huet showed both some flash, with spectacular saves, and the same flaws that rile his detractors, like a tendency to over-commit to shooters and to give up goals in quick succession.

With the season rapidly approaching its zenith, and the playoff matchups already being anticipated, the question of how confident, or not, the Hawks are in their high-priced goalie is threatening to eclipse their success story.

The plunging save percentage that has Huet ranked as 42nd in the NHL, 2nd worst among all starting goaltenders, is repeatedly cited as a sign of the inevitable.

But the Blackhawks do not have many options. They could push Niemi into the breach, hoping he injects what Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek did in their fledgling years, that is to say, a competitive spirit; for the sobering fact is that neither Belfour or Hasek as playoff rookies got the Hawks very far.

Some might call Huet the ‘lame duck’. Some might want to tar and feather him. But from now until the end of the season and the playoffs, Cristobal Huet has something the Blackhawks may need.

And those who saw how Huet can play, such as he did in Game Five of the 2009 Western Conference Final, still hold out hope for the re-appearance of that version.

David Haugh made a passionate case in the aforementioned Tribune column: “It’s a gamble, but the Hawks have to risk letting Huet play through the rough patches to develop a rhythm every winning goalie needs. Quenneville’s well of patience can’t be bottomless, but changing goaltenders for the third time in a week would be an odd way to build stability this late.

“If this is the goalie tandem the Blackhawks had enough faith in to resist all trade offers, now is no time to waver on the only guy with playoff experience. A month before the playoffs represents the time Huet needs an arm around the shoulder instead of kick in the pants.”

The fans may not be so compassionate.

After all is said and done, the business decision that rests with Blackhawks management will be decidedly dispassionate. If the Vegas odds favor the Hawks in their quest for the Cup this year, one wonders what odds the bookmakers might lay on Cristobal Huet being bought out this summer.

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About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.

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  1. Al Cimaglia says:

    It’s a gamble, but the Hawks have to risk letting Huet play through the rough patches to develop a rhythm every winning goalie needs.

    Only if they believe he gives them a better chance than Niemi.

    Otherwise they will hitch their wagon to Niemi and hope his inexperience is not a factor.

    Sooner than later they have to pick one…

  2. Dave Morris says:

    Al, I agree with you here.

    I also remember how Keenan flipped Millen with Belfour in the ’90 post season, and then how Belfour got supplanted by Hasek in the ’92 playoffs. 

    It’s déja vu all over again.

  3. djd says:

    Dave,
    I appreciate the time you take to cobble together these blogs, but what is your point here? As you know from our days at HB this has been going on for well over a year now and nothing has really changed for Huet.  I saw him play plenty in Montreal and so did you. We both know what he can do. I stuck by him all of last year, saying he would be better when he was a “real” number one.  Not so, so far.
    You have to earn it and his stay in ChiTown has been plagued by inconsistency. He’s never been afforded a comfort zone as a player since he’s donned the Indianhead.
    Signed as a number one, at number one dollars, and then relegated to a 1b role behind a goaltender who had underachieved during the previous three years of his four year contract, it was clear last year, that Q favored Khabi from the outset. Of course, that would play on any athletes mindset—never mind what’s been going on in the press and what the real story at the trade deadline was. Fact is—and Huet knows it—he’s underachieved big time. I could count on one-hand the number of games he’s “stolen” for the team in his two years in Chicago. He is not a good fit here … however, we all know that. Never mind the off-season, what about now?
    So, since you have carefully skated around “your own” opinion, what would you do here? Play him or go with the kid?  Either way, the ‘hawks will have a built-in excuse if they don’t get to the cup finals … the goaltending wasn’t good enough.
    There’s nothing to lose by going with Niemi. Every goaltender has to get “experience” in the playoffs at some point. They’ve all had to start with no prioir experience. It comes down to confidence, personally and from a team point of view and I think the ‘hawks are more comfortable with Niemi. I know I am.

  4. Dave Morris says:

    @DJD> my point was to give an overview of the issue…as you know, I prefer to let the reader draw their own conclusion.

    My opinion is, I think–pretty clear: Quenneville and Hawks management are in an untenable situation, at least for now.

    They’re clearly not happy with Huet, but they couldn’t trade him.

    From what has been reported, Stan Bowman exhausted all reasonable avenues to upgrade the Hawks’ goaltending. Either the price was too high, or the goalie being offered wasn’t the solution, or somewhere in between. 

    Niemi is–based on what we’ve seen–probably not yet at the level of development where he is ready to take on the job as playoff starter.

    In other words, the Hawks might be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  5. djd says:

    Maybe the coaching should try some “tortorella” tough love and tell it like it really is.
     
    Every time Q casts a vote of confidence Huet throws it right back at him, like a hot baton in a relay-race.
     
    Niemi has bad games and lets in soft goals too, but he rebounds from them much better.
     
    Rock and a hard place—you betcha.
     

  6. Dave Morris says:

    @DJD>the Hawks used to have a ‘tough’ coach like Torts…Mike Keenan.

    He had no reservations about yanking goalies.

    Looks to me like Q is just trying to manage things as best he can until the playoffs.

    And who knows, maybe even then, he’ll rotate Huet and Niemi like pitchers in and out of the bullpen. 

  7. Al Cimaglia says:

    I don’t like to criticize a head coach….

    DJD to your point I’m sure you read what I posted.

    It’s time for a kick in the butt instead of a pat on the back.

    Otherwise Quenneville will be second guessed from here to Ottawa this summer…..

  8. vito says:

    good points dave, they need to give either niemi or huet a chance in the playoffs i say go with niemi he looks better but its who the team themselves believe in or play better with like last season they rallied around habby and believed in him  

    • Dave Morris says:

      @Vito> We  can look at what Bruce Boudreau is doing in WSH, flipflopping Varlamov and Theodore.

      Boudreau’s more outspoken than Quenneville, but their situations are similar.

      Varlamov wasn’t playing very well earlier this year and Boudreau called him out. Theodore’s also been the object of Boudreau’s anger.

      To Al’s and DJD’s point, maybe Q needs to be tougher in public, but we don’t know, of course, what gets said in the lockerroom or on/off the practice ice.

      But whatever it takes to motivate the Hawk goalies…Q will probably try it.

      Some people say Huet’s problem is in his head–that he doesn’t have that ‘switch’ he can flip on, and raise his game. 

      I really don’t know about that. Sometimes Huet does seem to flip that switch and comes up big. As he did a few times this year, and in the WCF Game 5.

      But there might be another problem.

      One of Huet’s weaknesses, according to one of his scouting reports, is a problem with lateral mobility…getting across his crease. 
      http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.cgi?2311

      If that’s indeed the case, motivation might not be the issue, but a more serious, fundamental flaw in Huet as a goaltender.    

  9. Al Cimaglia says:

    As far as Huet goes his worse problem is losing battles in his crease and …yes he has trouble post to post and going to down too early etc…

    My thinking is a coach can show toughness by limiting ice time….

    Huet’s flaws were there before he got here…. it is a question of hiding them.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Al, so essentially what you’re suggesting here–if I read you correctly–is that the Hawks’ defensive systems and execution have been able to mask Huet’s flaws…for the most part.

      Some observers have also suggested that Huet’s body positioning makes him either look small in the net and/or leaves vulnerable areas.

      I certainly am not an expert when it comes to goalie technique, but it seems that goaltenders go through phases, especially later in their careers, where they need to take a step back and re-evaluate their game.

      Chris Osgood struggled for several years before he made a committment to transforming the way he played the position…this allowed him to remain in the league and win another Cup.

      Dwayne Roloson is another goalie who seems to have re-tooled his technical approach. 

      The real problem for the Hawks is that they signed Huet, who is in the later stages of his career to a long term, admittedly overpaid (per Tallon’s own statements) contract…so they bought all the flaws that have been amplified this season, and yet he still has two years to go. 

      If Huet has had mobility issues, maybe he is having to compensate. So he can have a good game or two, or maybe even three…but doesn’t have the physical resiliency and stamina to stand up over the long haul.  

      Interestingly enough, Huet was sidelined, albeit briefly, during the season prior to his signing with Chicago, with various back and groin problems. Could those be lingering ailments?

      I also can’t help thinking of the bad seasons that Jose Theodore and Marty Turco have had recently.

      Theo has played much better recently, but of course he’s at the end of a contract year. As is Turco, who seems to have surged as well.

      It may simply be that Huet peaked the year he played for Washington, and that we are now seeing him on the downside.

      There would be more irony if the Hawks bought him out this year, and Huet comes back with another team as a bargain value at a fraction of the price.

  10. Dave Morris says:

    By the way, just to add another perspective, this from Stan Fischler at The Fischler Report, March 8th edition:

    “…the fact remains that neither Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Jose, Washington nor You-Name-It can be considered a juggernaut. Interestingly, each club has questionable – Cupwise– goaltending. Neither Marc-Andre Fleury, Cristobal Huet, Evgeni Nabokov nor Jose Theodore has shown Finals-quality netminding.”

  11. Mariposa Belle says:

    Signing goaltenders are like Goldilock’s choices for porridge.

    The ‘Hawks signed Huet when he was too hot. Now he has little to no market value, so Joel Q has to decide how to play him.

    After Sunday’s display, I believe that the team has to run with Niemi. With the ‘Hawks having a young outfit gunning for Stanley, it makes sense to include the goalie. It would also concentrate the mind of Huet, should he be called upon. I can envision Huet as providing the goaltending needed for the ‘Hawks, but I would not bet the farm on it.

  12. Dave Morris says:

    @Mariposa> you make a very valid point.

    One can look back at the decision by the Capitals to replace Theodore with Varlamov in last year’s playoffs. The rookie was good enough to get the Caps to a seven-game semi-finals battle with the Cup Champion Penguins.

    Steve Mason, the Calder Trophy winner, could not perform the same magic for the Blue Jackets.

    Is Antti Niemi this year’s rookie goalie who could gain the sufficient confidence of his young teammates to take them to, or  further than, the Conference Finals…or even the Cup ?

    Cam Ward did it…and so did Patrick Roy.  But they, and Ken Dryden, are the only ones to accomplish that feat since 1971.

    Long odds, but not impossible.

  13. RJF says:

    It is very possible that Huet has “lost a step”, look at the Olympics and at the NHL this year, it is the young guns that are getting it done and the old, experienced not so much.  Look at the top players in every position- goal, forwards, defense.  And it is the same with every sport.  It is like a running back who loses that half a step, a goalie may lose that little bit of reflex and it may not seem like much, but it is all the difference in the world when you are playing at such a high level. 

    Niemi seems to have some talent and may just need experience.  He could have significant upside potential at least.  If we want to win the cup this year, we may have to gamble.

  14. Fork says:

    To say Huet has/had no trade value in a market that saw two different teams take Vesa Toskala makes no sense.

    The Hawks’ system is set up to basically take the goalie out of the equation. When they play their game effectively (vs. Edmonton & Vancouver last week), they can put anyone in net and win.

    When the Hawks play their game poorly (vs. the Islanders, Detroit), it wouldn’t matter if 1993-vintage Patrick Roy was back there.

    That being said, if Huet had made one or two big saves on Sunday, he would have picked up the team, and this discussion wouldn’t be happening.

    But at this point, the horse is dead, beaten, and rotting. This is the Hawks’ goaltending for the rest of the year.

  15. Dave Morris says:

    @Fork> from all appearances, there where no teams who wanted take Huet and his two years remaining on his contract.

    That tells you what his trade value was at the March deadline.

    Toskala, Turco and Theodore are all UFAs, so the comparison isn’t relevant in this case.

    This is not a question of ‘beating a dead horse’…it’s an examination of what Huet’s future might, or might not be, with the Blackhawks. 

    That future seems to be in doubt.

    I am sure there are many Hawks fans who would like Huet to be better than he is, but one can’t expect them to be pleased with, or silent about, the fact that he is not.

    Especially not at the salary he commands. 

    As for the discussion taking place had Huet made a few keys saves on Sunday: his recurring inconsistency not just in Chicago, but throughout his time in Montreal and even at critical times in Washington, has ensured that the discussion has continued to this point.

    If the Blackhawks do manage to overcome this goaltending obstacle, they will prove themselves to be an even better team than people credit them for being. 

    And if Mr Huet manages to restore his game to a reliable level, more power to him.

  16. shruew says:

    I don’t think anyone’s been questioning whether or not Huet’s future’s been in doubt :)

  17. jt19 says:

    we have what we have… so our D better start playing better in front of huey or neimi.
    what is the status with boynton? sassone said he can’t come up without going thru reentry waivers… right?
    if sopel comes up with some mystery injury, can boynton come up on emergency call up w/o going thru waivers first? (certainly he would be claimed, right)?

  18. Al Cimaglia says:

    If Tim wrote it probably true.

    Doesn’t matter really.

    Boynton  is here in case of emergency….He isn’t better than anyone up here now….including Hendry.

  19. shruew says:

    That is correct, Boyton had to clear waivers early Feb from Anaheim to be sent down so he would have to go through re-entry.

    Which would mean if claimed, the Hawks would have to add half his salary to their cap for this year. So, I’m thinking he’s helping the hogs go deep in the playoffs this year.

    • Dave Morris says:

      With Quenneville’s decision to start Niemi tonight, he’s thrown the field wide open once again.

      The fundamental issue with Huet is that he’s signed on at elite money and elite term, to deliver elite goaltending.

      Anything else is just not going to cut it.

      Yet, in recent days, we’ve seen yet another plea from the media–this time Rick Morrissey at the Chicago Sun-Times, essentially telling Hawks fans to ‘calm down’.

      But why should they?

      Certainly, the rise of the Blackhawks is cause for enthusiasm, and it appears the fanbase has made their expression of enthusiasm quite clear.

      The UC is sold out and the merchandise sales of Hawks gear are soaring.

      So if Hawks fans want to voice their displeasure with Mr. Huet’s flaws, why shouldn’t they?

      Now, all that remains is for the Blackhawks’ premium-priced goaltender to demonstrate the appropriate performance-to-dollar ratio.

      Mr. Niemi, however, may end up making that a non-factor.

      We saw it happen in successive years, in Carolina, Anaheim, Washington and this year in Detroit…where the rookie/freshman goalie made the veteran obsolete.

      If youth must be served, so be it.

  20. Dave Morris says:

    It now appears all but certain that Huet is finished in Chicago.

    In today’s Chicago Tribune, Joel Quenneville announced that Antti Niemi would be the starter going forward: “He’s playing well. It was nice to show him some confidence (with back-to-back starts) and he responded with the game we were looking for.”

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/hockey/blackhawks/ct-spt-0402-bits-blackhawks-chicago–20100401,0,6001282.story

    This saga illustrates the dangers of players who sign deals they can’t live up to.

    It would be surprising to see Huet on the Hawk roster beyond this season.

    Chicago management’s options being limited, Huet may simply find himself waived…or perhaps, being asked to retire?

    When the next CBA comes up for review, it would not be surprising to see owners push to eliminate guaranteed contracts.

  21. Not many people would say this. Youve got some guts. I will say this, though. If you dont want to alienate any readers, youre gonna have to stop generalising so much. Perhaps you should try seeing both sides of this issue instead of assuming that yours is the only valid opinion. Id still read it, I like the way you write. But I noticed some people getting upset.

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