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.
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.