Every American likes a redemption story. It’s wired into our DNA.
Announcer Ted Williams went from homeless to celebrity overnight. Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton went from first overall draft pick to drug addict to American League MVP over an eleven-year period. NHL stars Mario Lemieux, Saku Koivu, and Phil Kessel rebounded from cancer to re-capture star status in hockey’s best league.
When you consider those accomplishments, Al Montoya’s meteoric rise with the Islanders may seem insignificant by comparison. But it’s certainly one that no one saw coming.
Let’s go back to February 8. When upstart rookie Kevin Poulin caught a rut in the always-perilous Nassau Coliseum ice during warm-ups, the Islanders’ goaltending situation hit threat level midnight. The team traded away Dwayne Roloson five weeks earlier and were in the midst of another Rick DiPietro knee swelling sideshow (complete with a TKO from Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson). Nathan Lawson, dealing with knee troubles of his own at the time, isn’t an NHL-caliber goalie. And Mikko Koskinen, a 2009 second-round pick, allowed two goals on the first two shots he saw in his NHL career that night against Toronto.
One thing was clear: The Islanders were going to have trouble keeping pucks out of their own net with their internal options. Their options were either too worn down by constant injury (DiPietro), too untalented (Lawson), too raw (Koskinen), too injured (Poulin), or too proud to report to the team (Evgeni Nabokov). So it was no secret that Garth Snow was looking to add another goalie to the fold, just for the sake of having someone somewhat reliable to stand between the pipes for the rest of the season.
What did surprise was that his solution was Montoya, whose career appeared to be dead. His save percentage for the year was .891, and that was with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL. He had a whopping total of five career NHL games to his credit, all with Phoenix two years prior. The former elite Ranger prospect, drafted sixth overall, failed both there and in Phoenix, despite the faith placed in him by Don Maloney.
On the surface, it seemed like a typical Islander move: cheap (in terms of money and cost to acquire, a sixth-round pick), shrouded in uncertainty, and another misguided attempt to “outsmart the rest of the league”. But a funny thing happened when Montoya arrived: he actually looked pretty good. He had issues with rebound control, but he was able to direct pucks out of harm’s way despite it. His lateral movement and athleticism looked spectacular. Most importantly, the team performed well from the outset, winning his first three starts.
As Montoya continued to get starts, conventional wisdom waited for him to come crashing back down to earth. But he kept his strong play going into March. 33 of 34 saves against Minnesota on March 2. Out-dueling Jaroslav Halak three days later. Out-dueling Tim Thomas six days after that. A blip at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers could’ve been a warning sign, but Montoya erased that with wins in Tampa Bay on the 22nd and a win over the Rangers last night, where his team chased Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie who once blocked his path to the NHL.
Montoya’s success stabilized an Islander team in flux and has helped them to one of the best records in the league during his time here. He’s 9-4-4 in his seventeen starts, with a 2.33 GAA and .923 save percentage. More importantly, the Islanders respond when Montoya is in net. You can tell they like playing in front of him. They look more confident in front of him, as opposed to when they play in front of Rick DiPietro.
It might be hard to understand the 26-year-old Montoya’s success, but it isn’t without precedent. Goalies can develop late, and sometimes need a change of scenery to get their chance to prove themselves. Montoya wasn’t going to get a fair shot with the Rangers, who had Lundqvist between the pipes, or with Phoenix, who had their own late bloomer in Ilya Bryzgalov. In hindsight, he was buried before he got his chance. Once he got it, he showed the signs of the elite talent he had in the first place.
There are examples of goalies who needed numerous years of development all over the NHL. Jean Sebastian-Giguere, a former seventh overall pick, started to hit his stride around this age in Anaheim, his third organization. Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff wasn’t a full-time starter in the NHL until he was 27. And let’s not forget Tim Thomas, who bounced around Europe and the AHL for a decade before securing a starting job as a 34-year-old. So it’s feasible that Montoya, once perceived a bust, could bloom into the goalie he was once projected to become.
But there’s a second edge to that sword. Plenty of goalies can put together stretches of great play over a couple of months, a year, or several years, only to completely lose touch with that form and find themselves out of the league. Jim Carey won a starting role with Washington at 21 and won a Vezina trophy the next year. He was back in the AHL by 1998 and was out of hockey altogether after the 1998-99 season. Byron Dafoe usurped Carey as the starter in Boston as a 27-year-old, and put together three stellar seasons for the Bruins (with one injury-shortened one in between). One year after a stellar 2001-02 campaign with Boston, he was traded to Atlanta, where his goals against average ballooned from 2.21 to 4.36. He was out of the NHL after the lockout.
Islander fans can point to some recent examples of their own. Wade Dubielewicz’s four-game miracle to get the Islanders into the playoffs in 2007 was followed by a mediocre season as the team’s backup. He’s in Europe now. Yann Danis’ save percentage with the Islanders in 2008-09 was .910. He’s in Europe now. And let’s not forget Ron Hextall, who sandwiched a horrible season with the Islanders in 1993-94 between a great stretch with the Flyers and a good stretch with the Flyers (with one season in Quebec thrown in for good measure).
The Islanders rewarded Montoya’s success with a one-year extension, something his play deserved. Playing in front of an NHL defense as opposed to a defense on one of the AHL’s worst teams doesn’t hurt. He isn’t the first goaltender to struggle in the AHL, either. (Martin Brodeur, anyone?) But his play also came on a team that was well out of the playoff picture by the time he arrived. It was a no-pressure situation, and he made the most of it.
That’s why Montoya only got extended one year. The expectations for next year’s Islander squad will be higher, as will the expectations for Montoya. If the team is serious about winning, he’ll likely get the first shot at the starting job over DiPietro.
He can ride the wave of redemption through the rest of the season. He finally got his shot. He took advantage. But we won’t know until next season what this season means.