I've probably added four or five inches to my biceps carrying all this water for Avalanche goaltender Peter Budaj. But even if I don't convince anyone but myself, I'll stick to my guns and defend him as long as he keeps playing well.
Why this worn-out topic again? Because of Terry Frei, of course.
In an otherwise unremarkable piece about the direction the Avalanche franchise might have gone if Joe Sakic hadn't come back, Frei sneaks in this little gem:
In the net, can the Avs get the Andrew Raycroft who won the Calder Trophy with Boston or the Raycroft who was awful at Toronto? Or can Peter Budaj, who hasn't been able to solidify his hold on the No. 1 job despite flashes in the past three seasons, finally pull that off and perhaps even join the league's upper tier?
The italics are mine.
The contention that Budaj is at fault for being relegated to backup last season seems a little strange. For one, Jose Theodore got hot last year. But before that, Budaj wasn't really given a chance to be the number one goalie anyway. Even when Theodore was still sucking something awful, Budaj was being relegated to backup---or at least suffering through that horrible goalie carousel.
While it was obvious that Joel Quenneville's juggling of his goaltenders was a horrible strategy, some continue to blame the goalies (namely Budaj) for that major coaching screw up. As if Quenneville had no choice but to play each goalie only a game or two at a time.
But let's look at some of Budaj's "flashes" and see if they warranted his continued relegation.
Budaj's first real chance to prove himself was between March 9th and April 9th of 2006. David Aebischer had been traded and replacement Jose Theodore was still recovering from injury, so Budaj (23 and a rookie at the time), was leaned on to fill the gap. How did he do? He went 7-4-2 including 2 shutouts and a save percentage of .907. Not a stellar showing, sure, but solid considering his lack of experience and the shakiness of the defense in front of him. And remember, he wasn't replaced by Theodore because of poor performance. The Avalanche front office specifically traded starter Aebischer for starter Theodore. Budaj was only the interim starter because the team assumed Theodore would be cut out for the role of number one as soon as he recovered from his foot injury.
Theodore went 1-2-1 to finish the season, played well in the conference quarterfinals then completely tanked against the Ducks in the second round.
In 2006-07, Joel Quenneville couldn't figure out what the hell to do with Budaj or Theodore, and alternated them back and forth for the first half of the season. Neither goalie played more than three games straight until Quenneville had had enough of Theodore and benched him on December 29th. Budaj then played twelve consecutive games, going 6-4-2. Again, not amazing, but he did have a save percentage better than .930 in five of those games, and better than .900 in nine.
The carousel got going again on January 28th and lasted until February 25th. Then, Budaj took over. And by took over, I mean he spanked the entire Northwest Division for more than a month. From February 27th until April 8th---the last game of the season---Budaj went 13-1-2, interrupted only three times by Jose Theodore, who went 2-1-0 during that time period. Budaj had a five-game winning streak and two four-game winning streaks as well. If that wasn't an indication of his ability when given consistent starts, what was?
Budaj finished the year with an excellent record of 31-16, a respectable goals against average of 2.58 and a save percentage of .905. Considering Jose Theodore's consistent crapping of the bed that year, it was assumed that Budaj would wrest the starting job away for good.
But that was not in the cards. Whether it was Budaj's "shaky" training camp (it wasn't that shaky, just not lights-out), or the Avalanche front office's insistence on getting their money's worth out of Jose Theodore, Coach Q continued the infuriating goalie carousel at the start of the 2007-08 season. Again, neither goalie played more than three games straight until December 13th. On that date, Budaj was given the chance to play consistently, and he rewarded the team with a 5-1-1 record in the next seven consecutive games. Jose Theodore then played one game, conceivably just to give Budaj a rest. Unfortunately, Budaj's next two games, on December 31st and January 2nd, were losses, and from that time on Jose Theodore was the starting goalie. Luckily Theodore played well, but there was no indication at all that Budaj would not have done the same had he been given the opportunity to do so.
So, in Peter Budaj's mere four chances to actually prove himself by consistently starting in net, his record was 31-10-7. That's pretty damn good. Budaj seems to suffer and play inconsistently when he starts inconsistently. The more regular his appearances, the more regular his wins. Unfortunately, under Coach Q, no amount of consistency or solid play was good enough when the team was still trying to save Jose Theodore's all-but-over career in net. Budaj's supposed inability to tie down the number one spot was far more the fault of the Save Theodore order and the coaching staff than his own shortcomings.
Assuming Tony Granato doesn't waste time trying to save the career of Andrew Raycroft, Peter Budaj will finally get the opportunity to prove himself---again. He will either do very well or he won't. He will lose some games, like any goalie will. I'm perfectly comfortable with the possibility that he could collapse under the pressure and suck horribly all season, leaving the Avalanche no choice but to lean on Raycroft or trade somebody good for another goalie. That's not impossible. But I also know that Budaj has indeed proven himself, and that the only problem seems to be that nobody ever paid attention. I trust he'll do just fine. Hopefully he doesn't make me look like an ass...