This piece was originally written by NHL Czech contributor Michael Langr and was posted on January 8th, 2019. You can find the full Czech version here.
He’s got plenty of experience. He won Czech Extraliga title with Litvinov, went to the Olympic Games and five World Championships and he has played for three years in KHL. In the NHL, however, Pavel Francouz is a rookie. Though, with 28 years of experience, he’s definitely not a naive youngster.
The unorthodox newcomer has been through two NHL games now. More accurately – half games, because against Arizona Coyotes two days before Christmas and on the 2nd of January against San Jose Sharks he was in net for 29 and 31 minutes respectively. Then the the Colorado Avalanche have sent him back to Loveland in American Hockey League, but his two appearances while Semyon Varlamov was injured have shown that he definitely has a future in the NHL.
“I liked him” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar after the game against San Jose. “He’s fighting for the puck. He’s fighting for rebounds. He’s steady, ready and he believes in himself. I’ve definitely liked what I’ve seen from him.”
He hasn’t yet started an NHL game. In both of games he was a back up to German goalie Philipp Grubauer. He didn’t do too well: against Arizona, Grubauer let in four goals in 28 minutes on 16 shots and which led to the Czech netminder taking over, making 21 saves and allowing only one goal against.
“We were trailing 4-1 so I had nothing to lose. I’ve tried to enjoy it and stop every shot” described Francouz. “It was a great experience and a lovely Christmas gift.”
Nevertheless, he’s enjoyed Christmas at ‘home’ in Loveland, where he plays for the Colorado Eagles.
“We were together with family, I had three days off and my wife had her mother and sister here. We weren’t bored, we had a nice Czech Christmas. Including one Russian teammate, Igor Shvyrev who is living here alone so we brought him to our house for a Christmas dinner. And showed him how Czech Christmas looks”, described Francouz about his Christmas holiday.
“We have a nice place in Loveland, close to the stadium. There are five or six of us from the team living in there, kind of a closed community, very relaxing”, he adds.
On New Year’s Eve he was called to NHL again and played his second game for the Avalanche. He started on the bench again entering midway through the game after Grubauer struggled – this time the German let four goals out of 14 shots in 26 minutes of play. Francouz then saved 12 of 13 shots he faced.
He has played for 61 minutes in total with a1.96 goals against average and 94.3 save percentage – which are the best numbers of the three goalies who have been in net for Colorado this season.
That doesn’t mean much yet. Both Varlamov and Grubauer have much more experience with NHL even through some fans are calling for Grubauer to be sent to the minors allowing the Czech to become the number two goalie for a while. Francouz will likely only see an NHL net again this season is one of the other two gets hurt.
Along with his commitment, competitiveness and hard work the Czech goalie has to be also patient.
“I understand the situation here. Semyon is a longtime number one, one of the best goalies in NHL and then Grubauer came in with a new three year contract. Of course I know what my status is. There would have to be a big miracle for the situation to end up differently than it was planned,” said Francouz earlier this year during training camp.
And those words remain true now.
In the AHL he has played 1370 minutes the third most by any goalie. He is seventh in the league with a 91.5 save percentage and has a 2.84 goals against average playing for an Eagles team that sits in fourth place out of seven in Pacific division.
“It’s a big difference between European and North American hockey and it’s also a huge difference between AHL and NHL. I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, a man has to be motivated to keep on improving and moving his game to the next level all the time”, says the goaltender who has better stats in NHL than in AHL – although it’s hard to judge from 61 minutes of game time.
That’s something Francouz - who have enjoyed every second of being “up there” - is aware of: “Every practice with those players has been an awesome experience. Even just sitting on a bench during an NHL game is a great thing, so I’ve done my best to enjoy it as much as possible.”
There are a couple of scenarios of for his future development. With Varlamov frequently injured, it’s possible that Francouz will see his third appearance in Avalanche jersey sooner rather than later; in an extreme case it’s also possible that he could take over if Grubauer continues to falter – similarly to how fellow Czech David Rittich jumped over the more experienced Eddie Lack to stay with Calgary last season. Although the Stanley Cup champion (as a backup for Braden Holtby) with Washington Capitals has much more stability than what Lack had in Calgary.
It’s also likely that Francouz will stay in the minors until the end of the season but Avalanche management is carefully scouting the team in Loveland so if they continue to see good results from the Czech goalie they, they can address the situation with the underwhelming Grubauer in the summer. Of course, it’s also possible that a chance in Colorado will not come at all and since Francouz is a free agent on July 1, the possibility exists that he will sign elsewhere in NHL or go back to Europe.
Whatever happens, he will know that he did his best to fight for an NHL spot. Doing it with patience and maturity.