It is clear that French-born Cristobal Huet’s aspirations as a Number One Goaltender—and not just in Chicago—are riding on this season's performance.
When then-Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon signed Huet for four years at over five and a half million dollars per, Cristobal was coming off a stunning end of season stint with the Washington Capitals: 11-2, a 1.63 GAA, 2 shutouts and a .936 save percentage. In a hot UFA market, reportedly wooed by the Capitals and Red Wings as well as the Hawks, Cristo cashed in as he approached his 33rd birthday.
With elite pay came elite expectations: that Cristobal would be, as they say in his homeland, ‘l’homme de la situation’—the man for the job. More than a few hockey writers expressed skepticism ranging from doubt to condemnation of his new contract. The old chestnuts “never won a playoff series”, “goes down too early”, “prone to soft goals”, “not a true number one” peppered their prose, especially when Huet appeared to lose the starting job to Nikolai Khabibulin. The skepticism increased when The Bulin Wall backstopped the Blackhawks for almost the entirety of the team’s run to the Conference Final. And a weak performance, admittedly after a long layoff, in Game 4 of that series, followed by spectacular near-perfection in the Game 5 loss, further perplexed those who wonder if Monsieur Huet can be ‘Le Man’.
So who is Huet? In terms of save percentage, he ranks among the top ten NHL goalies playing 60 games or more over the past three seasons. That’s better than the last three Cup winning netminders, Fleury, Osgood and Giguere. During interviews, he gives the impression of a mature, soft-spoken individual; frank about his strengths and shortcomings, and the need to take his game to the highest level.
But goaltending is the most brutal of hockey vocations. The last Chicago goalie to capture the Stanley Cup back in 1961, the legendary Glenn Hall, was another soft-spoken man—who reportedly threw up before games from the stress of playing.
The fans can be brutal too. During their exhibition home opener at the United Center, a poor outing by Huet elicited boos from the stands. Not the way to begin a campaign where much of the hockey media sees Chicago as being a legitimate contender for their first Western Division Championship since 1992 and even a Stanley Cup. The question all of them are asking is the same: “Is Cristobal Huet good enough to take them there?”
If the Blackhawks are, as they were last season, one of the best defensive teams in the NHL—due in part to the effective platooning of Huet with Khabibulin—that question might seem ridiculous. Even more so when one notes that Huet was in goal for the Hawks’ franchise record-setting win streak. And after all, isn’t hockey a team game first and foremost? Isn’t the reduction of shots on goal and quality scoring chances a collective responsibility? The counter-argument will be made that goaltending is to hockey what pitching is to baseball. Without The Man on the mound or between the pipes—the one who makes that pitch or save that changes, and ultimately wins the game…a team is destined to fall short of the summit.
Unfair as it might seem, the perception of Cristobal Huet will prevail unless he proves his critics wrong this season. Should he falter, or be supplanted by Finnish newcomer Antti Niemi whose recent shutout sparked the embers of the ‘goalie controversy’ bonfire, that perception will be even more difficult to erase.
Both GM Stan Bowman and Coach Joel Quenneville say that without ‘the distraction’ of competing for the number one job, Huet should have a better season. He has the endorsement of teammates like Dustin Byfuglien, who said in a preseason interview, “We feel confident that Cristobal is the right goaltender for this team”. Still, insinuations that the level of trust is less than solid persist.
Huet might be keeping the words of the existentialist French writer Albert Camus in mind: “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.”
Having been ridiculed, Cristobal Huet may now have the best chance of his NHL career to accomplish a great deed—and make his critics eat their words.