For the second year in a row, goaltending has been a hot topic of discussion during the NHL offseason in Chicago. However, this year the debates have nothing to do with who will be the Blackhawks starter.
26-year-old Corey Crawford had a wonderful rookie campaign and, unlike Antti Niemi in the summer of 2010, there is no arbitration ruling to walk away from. Crawford will be the main man between the pipes in 2011-12.
The real debate is over who will be the backup. We thought this was Alexander Salak’s job to lose until Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman invited Ray Emery to try out for the team.
Emery is an intriguing goaltender and an even more interesting human being. The peaks and valleys of his professional hockey career have been as wild and unpredictable as his personality.
On the ice, he went from backstopping the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 to losing his starting job the next season to losing an NHL job altogether and being forced to play in Russia.
Then he came back as the prospective starter for the Philadelphia Flyers, only to be forced out of action and onto the surgeon's table to repair a seriously injured hip.
After sitting out for almost a year, he was then signed by the Anaheim Ducks and miraculously played very well in his 10 regular season games for them.
Off the ice, he’s had a propensity for partying, a reputation for showing up late to practice, and a habit of fighting everyone from opponents to teammates to Russian trainers.
But this is why there’s such an inordinate amount of buzz over who will be the backup goaltender in Chicago this year. Ray Emery’s had the type of career that will cause fans to take notice at even the possibility of him playing for their team.
After all, Emery is only in Chicago on a tryout basis. But there are plenty of reasons to believe he can legitimately win the backup job over Alexander Salak. Here are the top seven reasons why he deserves a shot in net for the Blackhawks:
Even though he struggled at times in the 2011 playoffs, Ray Emery’s ability to come back and play 10 strong games at the end of the regular season should give him the confidence to carry over into the upcoming season.
No one knows how a goaltender will play after being on the shelf for so long, but Emery proved he can still play at an NHL level with the Ducks in 2011. He posted a 7-2 record with a 2.28 GAA in his 10 regular season games.
But what’s even more important to the Blackhawks is that he stepped up on short notice when Jonas Hiller went down with an injury, which is exactly the type of situation he might find himself in if Corey Crawford goes down.
In 2007, Emery was a relatively unknown goalie who helped lead the Ottawa Senators all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In 2010, Antti Niemi was a relatively unknown goalie who helped the Chicago Blackhawks win hockey’s ultimate prize.
Need I say more?
Regardless of what’s happened in the four years since that Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Emery can still boast that he’s at least been to the biggest dance in the NHL.
Alexander Salak cannot.
While playing the younger prospect with a bigger upside might be tempting, having a goalie with the NHL track record of Ray Emery might just be the better option.
Alexander Salak may have been signed to a one-way contract with the Blackhawks. However, by inviting Emery to training camp, it’s become clear that the organization won’t mind paying Salak his $625,000 salary for this season in the AHL if Emery wins the backup job.
At 24 years old, Salak has just two games of NHL experience with the Florida Panthers and might not make the permanent jump to the NHL very easily. After all, it’s a tough situation for a young goalie to be in when he’s used to playing almost every day and being the No. 1 guy.
It might be a better situation for Salak to continue as the No. 1 goalie in the AHL because he certainly won’t get that opportunity with the Blackhawks unless Corey Crawford gets hurt.
Of course, if Salak outplays Emery in the preseason, then he deserves to stay in the NHL. But it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he has to spend a little more time in the minors.
The lack of NHL experience for Alexander Salak has just been outlined in the last slide. Ray Emery, on the other hand, will be 29 years old in September and has been around the block.
Ottawa, Philadelphia, Russia, Anaheim and several stops in various AHL cities are all listed on Emery’s lengthy resume. But unlike the 36-year-old Marty Turco, who struggled last year in Chicago, Emery is still on the right side of 30 despite the number of teams he's played for.
In other words, the 28-year-old has the best of both worlds because he's still young enough to be considered in the prime of his career, but he has the veteran’s edge over his counterpart from the Czech Republic.
This ties into Emery’s experience advantage over Salak, but it also speaks to having a third NHL-caliber goalie in the system.
If Corey Crawford suffers a serious injury, how much confidence will the Blackhawks have in Alexander Salak being able to backstop them on a long playoff run without another option in goal?
Yes, I’m aware that Antti Niemi did it last year but relying on a similar situation repeating itself is like playing with fire. You’re bound to get burned if you’re not prepared.
At least with Emery as the backup, Chicago is prepared if the unthinkable happens to Crawford. That way, they can bring Salak up from the minors and let the two goalies battle it out over the course of the regular season.
One of the reasons no NHL teams bothered with Emery in 2008 was his personal baggage. His aforementioned partying and fighting scared some teams away, but that seems to be a thing of the past.
Perhaps it was his humbling experience in Russia that put things in perspective for him. Maybe his time in the non-traditional hockey market of Anaheim made him realize that hockey players aren’t worshipped there like they are in Canada.
Then again, maybe he’s just a few years wiser and knows how to keep a low profile now.
Regardless of why Emery seems to have calmed down, it will only help his hockey career and make him a better goalie.
Many professional athletes would have given up after undergoing the type of complicated hip surgery that Ray Emery had to go through.
It was the type of injury that could have required a full hip replacement and was not conducive to helping someone play sports at a competitive level.
But Emery fought through the pain and was back rehabbing his hip in less than six months. His improbable return to hockey shows his tremendous passion for the game, which should be an extremely encouraging sign for the Blackhawks.
According to his agent, Emery is now a better goalie and a better athlete than he was two years ago. If that statement is anywhere close to be being true, it’s remarkable considering Emery’s hip surgery should have ended his career.
It’s this type of desire and commitment that should have the Blackhawks excited about having a potential backup who wants to play as badly as Ray Emery does.
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