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Cristobal Huet

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By the Contranarian Goaltender:


There are a few explanations being floated around to explain the surprise firing of Dale Tallon in Chicago. The failure to send out qualifying offers to the Hawks' RFAs is an obvious possible explanation, but others feel that it was the backroom machinations of Scotty Bowman or the result of some of the big-money contracts Tallon has handed out, including those to Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa, and Cristobal Huet.

The latter reason, if it is indeed the case, is a bit curious to me. I agree he overspent wildly on Campbell, but I don't think the Hossa or Huet deals were that bad. Bringing in another goalie with Khabibulin already on the roster might have struck many as strange, but Chicago had cap room to spare last season, and now that Khabibulin has moved on the question simply becomes whether or not Cristobal Huet is worth that money. I wouldn't commit $5.6 million to a goalie unless he was a top-of-the-line elite guy with some good years still on the table, which means I probably wouldn't have signed Huet. But while the deal might not have been the optimal use of cap resources for Chicago I don't think it was that out of line given comparable deals and Huet's past history.

In the wake of the first few days of free agency, many fans and media were of the opinion that the Blackhawks would have been a top Stanley Cup contender next year except for the loss of Khabibulin. In their eyes, having the goalie with the third best save percentage in the league over the last 4 seasons isn't a suitable backup plan. Cristobal Huet is a perennially underrated goalie, a guy who has always been criticized by people who focus more on how he looks making the save and not enough on whether or not the puck goes in. A think a good description of his style was made by 2009 draft pick Edward Pasquale, who called Huet a "relaxed goalie". Playing a relaxed style sometimes makes it look like all your saves are easy and that you didn't try very hard when a puck goes past you. The latter criticism ("He always lets in soft goals!") has often been targeted at Huet.

TV "analyst" Pierre McGuire called Huet a "marginal goaltender" on free agency day, and has been claiming that the league has "solved" Huet since 2007. According to him Huet is really easy to score on if you shoot high.

I don't disagree that Huet's glove hand is average at best, and probably even a bit worse than that, but since 1998-99 Cristobal Huet has the third best penalty kill save percentage of any goalie in the league (min. 4000 SA). On the power play the opponents have the time and space to take advantage of your weaknesses - why aren't they exposing Huet with the extra man? Could it be because they simply can't? Downgrading a goalie because you can beat him high glove is outdated and old-fashioned thinking. Back in the day anything aimed glove-side was a goal unless you caught it, but modern goalies can compensate for not having a terrific catching glove by relying on positioning and blocking techniques, as well as making up some ground by allowing fewer goals than average along the ice. Henrik Lundqvist is another example of a guy who succeeds despite people saying it is so easy to score on him high glove.

Huet also gets derided as not being a great pressure goalie, mainly because his team has never won a playoff series with him as the starter. That shouldn't really fall too much on Huet, though, who was a career .917 postseason save percentage. In his 10 career playoff losses, Huet had a .914 mark, and the main problem was that his team scored just 1.45 goals per 60 minutes and allowed 33.6 shots per game. Huet hasn't been particularly good in playoff OT (1-5 record), but that is again mostly the fault of his teammates, who have scored just 1 goal for him in 63 minutes and have allowed shots against at a remarkable rate of 49 shots per 60 minutes of OT. With that kind of support, blaming Huet seems unfair to me.

All this negative talk is mostly a result of a bad first impression in Chicago. Going 3-5-2, 2.97, .897 over the first 2 months of the season will generally do that, especially when at the same time Khabibulin was lighting it up. The doubters then came crawling out of the woodwork to kick Huet while he was down and get in their "I told you so"s, and the perception remained even as he raised his game over the remainder of the season.

If you look at their past recent history, there is every reason to believe that the Bulin Wall was playing over his head and Huet was having an off-year. Since 1998-99, Khabibulin's even strength save percentage has been .920, and over the last 3 seasons he's been at the same .920 mark. That's pretty good evidence of his actual skill level, so there's not a whole lot of reason to expect him to duplicate his .933 from 2008-09. If anything at the age of 36 we should expect him to be declining.

Huet has a career .923 even strength save percentage, with a .922 mark over the last three seasons. He's certainly at the very least in Khabibulin's range, and has the advantage of being 2 years younger. Because he split starts this season, Huet faced just 805 EV shots last year. Typically the smaller the sample size the larger the variance, and the difference between Huet's recent established performance and his .916 EV SV% in 2008-09 was only about 5 goals over the whole season, a handful of bounces here and there. If Huet had managed to save 5 extra goals, his seasonal numbers would improve to 2.40, .914, pretty much within spitting distance of Khabibulin's 2.33, .919. I'd guess Huet will end up in the area of .914 this coming season, while age and team factors might very well drop Khabibulin down to around the league average of .908.

I think Chicago's decision to let Khabibulin walk and bank on Huet was pretty easy. If there was a prop bet available to predict which of Khabibulin and Huet would have the higher save percentage next year, I'd bet on Huet. I think Chicago is going to be just fine in net in 2009-10.

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