Thursday, January 17, 2008
CuJo's arrival could play mind games with Kiprusoff
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
Out of sight, out of mind. But not, as it turns out, out of options.
"I hadn't slipped into commentating or anything," said Curtis Joseph as news of his imminent signing with the Calgary Flames escalated from mere speculation to hard fact. "There wasn't anything that jumped out at me, hit me as I got out of the bed in the morning and made me say, 'Oh, I want to do that for the rest of my life.'
"I still wanted to play. I missed that whole team aspect, of being with the guys. There's nothing like being a part of a group and contributing. The body's good. The mind's refreshed. I knew I wasn't finished with hockey."
Yes, CuJo's back.
He's been brought aboard to provide the sort of veteran alternative in net that coach Iron Mike Keenan requires.
For the Flames, this is a $650,000 insurance policy at a critical time in a critical season for the franchise. For Joseph, this is a four-month audition to show the rest of the NHL he can still tend a tidy net.
And, on those levels, the move makes perfect sense.
The joker in the deck, however, is how incumbent Miikka Kiprusoff, the silent Finn, will react to the support (threat?) posed by a goalie who, although 40 and well past his peak, has still won 446 regular-season NHL games and himself been feted as a Vezina Trophy finalist.
The Flames can argue until they're blue in the face that Joseph's arrival means a fresher, more motivated Kipper, that he will embrace the competition and chance to swap stories and secrets with a fellow lodge brother.
Nobody's trying to turn this into a goaltending controversy, but Kiprusoff could easily interpret the signing as a lack of faith, a kind of betrayal. He's accustomed to being a one-man band, after all. And he absolutely adores a crushing workload, as proved by his 74 games played in each of the past two seasons.
This has, after all, been an extremely taxing season so far for the Kipper, that six-year, $35 million extension he signed Oct. 30 notwithstanding. He's looked uncharacteristically mortal through the first half of the season. His save percentage still languishes below the acceptable .900 plateau. The Pengrowth Saddledome boobirds have become hairpin-trigger quick to heap uncharacteristic scorn on a man who had in three years nurtured near-iconic status in northern Alberta.
More troubling is Keenan's dissatisfaction with the silent Finn's erratic play has been plain for all to see. And hear. Never one to soft sell the obvious, Iron Mike has all but called Kiprusoff out on occasion during his postgame interviews. And the master hookster has already yanked Kiprusoff out of five games this season, more times than in the past three seasons combined. The goalie was cut way more slack by both Darryl Sutter and Jim Playfair when they bossed the Flames' bench.
Keenan, obviously, isn't about to honor anyone else's IOUs.
The predictable, easy analysis of adding Joseph to the Flames' goaltending equation is it can only make the incumbent better, that Kiprusoff will be spurred back to his brilliant self with Joseph encroaching on his territory.
But that's not necessarily so.
Remember, Kiprusoff's caddies since he arrived in Calgary and blossomed into arguably the game's best have been Brian Boucher, Jamie McLennan and, this season, rookie Curtis McElhinney. Hardly viable alternatives to supplant him. And he thrived in that environment, winning three Vezina finalist nods on the trot.
Some athletes operate better under the sanctity of security, the cloak of omnipotence.
After being cut free by the Phoenix Coyotes in the offseason, Joseph turned down a few offers to get back into the saddle immediately, content to bide his time. He went back to his property in Ontario that includes a riding arena converted into a three-quarter-sized rink with boards and glass ("a frozen field of dreams" is how his agent, Don Meehan describes it), worked out, spent more time with his family and tried to stay as sharp as possible. Just in case.
So, when Hockey Canada called looking for goaltending help for the upcoming Spengler Cup in Switzerland, Joseph enlisted a goaltending consultant/friend and went to work for two hard weeks getting as ready as possible.
The Canadians mined gold in Davos, and suddenly Joseph's stock was viable again and back trading on the NHL exchange. He was a known commodity, you could get him at a prorated price, he's renowned as being a good guy and a solid teammate and knows what it takes to win.
Four or five teams, including the Flames and reportedly the Maple Leafs, Rangers and Senators, all inquired about his services.
"All the offers I had were for supporting roles," acknowledged Joseph.
So why the Flames?
"You hear nothing but good things about the situation in Calgary," CuJo said. "They were involved from the start, they were persistent, and everybody likes to feel wanted. It's a good team with a chance to win. It's a direct flight home, back and forth, for me and my family. And it's Canada. I've had success in Canada. I love playing in Canada."
CuJo flew into Calgary on Wednesday as the Flames were snapping a four-game losing streak by staving off the Minnesota Wild in a shootout at the Xcel Energy Center, and met up with his new mates Thursday for a practice at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
Given that Kiprusoff has started 24 consecutive games, the new guy might see action as early as Friday against the Los Angeles Kings even though Joseph is admittedly not NHL sharp just yet. ("There'll certainly be some time needed to adjust. How long it'll take, I have no idea.")
And so, CuJo will don the sixth different sweater of his career.
"At this point in his career," Meehan said, "he just wanted the right fit. This is the right fit for Curtis."
Ah, but is it the right fit for Kipper?
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
I missed that whole team aspect, of being with the guys. There's nothing like being a part of a group and contributing. The body's good. The mind's refreshed. I knew I wasn't finished with hockey.