OAKVILLE, ON. — It’s not every day that a goalie from a country such as France gets a chance at playing in the NHL.
Let alone play in an All-Star Game.
Such was the life of former Montreal Canadiens netminder Cristobal Huet, only the second forward from France to get a shot at the NHL. While Philippe Bozon (yes, the father of Habs prospect Tim) may not be remembered for his 44 points in a St.Louis Blues uniform, Huet made a ton of contributions to his various NHL clubs, even landing a Stanley Cup with the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks.
It all started when Huet was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings as their seventh-round pick, 214th overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. A low risk prospect, it was expected that Huet would spend time overseas in Switzerland and than make the transition over to the AHL. After an impressive 16-8-5 record with the Manchester Monarchs, the L.A. Kings American Hockey League affiliate, in 2002-2003, Huet got his chance in the NHL, posting a 4-4-1 record with a 2.33 goals against average (GAA) on a weak Kings squad.
Huet was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in a three-team deal that sent Mathieu Garon to Los Angeles and Radek Bonk from the Ottawa Senators to Montreal during the 2004 NHL offseason. With an ensuing lockout, Huet headed to Germany, signing with Adler Mannheim of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL.) He led the team to the finals, where the Eagles lost in three straight games to Eisbären Berlin. Nonetheless, the Habs’ brass was happy with the way he performed, and slotted him in as the backup goalie to former Vezina winner Jose Theodore for 2005-2006. The rest is history.
During the 2005–06 season, Huet eventually won the starting job in goal for the Canadiens at the expense of Théodore who was subsequently traded to Colorado in exchange for goaltender David Aebischer. Theodore, who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s top player during the same season he won the Vezina (2001-2002), had a career downfall after failing a random NHL drug test. The test was prior to the 2006 Winter Olympics with the failed result caused by a prescription hair loss medication, Propecia . Huet, a relatively unknown prospect, took the reigns during the 2005-06 season, winning 18 times while posting a very impressive 2.20 GAA and .920 save percentage (SV%) in only 36 games.
With nobody to challenge him between the pipes, the Canadiens re-signed Huet in the 2006 offseason for two years at $5.75 million total, earning $3.00 million the first season and $2.75 million in the second year. Not bad for a goalie from a country not known for producing quality NHL’ers.
On January 13, 2007, Huet was announced as an Eastern Conference goaltender for the 2007 All Star Game (ASG.) However, not known to Habs fans at the time, this would be the last success we would see out of Huet in a Habs uniform. A month after the ASG, Huet suffered a left hamstring injury that caused him to miss most of the final two months of the season, which helped contribute to Montreal missing the playoffs. It was not a fun time to be a Habs fan.
On February 26, 2008 Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey traded the French netminder to the Washington Capitals for a 2009 second-round draft pick (for those that follow me on Twitter, you should already that this was my least favorite trade to date, inching out the Latendresse deal). With future superstar Carey Price ready to fly like a butterfly, the Canadiens felt that the time to trade Huet was right, even if it meant the team heading into a playoff run with an inexperienced puck stopper. Huet impressed the Capitals, forcing the Philadelphia Flyers to game 7 in round one of the playoffs that year, with the Flyers coming on top.
Nonetheless, the Chicago Blackhawks liked what they saw in Huet. On July 1, 2008, the first day of unrestricted free-agency, he agreed to terms on a new 4-year contract with the Blackhawks worth a total of $22.4 million or $5.625 million per season.
Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin were supposed to make big things happen for the young Chicago club, even if it meant going with a 1A/1B tandem. Unable to win over Khabibulin to start the season, Huet found himself on the bench more often than not. Gradually, he earned back his playing time and both alternated every game for almost three months until Khabibulin went down with a groin injury in early February. At the end of the season, Khabibulin signed a deal with the Edmonton Oilers after a roller coaster time with the Hawks.
Huet entered the 2009-2010 season as the Blackhawks undisputed number one goaltender, something he wasn’t even able to achieve while tending the pipes in red, white and blue. However, after streaky play throughout the season, Huet was replaced in net by rookie Antti Niemi, who helped the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup thanks to a 16-6 run.
On September 27, 2010, Huet was loaned to HC Fribourg-Gotteron SA of the Swiss National League A to relieve the Blackhawks’ salary cap issues. Many thought that it was the last the world would hear of Huet in the NHL, and to this day it could still be the case. After being unable to sign with a team in the NHL, he returned to the Swiss League this summer and signed a 4-year deal with Lausanne HC. Huet’s time with HC Fribourg-Gottéron was up and down, struggling in his first season but producing a 1.99 GAA and .932 SV% in 39 games for the club. While we may never see Huet prove his worth again in the world’s greatest hockey league (not this year, of course), Huet has played in many international events recently for France, including the last two world hockey championships.
No matter what he did afterwards, Huet’s performance with the Canadiens was defiantly impressive and not to be overlooked. With Price in net, we don’t have to worry about being weak in goal, but Price got an early chance to prove himself thanks to Cristobal.
Thank you, Cristobal Huet.