The hockey world is a small world, and the goaltending fraternity is an even smaller world within it. Hockey people run into each other all the time. Goaltenders watch each other and watch out for each other, from near and far.
So it was that David Oliver, the director of player development for the Colorado Avalanche, and Chris Osgood(notes), a goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings, ended up chatting in the summer of 2009. They spend their off-seasons in British Columbia. They don’t hang out a lot, but they bump into each other occasionally at the golf course. And one day, Oliver asked Osgood what he thought of free agent Craig Anderson(notes).
“I said, ‘Sign him,’ ” recalled Osgood. “I told him, ‘You give him a chance, he’s going to play good.’ And (Oliver) actually thanked me this summer for the recommendation. He’s a good goalie.”
Osgood isn’t saying that he’s the reason the Avalanche signed Anderson or that he knew what would happen. He isn’t a scout, he isn’t an agent and it certainly seems funny that he would help, however indirectly, one of the Red Wings’ biggest rivals. He didn’t know Anderson and the Avalanche would turn out quite so well, with Anderson stopping shot after shot, with the Avs leaping from worst in the Western Conference in 2008-09 to the playoffs in 2009-10, with both becoming intriguing storylines this season. Osgood just called it “goalie’s intuition.”
“Goalies, we stick together,” Osgood said. “I just thought that if he had the opportunity, he would make the most of it. That’s the way I always thought of him, because I liked his style and the way he played, and he competes real hard.”
Anderson, 29, waited a long time for the opportunity.
Drafted 73rd overall in 2001 by his hometown Chicago Blackhawks, he spent his first four pro seasons playing mostly in the minors, popping up to the NHL for 27 games. He stayed in the NHL for the entire 2005-06 season and played 29 games for the ’Hawks, backing up Nikolai Khabibulin(notes). But in a span of 16 days – between Jan. 19 and Feb. 3 – he went from Chicago to Boston to St. Louis and back to Chicago again via waivers.
Then he was traded to the Florida Panthers and spent another season mostly in the minors, playing only five NHL games in 2006-07. He stayed in the NHL the next two seasons and posted some impressive save percentages – .935 in 17 games in 2007-08, .924 in 31 games in 2008-09. He also set an NHL record for saves in a shutout (53). But he was stuck behind Tomas Vokoun(notes).
“My whole entire career,” Anderson said, “I’ve been playing behind guys that have been in the league for 10 years, who have been starters for six or seven seasons and are making five or six million (dollars). It’s pretty tough as a guy trying to earn some ice time to play ahead of one of those guys. I mean, it happens, but it’s very rare.”
Watching from afar, Osgood and others were impressed.
“He’s one of those guys that I like because he’s always in position,” Osgood said. “He’s square. He makes you beat him with a good shot. With a goalie like that, you’re going to be in most games and have an opportunity to win.”
The Avalanche contacted Anderson as soon as the free-agent market opened on July 1, 2009, and signed him to a two-year, $3.625 million contract. Anderson had other offers, but he said he saw this one an “an opportunity to fight for a job.”
Well, he not only won the No. 1 job in Colorado, he was the No. 1 reason the Avs made the playoffs.
“In the first half of the year, their goaltender was outstanding and their confidence grew,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock. “In the second half of the year, they played real well, and their goalie was still good, but he didn’t have to be as good. But early in the year, there’s no question about it. They beat us twice when they didn’t have the puck, so the kid was real good in net.”
With their speedy and skilled young forward corps pushing the pace, the Avs tended to trade chances with their opponents. Anderson faced a staggering 2,233 shots, more than any other goaltender in the league. But he stopped enough pucks and his teammates put enough pucks into the opposite net to earn a first-round playoff date with the San Jose Sharks. He played 71 games and went 38-25-7, with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.
“He barely moved,” Osgood said. “He was stopping everything. He made it look easy, when, in reality, it’s not. He’s more talented than people think he is, to make it look like that. To me, his season last year was top-five in the league, easy – I mean, if not (top-)three. He kind of got overlooked because at the end they fell back and lost in the first round. But to me, it was one of the best performances in the league last year for a goalie.”
Another goaltending fraternity story: The Avs held a 15th anniversary reunion for their 1996 Stanley Cup team to kick off the 2010-11 season, and Anderson got to sit down at dinner with one of his idols: Patrick Roy. He picked Roy's brain about what it takes.
“He loves the game so much, and I think you have to love the game to be as good as he was,” Anderson said. “If you’re in it just to play and just to kind of get by, you’re not going to play that well. When you have passion and desire and that drive that he had, that’s what you need to be successful and become one of the greats and be in the Hall of Fame.”
But it took passion and desire and drive just to get to this point, and Anderson hasn’t lost that mentality now that he has arrived. He still talks about the need to “earn ice time,” about working hard, about doing whatever he can to stay on top of his game. He still has to earn another contract, assuming the Avs don't sign him to an extension sometime this season.
Even though Colorado wants to tighten up defensively and might use backup Peter Budaj(notes) more to give Anderson a break this season, he's happy to face a lot of shots, because that’s all he’s ever known, and he’s more than willing to play back-to-back nights, because he knows that’s better than sitting back-to-back.
Anderson won’t surprise anyone this season. Neither will the Avs. No one needs Osgood’s intuition anymore to know Anderson is a good goalie. No one needs a scouting report anymore to know the enthusiastic Avalanche can skate you right out of the rink. Now there is a new challenge: to be ready for teams that are ready for them.
“Obviously I’ve set a standard,” said Anderson, who was off to a 1-1 start with a 2.95 GAA and .920 save percentage. “Last year was a bar that I raised, and right now you can’t be satisfied with that. There’s going to be pressure to do the same thing.”