For the first time in five years, a lifetime in minor league hockey, the Fort Wayne Komets need a new goaltender. The new guy better be pretty good if he has any chance of living up to the standard the old guy established.
It's almost assured he will be.
Nick Boucher, 31, needs hip surgery next week that will keep him out of the Fort Wayne goal a minimum of the first two months of the 2012-13 schedule. No one is happy about the timing, especially Boucher, who wanted to try playing through the pain for one more year. The Komets and trainer Shawn Dundon convinced him that was foolish, that this injury isn't going to get better with time.
It's more than a little ironic that this happens the first time Boucher has received genuine affection and respect from many Komet fans. He's probably going to miss a good part of next season because his stubbornness and drive to compete helped the Komets win another title this spring.
Boucher battled the injury all year but felt the problem was solved after a midseason cortisone shot took away the pain. When the shot's effects finally wore off in mid-June, it was too late to undergo surgery in time to start next season.
If he thought it would help him return to the ice sooner, Boucher would probably ask for a local anesthetic next week. He is used to dealing with pain every day and probably can't remember the last time he felt close to 100 percent. It's just something good goalies get used to and overcome.
Though the Komets won't have Boucher, they shouldn't rush to sign his replacement. Unless a first-team all-star netminder is dying to play in Fort Wayne (always possible), the Komets may be smart to wait a little before signing a replacement. Because they are now in the ECHL, they have a few more options than they've had in the past 15 years.
``Usually, there are NHL teams looking to place a goaltender in the ECHL more than any other position,'' said Los Angeles Kings scout and former Komet Robbie Laird on Thursday. ``I think it's very early in the game right now. There will be a lot of moves between now and September and October.''
Almost every NHL team drafts a goaltending prospect each year, which essentially means they have too many goalies and too few creases for them to play in. They've already got two on their NHL team, a top prospect on the American Hockey League with a solid back-up behind him, and then a third prospect they look to place in the ECHL. There are also 30 NHL teams and only 23 ECHL teams.
``It's been my experience that most organizations are deep in goaltending, and they don't always have an open spot,'' Laird said. ``Almost all of them have a fifth guy signed to play in the ECHL, but not all of them have ECHL affiliations. A lot of teams even have six goaltenders.''
An example is Jonathan Quick, who just won a Stanley Cup with the Kings. He spent half of his first season playing with Reading in the ECHL before starting his ascent.
There are also plenty of goalies whose contracts just ran out or who have been or will be released because of the new draft picks.
Here's another example: Kenny Reiter, the brother of former Komet Kevin Reiter, won an NCAA championship two years ago with Minnesota-Duluth. He recently signed a two-way contract with Bridgeport of the AHL. Bridgeport, the farm club of the New York Islanders, does not have an ECHL affiliate. You know Boucher has already called his old buddy Kevin with an idea or two to give to his brother.
Komets General Manager David Franke said he has a stack of player resumes so thick, he can't even get an extra-large paperclip around them. He probably needs to start a second pile strictly for goaltenders because he'll get just as many resumes and calls next week.
``When I first came to Fort Wayne (2007), it was a bad time to be a goalie, and it hasn't gotten any better at all with all the teams contracting,'' Boucher said. ``It's not like where a team needs seven or eight defensemen, they only need two goaltenders. You can be a very good goalie and not have a job. There are so many goalies out there it's not a good time to be a goalie.
The Komets were already looking for another goalie, so the search will continue. Franke said the team has talked with Missouri goaltender Charlie Effinger who gave the Komets a battle during the playoffs, and they may talk to him again.
If anything, the Komets might end up having too many goaltenders. They could have a top free agent signee, they could get an NHL-contracted goalie and then they'll probably get Boucher back eventually. Franke thinks the surgery might even extend Boucher's career by a year or two.
Boucher's going to stick around post-surgery and help the team with training camp evaluations and serve as coach Al Sims' eye-in-the-sky when the games start.
Maybe he'll spot his replacement. Who would be better to find the next great Fort Wayne goalie than the most recent one?