It is terrific news that this morning the Capitals’ starting goaltender boasts a .929 save percentage and a 2.12 goals-against, both statistics good enough for 6th-best in their respective categories in the entire league. You would think your team could go pretty far with such play between the pipes.
It is a little surprising, however, that these stats belong to a netminder earning slightly more than eight hundred thousand dollars in salary, less than double that of Tyler Sloan, and who is named Brent Johnson. You can remain philosophical and skeptical about BJ’s emergence in the first month of the Capitals’ season, and think his a Cinderella story with midnight at the near — how could a largely backup backstopper better a nearly $5 million dollar, former Vezina and league MVP winner? — or you can take BJ at his preseason word, and acknowledge that this was part of his plan for 2008-09.
What I like best about Johnny’s story this season — admittedly in just its prologue — is that he fairly forecasted it, telling media this past summer, not long after the Capitals had signed free agent Jose Theodore, that he thought he could compete for the no. 1 job in net. Bold talk from a backstop who hadn’t known sustained starter status in the league in fully six seasons.
And yet, BJ’s play shouldn’t be all that surprising in light of the conditions he confronted this fall. Had the Caps been successful in resigning Cristobal Huet in the summer, it would have again been crystal clear what Johnson’s role would have been this season: backup again, as he’s always been in his career with the Caps. But the Caps were left a jilted bride at the free agency altar by team Huet, seized upon a controversial plan B in inking the erratic Theodore, and Johnson prepared himself for 2008-09 accordingly.
Starting and expensive NHL goaltenders occasionally get hurt and give way to backups who over-perform or simply make the best of the unexpected situation, infrequently but occasionally leading to goalie controversies. But that obviously is not what has happened between the pipes in D.C. this fall. It’s a startling reversal of fortune for “Johnny” insomuch as just last spring he was relegated to third in the Capitals’ netminding rotation behind Cristobal Huet and Olie Kolzig. Often he couldn’t even get practice ice during the team’s stretch run to the Southeast title.
This morning, his stats suggest that Johnny is the sixth-best goalie in the NHL right now. It’s about time we got to know a little more about the new no. 1 in Washington.
Brent Johnson was drafted 129th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. He is a big goalie — 6 ‘3, a tad over 200 pounds. He broke into the league in 1998-99, getting six games that season with the St. Louis Blues. After an American League apprenticeship with Worcester, he became a full-time big-leaguer in 2000-01. He went 19-9-2 in 31 games with St. Louis that season. He went 34-20-4 in 58 games with the Blues in ’01-02. From 2000-03 he boasted a pretty stellar slate of goals-against averages: 2.17, 2.18, 2.47. His save percentage all three of those seasons was at .900 or better. In 232 career NHL games he has a .903 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against. Consider, though, that 56 of those games were with the very rebuilding Washington Capitals of 2005-07.
He’s only appeared in the NHL postseason twice (with St. Louis), and while his record in 12 games then is an uninspiring 5-6, his goals-against is a gaudy 1.84. He suffers from a league-wide reputation as a career backup, but at age 31, about a year younger than Theodore, he’s far from washed up. What he hasn’t had the past six seasons is a legit opportunity to compete for a no. 1 job. This fall that appears to have changed.
“Johnny” is the grandson of NHL Hall of Famer Sid Abel, and the son of NHL goalie Bob Johnson. He married a Burke, Va., girl named Erica in 2007. He’s embraced this region and its pro hockey team, serving as a reliable backup here and, just as importantly, forging strong relationships with those paid like, and anointed, his betters at his position.
In sports the backup at key positions often earns the home crowd’s sympathy and underdog urgings. This fall Brent Johnson is doing that, but he might also be saving a season.