Sunday, June 18, 2006

What Have You Done For Me Lately? Legace On His Way Out Of Hockeytown

The defeated goaltender squinted through sweat into the bright TV lights, microphones jabbing toward his mouth. His words were suicidal, and in the aftermath of his team’s playoff ousting, nobody was sure if they were literal, or figurative.

“Right now, I feel like hanging myself,” Manny Legace said that night – May 1st – in Edmonton. It’s either a sad truth or a pathetic observation that there were thousands of fans, at that moment, who’d spring for the noose and helped build the gallows.

Legace wasn’t the only reason, for sure, that the Red Wings, such hotshots in the regular season, were drummed out in the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers, four games to two. But he was perhaps the most visible. It’s always true in hockey; the man in the net is so often the difference maker.

In any given NHL postseason, the two finalists are teams each anchored by a goalie who has outplayed his counterpart in each round. Sometimes it’s an expected veteran, like Dominik Hasek or Ed Belfour or Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur. Sometimes it’s a journeyman who’s gotten hot at the right time. Sometimes it’s a playoff neophyte who doesn’t know any better, but is stopping everything in sight just the same.

Regardless, the two teams who end up playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup don’t have goaltender issues.

Legace was one of the outplayed counterparts.

Dwayne Roloson, the Oilers goalie, was the victor because he had the deftness to stop the pucks he should have stopped, and the brilliance to cause everyone to free him from blame on the shots that ended up behind him.

Manny Legace could do neither of those things, and in every game of the series, he let in what the announcers like to call “soft” goals.

A wraparound. A fluttering puck between the arm and side. An unscreened shot, along the ice, between the legs. A fifty-foot wrist shot.

The ice cold truth: Legace had his chance, and blew it

They were backbreaking goals, all of them, and it’s difficult to ignore the impact they had on the Red Wings’ chances against the eighth-seeded Oilers.

But it looks like Red Wings fans won’t have Manny Legace to kick around and fantasize about hanging anymore.

General Manager Ken Holland announced last week that the team would not try to re-sign Legace before the July 1st deadline for free agency. Manny is, Holland said, free to pursue a deal with another team. It’s a nice, professional way to say that someone has been fired.

Legace’s cashiering is, I’m told through good sources, just part of what could be a fairly substantial personnel change within the Red Wings this summer. Holland is taking this playoff defeat hard, the sources say, and it should be unsurprising to us to see significant roster changes. We’ll see.

But this playoff run was supposed to be Legace’s big chance to prove to folks that he was more than a career backup goalie. He understood the implications of failure, but at the same time, he seemed overwhelmed by them. His words before the Edmonton series belied someone whose confidence was soaring. And his play indicated someone whose shirt collar was tightening. Like a noose.

Holland, though, could hardly be faulted for thinking Legace could handle the load of being the #1 goalie in a town not known for its sympathy toward netminders. The regular season numbers were slick.

If you had asked me just before the playoffs if I thought Manny Legace could be the guy who’d win a playoff series or two for the Red Wings, I’d have said yes.

If, after the playoffs, you’d have asked me if the Red Wings needed to upgrade themselves in net, I’d have said yes.

That’s the way we play it in Detroit.

We ran Timmy Cheveldae out of town, then Bob Essensa ran himself out of town. The Mike Vernon/Chris Osgood tandem proved ineffective, until Vernon alone kept the net during the 1997 Cup run. Vernon left, and it was Osgood’s turn in 1998 to man the goal. It wasn’t the most stable of netminding jobs of any Cup victor, Osgood’s ’98 performance. He had a fetish for letting in slap shots from center ice. But he got the job done.

Three more years of a Cup drought ensued, so the Red Wings traded for Hasek, a big name veteran who’d never won the Big One. It worked. Hasek didn’t need to be brilliant all of the time, but he was when he had to be. Some say he won Game 3 of the Finals – a triple overtime thriller – by himself. I was one of those “some.”

But then Hasek retired, and the Red Wings tried the big name game again. They signed Curtis Joseph, paid him lots of dollars. The team won one playoff series in two seasons with Joseph as its goaltender.

So the job was given to Legace, almost by default. Joseph was allowed to sign with Phoenix, and Osgood came back, but strictly in a backup role. The Red Wings’ playoff fate would ride with a “career backup,” those ancient words.

The big name game had failed, with Joseph. And the “career backup who’d prove to everyone he was more” angle has failed.

It might be cruel to say that Manny Legace choked – gagged ingloriously – when he had his big chance. It could be called unfair to place the blame for the Red Wings’ surprising first round defeat at his crease.

But this is Detroit – a city that is so arrogant about its hockey that it has proclaimed itself Hockeytown. I’d like to know what that makes Montreal, but that’s another story. Anyhow, here it doesn’t matter if it’s cruel or unfair to throw the goalie under the proverbial bus.

The Red Wings are in search of another goalie this summer. But where do you go to find the next Dwayne Roloson, or Jean-Sebastian Giguere? Or Dominik Hasek? How do you know if who you’re signing can reliably stop pucks in May?

The only sure thing is knowing who can’t, and too late.

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