By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — So it appears Al Montoya isn’t superhuman after all?
The Islanders’ No. 1 goaltender — yes, now the team’s undisputed starter — hasn’t been too good of late and it has many people asking why.
Well, the answer is fairly simple: he’s barely played during his three-plus year NHL career. In truth, as great as Montoya has been in limited action for the Islanders, a team with a million goalies it seems, we really have no idea what he is yet.
What was once a .930 save percentage has fallen to .916. What was once a 2.00 goals-against average has shot up to 2.54. And considering the Islanders’ well-documented issues scoring goals, the jump in their starting goalie’s primary statistics has some of their fans alarmed.
I’m here to tell you: Don’t be.
Montoya should have remained the Isles’ No. 1 netminder, as he was on Day 1 of this season. He did nothing but earn it last season by going 9-5-5 with a 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage during the second half, stabilizing what was a nightmare carousel of goalies featuring the damaged, the soon-to-be damaged and a collection of kids thrust into a situation they were in no way ready for.
But the Islanders, as is sometimes their custom, did something against common sense and sat Montoya from Oct. 21-Nov. 7 for reasons that have been debated and then again from Nov. 10-Nov. 25, when, of course, he was recovering from a minor injury, one that could have actually been caused from a lack of work and conditioning.
The Isles initially tried unsuccessfully to showcase enigmatic Evgeni Nabokov for a trade, and Nabokov, who can sometimes be lights out and other times be barely ordinary, responded with a ho-hum 2.83 GAA in eight appearances before he, himself, went down with an injury.
Then there’s Rick DiPietro, who probably doesn’t need an introduction but I’m required to give him one because he’s once again on the back of a milk carton. He simply cannot stay healthy and when fit has done many of the things that have driven Islanders’ fans crazy for the better part of the still somewhat early stages of his much-publicized and reviled 15-year contract. I don’t even need to give you his stats, but since we’re all friends, how does a 3.73 GAA and .876 save percentage grab you?
So it’s readily apparent, the occasional Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson start aside, that the Islanders’ chances of doing anything the rest of the way will fall on Montoya in net.
As for his current stretch of allowing 13 goals in three starts, fatigue and maybe momentary mental lapses are almost certainly the reasons. Has the defense failed him? Maybe a little. Is this just a slump? Again, maybe a little.
But here’s my question to you: If you played in parts of just 41 games in parts of just three NHL seasons, how sharp would you expect to be?
Before you answer, please consider that this is the predicament both Montoya and the Islanders are in. With minutes comes experience, obviously. With games comes conditioning and stamina, which is not obvious enough it seems.
Montoya has few of all three right now.
But he does have all the tools to be a very good goalie in this league, one the Islanders have to have going forward if they ever plan on rising up out of their several-year malaise and into, dare I say it, the Stanley Cup playoffs conversation.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying a healthy and razor sharp Montoya will be the difference between the Isles rebounding from their less-than-stellar first 30 games. This team is still lost in the abyss between developing and mediocre and as we all know you have to be good to make the postseason. The Islanders are not good. They aren’t terrible like they were in the first half last season either, but they are in no way on the upswing toward even the NHL’s second tier of contenders.
Despite losing four straight following a 4-0-1 run, the offense is showing some positive signs. The grit is there. The leadership is still in the developmental stage. The kids, at least some of them, are beginning to get their acts in gear.
But despite the baby steps the fans have been put in the precarious of position of having to endure endless abuse because the Islanders’ roster, as a whole, simply isn’t at the level it needs to be to be more than just competitive. Their veterans, for the most part, are only that in age.
And this is the way things will remain for the foreseeable future. I’m not going to get into the money spent debate because we’ve all been there and done that. We know the score with regards to owner Charles Wang’s purse strings.
And General Manager Garth Snow can wave his magic wand and find the Matt Moulsons and Michael Grabners of the world only so often. In the interim, the fan base will just have to settle for slight improvement and just hope over bunches of games it will all add up to vast improvement.
Montoya can and should be the focal point on his side of the center ice dot. He just has to play, period. Maybe not every single night, but 90 percent of them. And fans will just have to deal with his cold spells, which have little to do with his abilities.
He’s a goalie who can steal games. Remember, this is a guy who was drafted No. 6 overall in 2004. And had the Rangers not stumbled upon a guy named Lundqvist, it very well could have been Montoya with his name on the big marquee out front on 33rd and 7th.
The moral of this story, my friends, is one you already know: with anything the Islanders do comes a demand for patience. Montoya is just 26 years old and in hockey good goalies can play well into their late 30s and beyond. Poulin, who played fairly well on Thursday in a 3-2 loss to Dallas in a spot start for the gassed Montoya, may indeed be the franchise’s long-term solution, but he still seems like he’s a year off from being truly NHL ready.
In the interim, Montoya has a real chance here to establish himself as “the guy” of the present as well as the future, and force however many kids that come along to try to take what he’s got.
Isles just have to ride him, even through the storms.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Do you have faith that Montoya can be this team’s starting goalie for the foreseeable future? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.