One thing that has perplexed me about this team for the last few years is how a player like Peter Budaj, a nice guy, a decent goalie who has played pretty well, albeit not spectacularly, for the Avs has turned into the most polarizing figure on this team. After thinking about it for a long time, it seems like there's quite a few reasons why we got to the point we are at today, With two camps clearly ready to do battle over something we should all be rooting for. Here's the reasons I think two camps have formed:
Reason #1 - Theo vs. Budaj
Before Peter Budaj, Jose Theodore was the most polarizing Avs player this was due to the contract Jose had which became even worse because the Avs were under this new thing called a salary cap.
Theo actually started strong by winning a playoff series, but then regressed into the goalie that Montreal got rid of for a reason. Many fans soured on him as others held out hope that he could return to form. Budaj was the beneficiary of the Theo souring as many fans saw in him a goalie that was different than Theo. Sure he didn't have as much natural ability, but the guy played consistent and you knew what you were going to get from him nearly every night. Many fans were tired of riding the Theo bandwagon and just wanted a goalie they didn't want to guess at every night.
When caught in any kind of contraversy people look for reasons to support their own pre-conceived notions and opinions and tend to rationalize, excuse or flat- out ignore any evidence that contradicts their opinions. After Theo was jettisoned this summer members of the old Theo camp, who were already used to convincing themselves that Budaj wasn't very good, continued to look for those reasons. Members of the Budaj camp continues to overlook his faults and overstate his ability.
While there are certainly members of both sides who can still have rational opinions and still try to look at it objectively despite their beliefs (and I really try to look at Budaj's performances objectively) the fact is that there is a certain population on both sides of the argument that have no interest in looking at evidence that may suggest they are wrong.
Just because Theo left doesn't mean those opinions left with him. Instead of a Theo camp and a Budaj camp, there became a Pro and Anti Budaj camp.
In retrospect the expectations leveled on Theo helped create the two camps, which leads me to the second reason behind Budaj's polarity.
#2 The Ghost of Patrick Roy.
This has affected every Avs goalie since the great St. Patrick Retired... and it's still going strong. The average Avs fan's view of goalies is completely warped right now and a lot of it is because every person in between the pipes is initially compared to Patrick Roy. This is like comparing every snarky blogger to Mark Twain. I might be able to make someone smile or laugh with my snark every once in a while, but to expect me to match the brilliance of Letter from the Earth in every post would be unreasonable expectations.
Yet this is exactly the case that Avs goalie have found themselves in. Common thoughts on blogs, message boards and heard around town are :
You need a top 10 goalie to win a Stanley Cup Despite evidence to the contrary in Cam Ward and Chris Osgood winning a Stanley Cup, and appearances in the finals by Dwayne Roloson, Ray Emery, and Marc-Andre Fleury. In fact the only elite goalie to make the finals in the last 3 years is JS Giguere.
A goalie has to steal games No no he doesn't. Maybe once in a while, but counting on goalies to steal games often is a recipe for disaster. You expect them not to lose games and are happy when they occasionally steal one.
The problem with the team is in net For the last 3 seasons the Avs have had a lot more problems than who is in between the pipes, even wehen Theo was at his most inconsistent. Yet the bar has been set so high that anything less than Roy-like (which is pretty much every game) seems like a disappointment.
Budaj (or Theo) doesn't show enough emotion Patrick Roy showed emotion and was the greatest. Budaj doesn't show emotion, therefore he won't be great. When people get mad that and Avs goalie isn't emotional enough that's a direct He's not enough like Roy quote.
Let's face it, a lot of the reason people didn't like Theo, and don't like Budaj, is because neither is no where as good as Patrick Roy.
#3 Budaj's Age and Experience
To many people Budaj came into the season as the guy who had lost his starting position to Theo. He's young and he never led the Avs to the playoffs. However he had led a charge to the playoffs where he played spectacularly. Coming into the season some people saw him as inconsistent, and some people saw him as a goalie who had never been given a fair chance to retain the starting job he earned. Both are probably right. But it's the old "Glass 1/2 empty or full" question to which there's no right answer.
He's still a young goalie who has to play well to earn the confidence of a fan base. I don't see Cam Ward as any different than Budaj, but people have confidence in Ward because his hot streak happened in the playoffs, and people don't have confidence in Budaj because his hot streak happened to get the Avs there (almost).
#4 Budaj's play
It goes without saying that if Budaj were having a career stretch or season everyone would come around. Instead in games which would go a long ways towards cementing him as the Avs unquestioned #1 he goes out and has his worst performances.
The level of scrutiny he receives has been, at many times, preposterous based on his performance. But he has had some bad games at the most inopportune time for both the Avs and himself.
His poor play in the first 3-4 games of the season helped split the Pro and Anti Budaj camps even further, and set the tone for the season. Strong performances in those games would have given the season a much different tone. He's been playing catch up ever since.
Just when it finally looked like he was returning to the form that Pro-Budaj backers think he can have he goes out and has an awful game against the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks happen to be coached by the Q-stache, the man many Budaj backers feel is responsible for some of Budaj's poor play.
Then last night, after Raycroft has looked a little shakey in recent games and Budaj has the opportunity to show what he can do, against the worst team in the West no less, he plays poorly.
Those performances allow his detractors to throw out claims that Budaj isn't clutch and is too inconsistent. Defenders can point to decent stats (since October 14th his .906 save % has been pretty good.).
The reality is that with untimely poor performances Budaj has added fuel to the Anti-Budaj fire. Budaj has also had some extremely strong performances, including a stretch where he was the NHL's player of the week. This gives his backers their own ammo as well.
Remember that whole "See what you want to see in an argument" thing I was talking about above?
#5 Just Being a Goalie
When a goalie is playing poorly, it's the easiest thing to spot. Goalies are, for the most part viewed as on an island. Even though the stats used to back-up their play is incredibly dependent on their teammates play, the goalie position is the easiest to criticize, and the easiest to praise.
This turns armchair GM's and armchair coaches, like all of us are, into the biggest goalie critics in the world. There are a lot of smart hockey fans out there, but there's a lot of ignorant ones too and the easiest thing to do after a loss is blame the goalie.
And Goalie play is easier to spot, because mistakes lead to goals. A guy makes a poor pokecheck that leads to an opposing 2 vs. 1, hey if the defenseman back covers for him it's forgotten. If the Goalie makes a mistake... it's a goal. Goalie will always get criticism because his mistakes are magnified. Mainly because of:
#6 Frustration caused by losing.
Avs fans have not adapted to this whole fall from eliteness very well. We still think of the Avs as an elite team and elite franchise, even though the results suggest we clearly are not. The Avs have been a mediocre team for the last 3 seasons, and this season is the worst of all of those. Four years of mediocrity has built a level of frustration that Avs fans are looking to take out on people. Some of this is good because Avs fans are finally starting to question management's moves. They no longer have free reign to make bad deals just because their past deals worked out.
But some of that gets focused on the players. And this frustration of losing, combined with the first two reasons make Budaj (and Theo) an easy target for vitrol. Yes both have played poorly at times, and both have played well, but both have received an unfair level of scrutiny by the fans and media. Losing is a team effort and this team is not an elite team, and that has little to do with the goalies at this point.
I am clearly in the Budaj camp and still think he can be a quality starter in this league. But I'm beginning to think that he can never achieve his full potential here in Colorado. This is his third year in this league and the camps at this point of the season seem too entrenched in either camp that he will never fully be embraced no matter what he does. There are suggestions out there that Budaj is only AHL level (which is patently absurd) but he has not earned the confidence of the Avs faithful as a whole.