In the Stanley Cup Finals, it was an interesting goalie duel between Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo. Luongo, the former 4th overall wunderkind, faced off against Thomas the 9th round selection who didn't make an NHL appearance until he was 28. Going back to the conference finals, Dwayne Roloson of the Lightning didn't play his first NHL game till he was 27 and Antti Niemi's first game was when he was 25. With this as a background, the sudden emergence of Al Montoya at the age of 25 doesn't seem as surprising.
Unfortunately for Montoya he made that emergence with the Islanders, after the media has already declared him a bust. While some lazy writers point to Evgeni Nabokov as the team's savior in net, they ignore the run that Montoya had with the Islanders. Montoya had a better save percentage than everyone but Kevin Poulin. The night and day difference between his SV% .921 and Nathan Lawson's .897, Rick DiPietro's .886 and Mikko Koskinen's .873 raises the question of what might have been. Anyone who watched Lawson and Koskinen in comparison to Montoya can tell you the talent level was night and day.
There's always a certain level of talent when you're a former first round selection. The Islanders lately have become a home for wayward former first rounders, including Rob Schremp, Ty Wishart and Michael Grabner. Much like Wishart and Grabner, Montoya is on his third team with the Islanders and possibly his last NHL chance. Along with being a first round selection, Montoya has a long resume of being a talented, outstanding goalie.
Ironically Montoya played for the 01-02 US National U-18 team, sharing goalkeeping duties with Jimmy Howard, another goalie who only recently got his big break in the NHL. Howard was actually drafted a whole year before Montoya would be.
Montoya started as a freshman for the University of Michigan. In three years he played 123 games, posting 86 wins. He was also the starting goalie for Team USA at the World Juniors for two years, having an outstanding year in 03-04. He posted a .944 SV%, giving up 8 goals in 6 games and was named Tournament All-Star as Team USA won Gold. Montoya also racked up the awards in college, being named CCHA All Rookie Team, All Tournament team, CCHA Second All-Star Team and NCAA West Second All-American Team.
When Montoya signed with the Rangers everyone probably thought he was on the fast track to be their next starter. Unfortunately Montoya's first season in the Rangers system was 05-06, the same year that Henrik Lundqvist would grab the starting goaltending job and never look back. Meanwhile Montoya did everything you could expect of him in Hartford if you were preparing him to be a starter. His first season he appeared in 40 games, posting a 23-9-1 record and a .907 SV%. His second season he was 27-17 in 48 games with a .914 SV%. His third and final season in Hartford he was 16-8-3 in 31 games with a .908 SV%.
Montoya was then traded to Phoenix, reunited with the GM who probably had a hand in drafting him, Don Maloney. While Maloney does make some odd trades, he is credited with helping create the Rangers current core of youngsters along with rebuilding the Coyotes. Even though he had some busts with the Islanders (The "Better Lindros") his time as GM produced a number of NHL players. Meanwhile, despite finishing out his year on the Rampage (the Coyotes AHL affiliate) strongly after the trade from the Rangers, it was quickly obvious that Montoya had hit a wall.
He went from being the outright starter in Hartford to backup and even third-string goalie for the Rampage. He got limited game time behind Josh Tordjman. In his 3rd season for the Rampage he played fewer games then Justin Pogge, who is mostly known as the guy the Maple Leafs decided to keep instead of Tuuka Rask. The Rampage have also been a middling team, finishing outside of the playoffs every year but Montoya's first on the team. Despite all of this, Montoya still showed a flash of what he could do, going 3-1 with a .925 SV% in 5 starts for the Coyotes in 08-09.
Al Montoya was probably out of North American hockey when his last contract was up. When the Islanders traded for him he had one of the worst SV% in the AHL. I think most of us considered the trade a move of absolute desperation. Yet you couldn't have asked for a better finish to the season than what Montoya managed to do. With the defense falling apart around him at the end of the season (remember the ATO #55s), he managed to at the very least keep the team in games.
- When Montoya's SV% was below .900 the Islanders went 2-3.
- When Montoya faced over 30 shots the Islanders went 2-5, but 4 of the losses were in OT.
- Montoya and Roloson both played 20 games last season, with Roloson facing more shots (629 - 585) and having more minutes (1206 - 1154), but Montoya giving up fewer goals (53 - 46). Part of that is due to the improved defense midseason compared to earlier in the year (AKA "Blame the Wiz").
Al Montoya was a superbly talented goalie who was drafted 6th overall for a reason. At every level he has had successes. It was only superbly bad luck that kept him from eventually making the Rangers. It's not everyday that the 7th round drops onto your lap a goalie who can basically will his team to the playoffs. Even more confusing is why Phoenix traded for Montoya, considering how they used him. Maybe there was some issue between him and the AHL coaches, but why the Rampage continued to play an undrafted FA as the full time starter for most of Montoya's AHL career is odd.
It seems even odder now, given that Phoenix is going into the season with Jason Labarbera as starter and Mike Smith as backup with Curtis McElhinney in the mix. While they could have lost Montoya to free agency, they most likely could have re-upped him for another year on a two-way deal. A 6th round pick is basically the equivalent of a little more then a bag of pucks, while a bag of pucks is preferable to a 7th round pick.
One man's trash is another's treasure. Which might as well be the rallying call for this team. Although Montoya has a small sample size when it comes to NHL play, there's nothing in his history that says he shouldn't be good at this level. It should be a given that he's going to play at least 40 games for the Islanders, which seems to be his games played threshold. With a one year contract in hand, he has every reason to be motivated to prove he deserves to be an NHL level goalie.